April 30, 2013

South Korean bookseller sets new standard for rock-bottom ebook prices


“Sam,” South Korea’s newest ereader, is currently leading that country’s race to charge the least for ebooks by practically giving them away.

The U.S. isn’t the only place where corporations are dropping ebook prices below levels the industry can support. South Korea’s largest bookstore, Kyobo (not to be confused with Canada’s lovely Kobo), launched a new ebook arm last month called “Sam.” The name describes both their ebook marketplace and a dedicated ereader.

Because of Amazon, we’re now used to seeing ebooks, even new ones, priced at $9.99, which is probably below the level the industry can support (since that generally means selling ebooks at a loss). Yet if Amazon’s prices are low, Sam’s are ruinously so. In each of Sam’s subscription services, the price per book usually comes out to about $3. It’s true that, in Sam’s model, the books are “borrowed” rather than permanently owned, but the net effect of such a price point is likely to remain deleterious.

Sam offers several different plans: “Plan 1” offers 36 books a year for 108,000 Korean won, or about $100. Another option is to buy 12 books for 32,000 won (about $29), or five books for 15,000 won (about $13.50).

They also reportedly offer a rental plan of five books for six months. This is priced at 990 won, or just under a dollar. The Korea Times quotes Han Ki-Ho, of the Korean Publishing Marketing Research Institute, saying, “Deciding to rent out a book at 200 won when it’s paperback version is priced at 13,000 won is a graceless and ruthless marketing attempt that threatens the publishing market’s ecosystem.”

At least Kyobo is blunt about why they’re doing it. Park Mi-Hyang, a company spokesperson, said, “Our primary goal is to increase the number of ebook readers by cutting prices to ultimately expand the market.”

It’s nefarious and hopeful at the same time.

Their website even offers “prizes” to new members as a reward for joining the subscription service (it’s a raffle, so not everyone wins). As I write this, ten lucky subscribers will win a set of Lock & Lock “tumbler clip mugs.” On Friday, the prize was a deck chair, while Saturday’s was a “sound donut.”

Just a few of the prizes you could win if you subscribe to “Sam.” That deck chair looks pretty comfy…

Other major Korean ebook vendors were quick to follow Sam’s lead to scuttle ebook prices. Aladin’s website shows books priced from 2,000 won to 9,000 won. Yes24, another major vendor, shows similar prices.

In 2011, South Korea had the world’s highest share of ebook sales as a percentage of total sales: 24.2 percent. Yet the situation for books of all kinds is dire, and not just because of these new ebook prices. In 2012 the total market fell by 20%, according to a report from Statistics Korea, making it the first year since the new millennium that less than 100 million copies of new books were published. The average household spent about $20 per month on books. The blog Publishing Perspectives quotes Han Ki-Ho (apparently a quotable character): “The situation for the publishing market is now at its worst.”

Jay McNair was an intern at Melville House.