At the 2014 book fair in London, the “focus country” highlighted publishing in South Korea. A number of publishers, printers, technology vendors and translation companies from South Korea were clustered in a single part of the exhibition hall. On the show floor and elsewhere, the book fair offered several sessions about aspects of publishing in South Korea.
South Korea: A Study In Contrasts
The country is a bit of a study in contrasts, at least when it comes to digital publishing. South Korea has offered universal LTE (higher-speed mobile) access since 2009, the only country to do so. It also boasts the world’s highest penetration rate (81 percent) for smartphone use.
Interestingly, 41 percent of the smartphones in South Korea are “phablets“, the mid-size blend of smart phone and tablet. By comparison, worldwide adoption of phablets is said to be about 7 percent.
You’d think that a population that had adopted a new generation of wired, reading-friendly devices would be a perfect market for eBooks, but almost seven years after Kindle and approaching five years since the introduction of LTE service, eBooks are said to represent perhaps 3 percent of the South Korean market.
Digital Formats: “Wait and See”
At least one of the reasons appears to be a wait-and-see attitude among established Korean publishers. At one of the information sessions, a panelist claimed that only half of the books published in South Korea each year are offered in both print and digital form. No one spoke in detail about the backlist, suggesting that the inventory of titles available in digital form is limited.
The U.S. market faced a comparable challenge in 2008 and 2009, when it was a common (and widely criticized) practice to delay the release of an eBook. Publishers tried to use softcover formats to argue that that there was a “rightful place” in the timing for eBook releases. The arguments soon collapsed in the face of persistent consumer demand. Now, some publishers compete on simultaneous availability of hardcover, eBook and audio formats.
At the book fair, a number of South Korean technology companies were asked about demand for such digital services within their home market. Representatives smiled and gave answers along the lines of “small, but growing.” Encouraging, perhaps, but it led me to wonder if South Korean publishers are underinvesting in their own future.
Poised for growth?
South Korea seems poised for significant change in its consumption of digital media. It has all of the infrastructure in place to provide unfettered access to digital content.
And, the country is home for companies like LG and Samsung, now acknowledged as the largest smartphone manufacturer in the world. The only thing South Korea seems to lack is predictable access to a supply of digital content.
To this point, the absence of digital options has not affected demand for traditional formats. There is a risk, though. The longer publishers in South Korea wait to provide dgital content, the greater the risk becomes that consumers will go elsewhere for either content or entertainment.