Books go serial, sparking new Web trend
When Korean author Park Bum-shin began posting segments of his book “Cholatse,” a novel about two brothers doing dangerous climbs, on his blog in August 2007, it sparked a trend that could eventually change the publishing industry in South Korea.
Since then, a couple of dozen novels have been serialized on the Internet, with that figure likely to increase in the coming year as publishing companies look for ways to compete with the flood of entertainment options already available on and offline, not to mention the portable entertainment devices that command people’s attention on streets, buses and subways.
And although Web serials - which can include comic books and other kinds of genre fiction like sci-fi, romance, mystery or horror - have become popular among younger readers, the works being posted online in serial form are serious pieces of literature by established Korean writers, including Gong Ji-young, Hwang Suk-young and Shin Kyong-suk, as well as Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, whose novel “The Winner Stands Alone” was put on the Web in serial form in Korea earlier this year.
This has created a new space for literature with the potential to reach a broader audience of readers.
“The Internet has become a new venue for writers to publish their books,” said Yeom Hyeon-sook, editor in chief at the publisher Munhakdongne. “At the same time it also provides an alternative space where readers can access literature.”
Munhakdongne has become one of the most active companies in publishing serials online.
“We realized that there is a demand from Internet users for more serious works of literature so we’ve responded by creating a supply,” said Kim Jung-hye, a manager at Changbi Publishers.
After Naver, the biggest portal in the country, broke new ground by making new literary works available on the Web, the portal Daum also started putting literature on its Web site. The first book to be released in serial form on that site was Gong Ji-young’s “Dogani,” which was released in conjunction with Changbi, the book’s publisher, in November 2008.
“Having literature serials online enriches the content on our portal,” said a Daum literature site manager who wished only to be identified as Shin.
The enormous interest in online literature serials has led Internet bookstores to partner with publishing companies to produce literature Webzines. Seven publishers including Munhakdongne and the online bookstore Yes24 created a Webzine called Nabeeya (http://nabeeya.yes24.com) in July, while the Internet bookstore Aladdin and the publisher Ppul created the Webzine Ppul (http://blog.aladdin.co.kr/ppul) in the same month. Other online bookstores like Interpark and Kyobo Book Store have also started offering similar products this year. Nabeeya has not only serialized literature by established writers but has also let new and emerging writers participate by publishing their works online.
When major portals like Naver and Daum began putting books online, they started with big-name writers such as Gong or Park Bum-shin “because in that way they could attract readers,” said Kim of Changbi.
When a new work is picked up for serialization online, the author is contracted by both the Web portal and the publisher, so most of the books serialized on the Internet end up in paper form. The author is usually paid by the publisher, but if the writer happens to be a best-selling author such as Gong Ji-young, the portal will pay the writer and the publisher will pay royalties.
Serial books are usually posted every day in one or two-page chunks. With such a small amount of text posted online, it takes six months or longer to post a full-length novel.
Readers can respond to the series by posting their responses and the authors can reply, although not all writers do. When the serial is over and the book is published offline, the serialized material normally disappears from the Internet and is only available in print.
Serial books are not the only form of literature online. The e-book format has also become popular in Korea, but e-books differ from serial novels in that readers pay a subscription fee for e-books while serial novels are free. E-books can also be downloaded onto reading devices such as the Kindle. The other difference between the e-book and the serial novel is that book serials are eventually published in paper form.
“E-books are a completely different issue,” said Kim of Changbi.
Ryu Hannah, a spokeswoman for Naver, echoed this point, adding that they post serial novels for “people who appreciate literature, not for business.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between the e-book and the serial novel is that online serials are new works that have not yet been published, which adds an element of suspense to the reading experience, whereas e-books consist of previously published material.
Online literature serialization appears to be a win-win situation for all involved - the publishers, portals and online bookstores, not to mention the writers. The novels allow publishers to acquire new books and reach new audiences, while portals increase the traffic to their sites by providing diverse content. Writers benefit because their books are promoted online before they are actually printed. Online bookstores can increase their exposure to readers and boost their sales.
“[Serializing a novel online] can increase readers’ interest in a book and its author, and that interest continues to build until the book is actually published,” Yeom of Munhakdongne said.
Overall, it has been a huge success. The proof is in the millions of hits generated at sites that publish literature serials. For example, Park Bum-shin’s Cholatse garnered one million page views during its serial run while Hwang Suk-young’s “Hesperus” received more than two million hits. Gong Ji-young’s Dogani got 12 million hits between November 2008 and May 2009 and there were 50 to 100 reader responses posted per day.
Another positive effect of online serialization is that it has encouraged young people, the most active users of the Internet, to read.
“Most of the fans of the author Gong Ji-young are in their mid-30s and 40s, but serial novels are read by young people, such as those who read Gong’s Dogani on the Internet,” said the Daum site manager Shin. “For some, it was the first time they had read Gong’s work.”
The heated interest in serials has also led to higher and faster book sales once the serials are published in paper form.
“When Gong Seon-ok’s ‘When I Was Most Pretty’ hit shelves [in May], it sold more than 20,000 copies in one month,” said Yeom of Munhakdongne. “The book sold much faster than most other books.”
In comparison, sales of other books by Gong have peaked at 10,000 copies per book.
The higher sales for the books serialized on the Internet has dispelled one of the biggest concerns about publishing books online: that readers would not buy books they had already read online.
“Those who read the serials online seem to also want to own the books,” said the Daum site manager Shin. “Unlike with comic books, online serialization of literature leads directly to sales. The Internet has become a composite space of culture and commerce. Online serialization and offline book sales can help each other.”
Online serialization also gives authors and readers a chance to communicate with one another, allowing writers to instantly receive input about their work.
After Cholatse was picked up by Naver as a serial, Park Bum-shin said in an interview with the portal’s literature site: “The reactions were spontaneous. It was an instant incitement for me and a rare positive experience, one of the first in my 30-year career as a writer.”
“Most of the posts were very warm and encouraging,” said writer Lee Ki-ho, whose novel “Sagwaneun Jalhaeyo” appeared on Daum between November 2008 and May 2009.
However, Lee added that the reader responses did not influence the way he wrote or the content of his book.
“Whether readers applauded or criticized what I wrote, it did not change the direction of the novel because I already had a synopsis,” Lee said. “Changing the way I write would be impossible because it would distort the entire composition of the story.”
Publishers also say that the serialization of books online is not going to change the way books are written.
“There is nothing to show that books have changed because of online serialization,” Kim of Changbi said, adding that literature does not change easily. “Some writers don’t even reply to reader posts at all.”
However, there is some contention on this point.
“If writers change the way they write to adapt to the Internet, it will change literature,” Kim Jung-hye of Changbi said.
Regardless of whether a writer does or does not alter the course of a story to please their audiences, the biggest beneficiaries of online serialization seem to be the readers.
The book “The Telephone Bell Rings Somewhere Endlessly,” by best-selling author Shin Kyong-suk, just ended its serial run on Friday. More than 660,000 people logged in to the Aladdin site to read Shin’s novel, although the exact number of hits is unknown.
Fans posted a long list of messages expressing their gratitude to the author for writing the book, which explores the many ways that people fall in love.
A reader who identified herself as Ji-yun wrote, “So this is the end. I was happy while I was reading your writing... Before I started my day every morning, I had to read your story... For a while, I lived in happiness.”
Another reader identified as Cool wrote, “I was saddened by the words ‘the end.’ Every morning, I felt grateful that I had a place to work and I was happy to read your story on my computer at work. The emptiness I feel because the story has ended will perhaps ease with time.”
By Limb Jae-un [email@example.com]