Reading material? Just insert a few dozen coins

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Reading material? Just insert a few dozen coins


What a country puts in its vending machines tells a lot about its culture. Machines in the United States are crammed with junk food. Japan sells beer from its vending machines. Korea? Soon, it will be books.
A publishing company is getting ready to launch a vending machine for books, allowing passersby to flip through a few pages before making their selection from the 25 volumes displayed behind the glass panel. The company plans to install over 3,000 of the machines in bus terminals and school lounges around Seoul by end of the year.
“The book vending machine will soon be as common a sight on streets as coffee and soda machines,” said Kim Young-soo, a book critic and the head of Kim & Jung Publishing Consulting, which came up with the idea.
The Yeouido-based company plans to first sell the machines to small bookstore owners, which would operate the machines. It hopes the machines help local bookshops financially; local sellers have been struggling in the market against online bookshops and big-name brand stores.
In the 1990s, there were an estimated 13,000 small bookstores, but the number has since plunged to 2,000.
“Small bookstore owners were very enthusiastic about the idea,” said Mr. Kim, who used to work at Chongno Bookstore, the oldest bookstore in Jongno. The store shut down in 2002 due to financial difficulties. “Big names like Kyobo and Bandi & Luni’s are ruled out from our list.”
Mr. Kim was not the first to design a book vending machine, though. In the early 1990s, a vending machine company first introduced a machine that sold paperbacks that were available in most stores. Since the machines accepted only coins, however, customers had to bring a bucket of coins to purchase a 9,000-won volume. The books were also too bulky for the machines, making it hard to offer a decent selection. The company soon went out of the business.
The new vending machine, Mr. Kim, accepts credit cards and even transportation cards.
At prices ranging from 2,000 won ($2) for a single slender booklet to 3,000 won for 96-page paperbacks, the books will include short stories, essays and self-help materials specially designed to fit inside the machine. Each book is 123 millimeters (4.9 inches) wide and 183 millimeters long, about one-fourth the price and half the weight of an average hardcover sold in bookstores.
Mr. Kim said that 10 big publishing companies, including Gimm-young Publishers, Sigongsa and Bumwoosa, have so far agreed to publish the vending-machine books. The books will be made from scratch, meaning new books will have to be written specifically for the machines.
“If I do that [adopt bestsellers], I would be like stealing a piece of the pie,” Mr. Kim said. “I don’t want to do that. I want to make the pie bigger, create a bigger market instead.”
He explained the vending machine was also good news for authors who write short pieces in quarterly publications. Usually they have to wait years until they can collect enough short stories to make them into a novel-sized collection. But when the book vending machines are introduced, Mr. Kim said, authors can have a chance of publishing each one of them in the slimmer machinery versions.
“Some of my author friends were really happy to hear this,” he said.

by Lee Min-a
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