To Read This New Book, Download ItBest-Selling Korean Author Publishers His Latest Novel Exclusively Online
by Kim Hoo-ran (Contributing Writer)
It takes only a few minutes to download, costs less than half as much as a traditional paperback and offers more than just text and illustrations, often serving up a broad palette of multimedia features.
Welcome to the brave new world of e-books, or electronic books. E-books are essentially books in digital format that can be downloaded from the Internet on to a variety of platforms, including personal computers, personal digital assistants or handheld devices made specifically for viewing e-books.
E-books here got a big boost last week when best-selling author Lee Moon-youl published a novel exclusively in digital format. "Sky Passage," which the author describes as a children's tale for adults, was released on October 24 and was downloaded 700 times in the first four days, according to the publisher, Everbook.Com.
While that number may seem a bit disappointing, it does not worry the publisher too much.
"With any new book, the number of readers is always smaller than expected," said Hwang In-suk, in charge of planning and editing at Everbook.Com.
"The fact that Lee Moon-youl, a major writer of the analog age, has embraced digital technology is very significant."
The company is betting that Mr. Lee's name will draw the interest of readers who would otherwise not give a second thought to considering an e-book.
So who are the people reading books on their screens?
Mr. Lee's e-book has appealed mostly to people in their 40s, according to Mr. Hwang. "These people are computer literate but not tech-savvy and we get a lot of calls about how to go about downloading the viewer program and so on," he said.
The new medium differs from paper books in several ways. First, e-books are generally shorter. Because they are read on screen, they are not kind to the eyes. Long books can discourage readers.
In e-books, storytelling often takes precedence over descriptive narratives. Because most e-book readers belong a generation comfortable with visual images, these readers can readily form images and landscapes in their minds without the aid of long descriptive passages.
Another discernable difference is that the text is broken into smaller paragraphs; a line break after a paragraph reduces eye strain.
E-book publisher WiseBook made a successful debut at the Frankfurt Book Fair, from October 17-22, with a multimedia rendering of the children's classic, "The Ugly Duckling."
"The book was very well received and we are now in talks with 10 companies, including companies from France, Germany, the United States and Turkey, for contracts worth about $500,000," said Oh Chae-hyuk, head of WiseBook, a consortium of 30 publishers, including Changbi Publishers.
Everbook.Com, a consortium of eight publishing houses led by Minum, opened earlier this year while Booktopia, a joint venture by 110 publishers, including Gimmyoung Publishers, started publishing e-books last year, spurred by overseas developments in electronic publishing.
While the e-book service providers have their roots in traditional publishing houses, several new ventures, including Yes24.Com, are linked with online book retailers. The leading Internet bookstore Yes24.Com launched an ambitious project last August to released two e-books by established writers each month. The company has contracted with 13 writers for a project similar to one launched by Time Warner Books, which releases monthly lists of new e-books.
Despite the apparent readiness of publishing companies to jump in the e-book bandwagon, Mr. Hwang said traditional publishers are not too keen on e-books, at least for now, because they bring in less revenue.
Mr. Lee's book, if published in paper form, would sell for about 6,000 won ($5.45), of which about 20 percent would go to the author. Everbook.Com charges 3,000 won to download "Sky Passage," a figure arrived at after subtracting the cost of paper, maintenance and repair and operational costs, according to Mr. Hwang.
"People think e-books should be cheaper because they are paperless but in putting out a book, the cost of paper is not very significant," he said. "That is why the more copies that are printed, the more profit a publisher makes,"
Such economy of scale does not hold true for e-books. But Mr. Oh is optimistic about the potential of e-books in Korea.
"The market will really take off toward the end of next year when handheld reading devices become widely available," he said. He estimated there could be a two-billion won market when e-books are in full swing. The local publishing industry estimates e-books will account for 10 percent of the publishing market by 2003.
The Ministry of Information and Communication is also eyeing the market. Last month, the ministry announced it would, in conjunction with the private sector, channel 23.8 billion won to promote the industry over the next three years.
The money will be used to standardize the format of e-book contents and to come up with ways to curb piracy. Companies will also get funding to develop the next generation of handheld e-book reading devices that will offer higher resolution at cheaper prices.
One drawback of e-books is that they lack of portability, which makes it impossible to curl up with a good e-book. The problem is likely to be solved next year, when locally made e-book terminals become commercially available.
Korean venture firm Echyon unveiled a working model of a handheld e-book reading device at a recent publishing fair at Chongju. About half the size of an A4 sheet of paper, the device has a six-inch liquid crystal display screen and a 10-hour battery life between recharges. Final price has not been set, but the device is expected to sell for slightly more than 400,000 won.
The device also recognizes handwriting, so readers will be able to make notes and underline passages.
"Handheld platforms will popularize e-books because they offer portability," said Echyon's Park Jin-sook.
Many issues still need to be resolved before e-books can claim a mass audience, but Mr. Lee is enthusiastic. He plans to publish all his previous writings in e-book format.
But a copyright squabble between Mr. Lee's e-book publisher has broken out, showing that legal battles are also a part of the new economy and must be addressed before e-books can take off.