Tips on Formats, Pricing, and Preferred Reading Devices in the Korean Book Market

Are you a Canadian publisher looking for information on new export markets? Today we continue our series of blog posts on the Korean book market. Excerpted from our market guide Selling Canadian Books in Korea: A Guide for Canadian Publishers by Tony Michell and Darwin Shim, today’s post shares some guidance on formats, pricing, and preferred reading devices in the Korean book market.

Formats

Koreans are price-conscious and like to keep things simple. As in Japan, living space is limited and shelving space comes at a premium. Koreans recognize the exceptional nature of hardcover books, but those books just take up too much space.

Recent research attests to Koreans’ preference for paperbacks and juxtaposes the various formats imported as international editions. The 18 percent Korean/translated books published in hardcover fell under the categories of translated works, textbooks, encyclopaedias, children’s books, and colouring books.

Ebooks are most popular among millennials, with a sharp cut-off rate for those over 30. Primary school children read the largest number of books, both in print and electronic form. Men tend to read more print and electronic books than women. On average, in 2015, men read 9.6 printed books, while women read 8.6 books.

The adoption of ebooks has been slower than expected, but is predicted to pick up speed after 2016. The segment has grown at CAGR 27.7 percent since 2011. Kyobo, the largest general retailer, was quick to release their own version of the Kindle to complement their online store, but adoption has been slow.

Retailers and publishers alike have been disappointed by this lack of enthusiasm for digital books. In 2010, they had predicted that digital would overtake print by 2020. It was hoped that an increase in ebook sales would help bolster a struggling industry. Meanwhile, print books have declined 4.8 percent CAGR from 98.6 million copies printed in 2012 to 85.0 million copies in 2015.

In mid-1990, Amazon entered Korea in a joint venture with Samsung, but suffered during the Asian Financial Crisis and later retreated from operations in the country. Though there were initial fears that Amazon would re-enter the Korean market, this never came to fruition, and subsequently, innovation has stalled. With the US Free Trade Agreement passed, it is still a possibility that Amazon may yet re-enter the Korean market.

The iOS platform does not yet have content geared towards the Korean market and payment is a very large issue. Apple is reluctant to implement government-approved payment safeguards, as these must follow Korean government requirements to be ActiveX based. As a result, Apple skirted payment regulations by making consumers pay using Hong Kong dollars. This has made it very difficult for Apple’s app store to flourish in Korea.

What is read on-screen is mostly dictated by screen size. Smaller screens are more appropriate for text-based reading, while tablets, PCs, and computers are ideal for more image- and graphic-based products. The three largest segments of the Korean ebook market are novels, self-help titles, and business books.

Pricing

Korean ebooks are priced relatively higher than their counterparts in the United States or the United Kingdom. A Consumer Network study revealed that they are on average positioned at 61.5 percent of the list price. This is higher than Amazon, WH Smith, and Google Play, whose ebooks are usually priced at 57 percent of the list price.

In November 2014, the Korean government amended a bill that limited book discounts to 15 percent off the listed price. Before this, the bill had exclusively applied to new books released in the prior 18 months and had limited the price to a 19 percent discount, while books older than 18 months could be discounted without limit. This measure was introduced to protect independent, family-run bookstores that were getting beaten out by aggressive price wars between the largest players. Ultimately, this inadvertently led to a rise in the number of used bookstores.

Today, Korean retailers can discount only 10 percent of the list price at the point of sale. The discount can be increased to 15 percent off the list price when factoring in loyalty and membership reward programs as outlined below:

A side effect of this regulation was the rapid decline in list prices. Retailers found it difficult to shift stock when the public was suddenly faced by a massive increase in book prices. The industry has been reducing the list price incrementally and conducting behavioural studies on optimal pricing. One such study revealed that the optimal price for a paperback novel was ₩13,800 (C$15.70).

Online retail channels are benefitting from a boom in used book sales. Online market leader Yes24 purportedly sells 2,000 used books a day through their “buy-back” program, and have recently opened a brick-and-mortar store to fulfil the demand. A study of 146 publishers and 2,993 titles revealed an average discount of 57 percent on the list price. The same study showed that recent releases were discounted by 19 percent.

Want to learn more about this market? Download the full version of our guide on Selling Canadian Books in Korea!

11/02/2017 | Distribution, Export, Market Guides