“Read ‘Em and Weep”

November 8, 2013

Korea’s book sales drop to lowest point in more than a decade

94% of publishers in Korea failed to release a single new book in 2012

Shoppers enter Aladin’s used books shop in Jongno, central Seoul.  / Korea Times photo by Choi Heung-soo

Shoppers enter Aladin’s used books shop in Jongno, central Seoul.
(Korea Times photo by Choi Heung-soo)

By Kim Tong-hyung

“Koreans don’t read books. Koreans don’t read newspapers. Koreans go to the movies.”  This is how members of the dead-tree industry would summarize the last couple of years as they struggle to cope with disappearing reading habits, manifested more clearly in the sluggish economy.

Newspapers, at least, have advertisers and a protective government to lean on. Publishers, who have been struggling to sell any books that aren’t opportunistic self-help gibberish, appear to be facing a full-blown existential crisis.

According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, about 94 percent of the country’s 42,157 publishers failed to release a single new book in 2012, when the nation’s book consumption dropped to its lowest point in more than a decade. The ministry couldn’t provide data for 2013, but there is little reason to think the market would be better.

Still, there are companies who weather the downturn better than others. Aladdin, a book retailer with a large online presence, has actually been enjoying a booming business with its chain of used-book shops, which have been magnets for bargain-hunting readers. The company takes full advantage of its large sales network to provide a larger number of books than independent, second-hand stores. And the impeccable interior of its shops, equipped with large couches and book-searching computers, tailor to the generation of customers who grew accustomed to reading at Starbucks. Opening the first outlet in 2011, Aladdin now operates 16 used-books shops, including one in Los Angeles, which opened in July.

However, Aladdin’s success has now become a target of criticism. Some industry sources say that Aladdin’s stores are encouraging a destructive price competition among publishers as they attempt to move larger volumes of their new books. Some of these companies stockpile large quantities of their new releases at Aladdin stores, where they are sold at a 50 percent discount, in an effort to inflate sales figures, they say.

Dong-Asia Publishing said earlier this week that it will no longer market its books through Aladdin’s network. While this is a risky business move considering Aladdin’s significant retail presence, the company’s president Han Sung-bong believes it was the right decision, considering how Aladdin’s used-book shops can affect smaller publishers.

“Aladdin’s used-book stores are masquerading as second-hand book shops, but they are essentially discount shops aimed at moving new books. These shops have been encouraging twisted, unconventional discount activities that are hurting the health of the entire market,” Han argued.

It’s indeed is easy to find large numbers of new books at any of Aladdin’s used-book shops, many of them still in their vinyl covering.

Kim Seong-dong, a marketing official from Aladdin, downplays the worries, saying that new books, less than six months from their point of release, accounted for just 2 percent of the books sold at the company’s stores in the past six months. He also denied accusations that the company is buying volumes of new books from publishers at a lower price.  ”Our shops aren’t being used for dumping. There are publishers who are desperate to reduce their inventories and they scramble to sell those books to different bookstores in exchange for quick cash. Some of those books reach our stores, but they account for just a small number of the books sold in them,’’ Kim said.

2 Comments

  1. Keunsun Lew

    November 8, 2013 at 8:05 PM

    I am having hard time to buy Korean books in USA. I live in small town and i have to relie
    Korean book store in big cities. How am suppose to know about the book without reading of a part of books or explanations.
    I order a book and it is too expensive including shipping cost.

    There got to be better way. How about ebooks or ibooks for Korean books .
    Even Korean bibles are expansive.

    Keun lew.

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