E-books not on radar in wired Korea

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E-books not on radar in wired Korea


From its release in 2008 to this April, more than two million copies of Shin Kyung-sook’s novel “Please Look after Mom” have been sold in Korea - a figure rarely seen in the domestic publishing circle.

But don’t expect to find an e-book version of the huge best seller at Kyobo, the nation’s No. 1 bookstore both online and offline.

Even though early-adopter readers can get a digital version of the book at lesser-known distributors like Interpark, Book Cube and Ridibooks for around 7,000 won ($6) - 1,000 won cheaper than paperback - Kyobo only has it in print.

This makes it look somewhat behind the times as an English version of Shin’s novel is available in e-book form at U.S. giants Amazon and Barnes & Noble for just under $12.

A representative at the e-book division of Changbi, the book’s Korean publisher, said availability is limited because the company only circulates its e-books through a digital content management organization called Korea Publishing Contents (KPC). This has been run by more than 60 book publishers since 2009 and represents the interests of over 250 publishers.


The source said Kyobo has thus far refused to sign a deal with the group to distribute e-books, insisting on forging ahead alone when procuring e-book content and dealing with publishers.

“What kind of a publisher would not want to circulate its content through the country’s largest bookseller? However, we had no choice but to prioritize protecting our profits, as Kyobo has kept its business practice of not informing publishers of the exact number of digital copies it sells, while it arbitrarily calculates revenues,” he said.

Similar inconsistencies can be found in the Korean translations of international best sellers. The Korean-language version of Walter Isaacson’s recent Steve Jobs biography, released in Korea in October through top publisher Minumsa, is available at Aladdin and Yes24 online booksellers in e-book format, but not at Kyobo.

An employee with Kyobo’s digital content business division said the bookseller is preparing to launch an e-book version soon, but refrained from elaborating on the delay. According to a spokeswoman with Minumsa, Kyobo procrastinated in adopting the viewing format provided by the publisher.

Such cases illustrate just how much Kyobo has been underestimating the importance and potential of digital content. Of its total sales revenue of 558 billion won last year, e-books made up a mere 1.8 percent. The book giant unleashes an average of 100,000 new books each year, but only 130,000 are currently available in digital versions.

The slow growth of the domestic e-book industry seems ironic given that Korea ranks as the world’s most wired country with over 20 million smartphones users and legions of so-called early adopters. In terms of music, MP3 files crushed CD sales a long time ago.

But in the world of literature, Korea seems to be trailing the U.S. when it comes to the digital revolution. Highlighting this, Amazon said in May 2011 it was selling more Kindle books than print books.

“Sales of e-books for the Kindle e-reader were about 5 percent higher than all hardcover and paperback print books combined,” it said in a press release, adding that free e-book downloads were excluded from the count.

Microsoft, which is upbeat about the future of e-books, promised in late April to invest $605 million over five years with Barnes & Noble, a bookseller that also makes Nook digital-book readers. The first version of Nook, currently only available in the U.S., debuted in 2009, two years after Kindle.

Lukewarm interest

This means Korea’s digital book industry has some catching up to do. A survey from the Korean Publishing Research Institute in December showed that only 14 percent of 504 local publishers have released an e-book so far. Of those who did not have e-books in their business portfolio, 22.6 percent said they had not jumped into this business because it was “too early,” while another 21 percent said their management has yet to decide on whether this would be a prudent move. Only 11.8 percent said they will begin producing an e-book this year.

“Some publishers are reluctant to roll out e-book versions of printed books as these - despite being 40 percent cheaper than paper books - contribute less to their revenue,” said the institute in a report.

Sales numbers underscore publishers’ lack of confidence in digital content. Those that do release e-books found they only accounted for 8.6 percent of their entire revenue on average last year, or 12.8 million won per publisher.

This has led to a paucity of content and vocal complaints from e-book readers. A recent posting by a blogger who goes by the name Diomoi serves as a typical rant: “Most of the e-books I can download now are classics like Sherlock Holmes, which I’ve already read, or obscure publications that people wouldn’t buy even after an 80 percent discount.”

The tangled web of how people read e-books further complicates matters. There are basically three options: Computers with viewing software installed; smartphone and tablet PC apps; and gadgets specifically devised for e-books. However, the kinds of e-books that can be downloaded vary according to different platforms, serving as another barrier to accessing content.

Still, market insiders have not lost their faith in the market and expect it to keep growing.

The domestic market for content and related gadgets is forecast to expand 12 percent on year to 325 billion won, according to the Korea Electronic Publishing Association. This figure is likely to jump to 583.8 billion next year, four times larger than in 2009, when Korea welcomed its first e-book reader, the association said.

The source with Kyobo said it is bracing to launch talks with KPC, the publisher lobby group, while Minumsa is set to roll out 179 new e-books in early July with hopes to boost the industry. This marks the largest batch of digital books released here to date.

By Seo Ji-eun[spring@joongang.co.kr]

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