UK literary editors offer perspectives on Korean publishing

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As part of the British Council’s engagement with Korea as focus country for the 2014 London Book Fair, six British literary editors went on a trip to Korea in November 2013.

The objectives of the trip were to:

  • Increase mutual understanding of publishing and literature sectors in the UK and Korea
  • Create strong and enduring relationships between editors in Korea and the UK
  • Build appreciation for Korean literature among UK editors
  • Identify opportunities Korean writers to be translated into English and for UK writers to be translated into Korean
  • Identify challenges and obstacles to promote literature exchanges between the UK and Korea
  • Create networking opportunities for literature professionals from both countries

The trip included meetings with Korean editors, agents and rights professionals, at publishing houses, cultural venues, book cafés and Korean restaurants in Seoul as well as Paju Book City. Delegates also had the opportunity to meet with Korean literary critics, writers and booksellers from the broader literary community.

Stephen Tobler, founder of the publisher And Other Stories, which specialises in translated literature, wrote a blog post about his trip in the Bookseller. Depressingly, he points out that “our British obsession with North Korea was never far away. It was the books set in North Korea that we tried to keep away from the other editors’ ears, and could imagine selling well back home.”

More specifically on South Korean publishing, he comments “Ask the local publishers for tips for the next big thing in crime, and it quickly becomes clear that clearly defined genre literature does not really exist. I was starting to feel a little sorry for my fellow visitors looking for their next breakthrough crime novel.

For a literary publishing house, however, South Korean writing is paradise. There is such rich, varied writing. Why? Firstly, authors are not used to editors’ heavy intervention. Their waywardness, or genius in the best cases, is unlikely to be ironed out.”

Meanwhile, Laura Deacon of Blue Door at Harper Collins, who was on the same trip, wrote in Publishing Perspectives:

“The fiction sales market in Korea is declining year on year. Readers remain fiercely loyal to their favourite authors. The debut fiction market faces similar challenges to those experienced in the UK. It is a challenge which publishers such as Monhakdongne (translated as “literary community”) are actively trying to counter by publishing anthologies of new writers and sponsoring a prize for new talent.”

Now, part of the deal for going on this jolly was to write a blog post afterwards. So what happened to the articles from the other four editors?

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