London Book Fair 2014 will see Korea as the Market Focus Country. And in 2013 Korea was there to prepare the way.
The Korea Publishers Association and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea jointly occupied a stall at the Earl’s Court exhibition, displaying among other things a wide range of translated Korean literature, including a generous assortment of poetry and some translations that it is terribly hard to find on the internet. Sadly, none were for sale. Next year, the space occupied by Korea will obviously be much larger – in fact 20 exhibitors occupying 500 square metres are planned.
Nestling among the books on display were some from Stallion Press. This was a new publisher to me. Based in Singapore, they have a large selection of Korean titles, both translated literature and books of a factual nature. None of them are currently listed on Amazon.co.uk, but a quick search of Amazon.com for “Stallion Press” reveals the range of their Korea-related publications.
An overview of the Korean book market, and the activities of LTI Korea
A number of Korea-related events were linked to this year’s Fair. At the Fair itself, there was a one-hour overview of the Korean Publishing industry, with presentations which gave a handy overview of the state of the market and of the activities of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (“LTI Korea”). From the talks we learned that surprisingly, given Korea’s reputation as an early adopter of the latest technology, the eBook market is not (yet) a significant force in Korean publishing (only accounting for around 2% of the market according to latest figures available), and the decline in the print market in 2012 was not offset by a corresponding increase in digital.
Having said that, the ebook market is growing, but not as fast as expected. The big government initiative to digitise school text books (see Digital textbooks open a new chapter, BBC, 19 October 2011) could have provided impetus, but the big investment has been slowed down by the new administration. In the area of general fiction, the ebook – particularly as consumed on mobile phones – is best suited to content that can be digested in bite-sized chunks, rather than traditional novels. A trend emerging is for a publisher to give away the first 29 chapters of a 30-chapter eBook for free, and then charge the reader a premium price for the final chapter.
In a declining market for printed books, unexpected bestsellers of 2012 were loosely categorised as “self-help” and included “Things you only see if you stop” by Buddhist monk Venerable Hyemin, which reportedly sold 1.4 million copies. (Available on Amazon.com, but only in Korean) 
With only something like 80 million Korean speakers in the world, Korean literature needs to be translated in order to reach a global audience. The LTI Korea was founded in 2001 with the aim of promoting Korean literature worldwide, since when it has supported 846 translation projects in 22 languages. 581 of these have been with foreign publishers. Less obvious in terms of getting Korean literature translated, but surprisingly effective in promoting a favourable overseas audience, has been their organisation of international literary exchanges and residency programmes such as the 2012 Seoul International Writers Festival. LTI Korea also acts as a source of information and education on Korean literature (in translation and otherwise) via its website klti.or.kr.
Meet the authors – an introduction to Korean literature
Two eminent Korean authors were present, along with SOAS’s Grace Koh, to help provide an introduction to Korean literature to visitors to the Fair. And at a collateral event at the KCCUK they gave readings from their works and answered questions from the audience. At least, that was the plan. Choe Yun obliged by giving a very moving rendition of the opening pages of her There a Petal Silently Falls, while Chung Young-moon, who confessed that he hated reading his own work out loud, managed to put off the evil moment by regaling us with entertaining anecdotes.
The audience showed themselves familiar with Choe’s work – partly because of its ready availability in English (it had been set as an essay contest three years previously) and because of the famous Jang Sun-woo film based on the novel. Chung’s work has only recently been translated (available on Stallion Press, but not easily available in the UK), and hence he was rather left out of the Q&A.
It was apparent that both authors were well-travelled: Choe was in France at the time of the Gwangju uprising – and thus had access to news reports which were suppressed in Korea – while Chung, according to a recent interview in The List magazine, regards himself as “a stateless writer who just happens to write in Korean”.
Translation flows in Asia
The final event with a Korean connection (other than the formal hand-over ceremony between Turkey, this year’s Market Focus at the London Book Fair, and Korea, next year’s) was a panel session on East Asian Translation Flows, with experts on the Japanese, Singaporean, Taiwanese and Korean markets. Deborah Smith, @londonkoreanist, flew the flag for Korea, and it was interesting to hear the similarities and differences between the different markets.
The London Book Fair 2013 was 15-16 April at Earls Court. Next year’s fair, at which Korea is the market focus, is 8-10 April 2014