South Korea is the only country to increase in status from developing country and foreign aid recipient in the early 1960s to member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and foreign aid donor at the turn of the 21st century. Korea’s 50 million inhabitants (nearly 2 million of them foreigners) now have an advanced lifestyle that to some degree—as with smartphone penetration and urban style—is setting trends around the world and attracting considerable cultural attention.
Korea is generally considered to be a difficult market to do business in, as local expertise and familiarity with the market is required. Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing excerpts of our 2017 market guide, Selling Canadian Books in Korea: A Guide for Canadian Publishers (3rd edition), prepared by market experts Tony Michell and Darwin Shim. In today’s post, we focus on this market’s major and medium- and small-size publishers.
Education is an important part of being Korean. It is no wonder, then, that textbooks are the most published titles year-on-year. Eighty-five percent of the top 20 publishers specialize in textbooks, with their annual sales ranging from C$740 million to C$48 million.
There are several pros and cons to choosing a large publisher which can be characterized by the degree of collaboration between your houses on the titles at hand, understanding of subject matter, and honesty in reporting sales. Unless you intend to sell textbooks to as many schools as possible, there is no reason to go for the largest, most established publisher.
Competition among publishers is heating up despite a declining market. In the first half of 2016, the number of publishers increased by 4 percent to 4,930. This competitive spirit can be leveraged to negotiate better terms. However, while there are more publishers in the market, they have become more selective with their titles and have abandoned their “shotgun” approach to see what sticks. Therefore, having a bestseller overseas has become an important factor. This is evidenced by the decline in number of new translated titles year-on-year.
Major publishers are defined as those that have published 30 or more books in the past six months. These 192 publishers make up just 4 percent of total number of active publishers in Korea. The large majority (85 percent) of these houses specialize in teaching materials for students. Their annual sales range from C$13.6 million to C$713.3 million.
The two largest publishers are Woongjin Thinkbig and Kyowon Kumon, ranked first and second, respectively. Both specialize in teaching materials. These two stand out by having subsidiary after-school academies that offer private tutoring services using in-house material.
The exception is Gim Myoung, ranked 28th with annual sales of C$27 million in 2013. Unlike other top-ranking publishers that primarily publish teaching materials and dabble in educational children’s books, Gim Myoung has a diversified portfolio that falls under five imprints. Their Viche imprint specializes in Korean and European literature, and the Poiema imprint publishes religious (Christian) books. Their G-ON imprint publishes popular humanities titles targeted towards readers ages 20–40. Their final two imprints specialize in children’s and educational titles.
Small- and Medium-Sized Publishers
Small- and medium-sized publishers typically fall under the umbrella of the Korean Small and Medium Publishers Association (KOMSPA), which currently has 171 members, or the more general KPA, with 603 members. Korean publishers are generally private, and while these numbers help to give a sense of the publishers of this size, small- and medium-sized publishers these associations are by no means a complete representation of the total number of small- and medium-sized publishers currently active in the territory.
Medium-sized publishers are defined as those that have published 6–30 books in the past six months, with sales averaging around C$2 million. They make up 26 percent of the total number of publishers currently operating in Korea, and have a more diverse range of specialization, though they tend to lean heavily toward teaching materials.
General retailer Kyobo noted that there has been a resurgence of titles from small- and medium-sized publishers on their bestseller list, and that significant industry buzzwords for the first half of 2015 included “Small and Medium Publishers” and “Debut Authors.” Baek Wongeun of Books & Society Research Institute said, “Smaller publishers’ strengths lie in their ability to market reader friendly content, and mobilize it using social networking.”
One new publisher to watch is Influential, which hit the No. 1 spot on the bestseller list with Courage to be Disliked, by Fumitake Koga. Influential used a number of savvy marketing and promotional tactics in the book’s publication, which included distributing samples of the book in a busy shopping district in Myeongdong. This eager, genuine approach to marketing titles is certainly a strategy to watch and perhaps even emulate for future successes.
Another standout publisher is Rice Maker, a one-man outfit that published the Chinese book Harvard’s 4:30 A.M. by Wei Shuing after it had been turned down by five medium-sized publishers. The publisher recognized the title’s potential to resonate with students in their 20s, and the book was a rousing success, selling 180,000 copies and reaching the No. 4 spot on Kyobo’s bestseller list.
Want to find out more about the Korean book market and Korean publishers by genre? Download your copy of our market guide today.