Can South Korea Jump-start Its E-Book Industry?


The news that Amazon signed up for a big office in the Gangnam district, one of the most affluent places in Seoul, has made South Korean publishing companies nervous. It seems that  the biggest e-book providers in the world might be trying to lay the ground work for entering Korea’s rapidly growing e-book market.

In a country where people are enjoying the fastest Internet in the world, more and more people are turning to e-books. According to data from the Korea Information Society Development Institute, the scale of the e-book market in South Korea has steadily grown over the past few years: from $233 million in 2010 to $321 million in 2011, $414 million in 2012 and $488 million in 2013.

Increased demand has resulted in a fierce competition among South Korean publishing companies that are eager to attract more customers. Competition forced publishers to come up with a range of new services, including metal tags attached to hard copy of books that allow customers to download e-books by scanning the tag with their smart phone. People can exchange e-books as a gift via emails or text messages and even are able to publish their own e-books without contacting publishing companies.

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The e-book market in South Korea, however, is still relatively small compared to leading economies. The Korean e-book market accounts for only two percent of the total publication market while in the U.K. and the U.S. e-books take up about 15 and 20 percent of their respective markets, according to the Korea Press Foundation.

Many blame a lack of content and proper e-readers as major reasons deterring the growth of the e-book market. In a recent survey by IWELL Contents, a Seoul-based publishing company, 36 percent of respondents said they didn’t read e-books due to the lack of quality content while 19 percent answered there are not many proper e-readers supporting Korean e-books. Another survey by InterPark also revealed that 36.9 percent of respondents thought South Korea should be equipped with more quality e-book content to vitalize the market.

“When you look at popular e-book content in Korea, they are mostly something easily readable with many images included,” said Han Ki-ho, head of Korean Publishing Marketing Research Institute, in an interview with Money Today newspaper. In fact, romance novels, martial art novels, and comics currently dominate the Korean e-book market, accounting for about 45 percent of major e-book platforms such as

Some say decreasing reading rates in Korea should be blamed for e-book’s small market scale. According to a report from South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, South Koreans read 12.1 books a year on average in 2009, but the figure plummeted to 9.2 in 2013. The report pointed out the future of the e-book market cannot be guaranteed without boosting the reading rate.

“E-books are a blue ocean for the publishing industry for sure,” said Yoon Gwan-seok, a South Korean lawmaker, in a recent parliamentary inspection. Yoon explained that there should be policy support from the government in order to grow the e-book market in South Korea.

“Taking the U.K. or the U.S. as a good example, a new strategy to combine the e-book market and other media industries could be a good way of boosting e-book markets,” Yoon added.

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