How just a few can make a difference

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How just a few can make a difference


This year, over 45,000 books were displayed at Kyobo Book Center, Korea’s largest bookstore, and the store sold around 6.3 million books this year. So one might be tempted to think that about 140 copies of each book were sold. But this assumption requires a closer look: The top 100 books on the best-seller list account for more than 2.1 million of these sales. In other words, 0.002 percent of the books in the store make up one-third of total sales. As you go up the list, the disproportion becomes starker. Three-quarters of the 2.1 million copies are top-50 books, and half of the three-quarters is from sales of top-three books. Lost in the fractions? The point is simple: A small number of books bring in a disproportionate amount of revenue.

It is only natural that good books sell more, but the trend is a bit too extreme. It is representative of Koreans’ so-called “boiling pot” tendency. People follow national trends down to the color of instant noodle soups. Extreme conformity extends to what movies people watch, where they attend school and which stocks they purchase.

This phenomenon was not born yesterday. Shin Chae-ho, a nationalist and independence activist from the early 20th century, deplored, “When someone makes a profit in the rice cake business, the entire village becomes noisy with the pounding sound of mills. In which society do people storm together instantly but fall back all at once? I feel embarrassed to criticize my own country, but I must admit it is the community of Joseon.”

While Shin Chae-ho was critical of the blind following of Koreans, we cannot deny that there is an upside as well. When the oil spill occurred off the coast of Taean, South Chungcheong, in 2007, over one million volunteers came to the area to clean up the contamination. During the financial crisis and IMF bailout in the late 1990s, citizens donated treasured gold rings.

As the ruling party is on the brink of collapse, a first-term lawmaker and the longest-serving representative decided against running for another term. Similar actions are expected to follow among the ruling party politicians. I wonder if their moves will ignite the deeply rooted trend-following tendency once again. For even the wisest person would be swayed by personal and party interests once he becomes a politician. Like best-selling books in the publishing industry, a small number of GNP lawmakers can make the difference.

*The writer is a culture and sports news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Hoon-beom
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