June 25, 2013

Can digital devices be blamed for a decline in reading?


The Seoul International Book Fair, as captured by Publishing Perspectives.

The international market for Korean literature is growing, writes Roger Tagholm in Publishing Perspectives, but surprisingly for a country as technologically advanced as South Korea, he says there hasn’t been much growth in ebooks. In fact, according to Tagholm, the pervasiveness of smartphones, tablets, and “phablets” (phone-tablets) is apparently to blame for the decline of the publishing industry in the country.

The reason that fewer Koreans are reading, as Tagholm explains it, is twofold. First, there’s the technological boom in cities like Seoul. “Everywhere you go,” he writes, “people are tapping and pinching and scrolling on the latest smart device from indigenous industry leaders Samsung. See that baby’s rattle in the push chair? That’s probably 4G too.” People who used to pass the time during their commute with a book now carry tablets instead.

That alone wouldn’t explain why people are reading less, of course, when a big part of tablets’ appeal is that you can carry around your entire library wherever you please. But Korean publishers have been very hesitant about embracing ebooks, as the director of the International Project Department at the Korean Publishers Association, Seung Hyun Moon explains:

Korean publishers are very conservative. They are scared of ebooks. They witnessed the collapse of the music industry and they are reluctant to give content because they think it can be easily pirated. There is a law for everyone to make a legal deposit of ebooks to the Korean National Library, but publishers are reluctant to do that.

With this discrepancy between publishers’ ambivalence toward technology and most Koreans’ embrace of it, the industry has taken advantage of the popularity of its titles overseas. Literary agent Joseph Lee points in particular to Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mother, which won the Man Asian Literary Prize, and a YA book, Leafie, which he describes as a “masterpiece” comparable to Charlotte’s Web—and to which he has been able to sell the rights in fourteen different countries. “We have to sell abroad,” he epxlains,  “because the Korean market is too small.”


Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.