Our fourth in a series on the Korean publishing industry. Brought to you in partnership with Pressian.
2018 is a National Book Year in Korea. The last such year was 1993, exactly 25 years ago. The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism promotes their official projects by designating every year as the national year for something. With most such events initiated by the government, the 2018 National Book Year is different in that the private sector is leading the events.
Starting with the steering committee, Do Jonghwan, the Minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, and Yun Cheol-ho, the head of the Korean Publishers Association took charge as co-chairs of the committee, which placed more weight on the private sector compared to previous years. And the list of the members of the executive committee, which decides on various policies to be implemented, shows even more clearly that the National Book Year events are led by the private sector. The chair of the executive committee is Jeong Eun-suk, the Deputy Director of the Korea Publisher
s Society (CEO of Maumsanchaek), and the members include: Liu Seong-gwon, CEO of E*Public; Lee Yong-hun, Secretary-General of the Korea Library Association; Kang Seong-min, CEO of Geulhangari; Kim Hong-min, CEO of Booksfear; Kwak Mi-sun, CEO of Hanulim Kids; Baek Won-Keun, President of Books & Society Research Institute; Ko Heung-sik, Secretary-Secretary-General of the Korea Publisher Society; Kim Si-jung, Secretary-General of the Korean Publishers Association; Lee Gyeong-jik, the head of the Publication, Printing and Reading Promotion Division at the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism; and Bae Jin-seok, the head of Strategy and Planning at the Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea. Many of them are from private organizations.
They will be hosting various events, such as Book Camping, Visiting Bookstore, Book Club League, and National Night Bookstore Day. There are a number of social media campaigns as well, including With Book (#What_book_are_you_reading?) and Reading for 10 Minutes a Day.
But not a lot of Korean readers are interested to learn about the National Book Year and the where, when, and how of its events. This series—“World of Books Beyond The Cover”—has pointed out that there’s our society as a whole lacks interest in books.
In this conversation we examine the significance of the return of the National Book Year after 25 years, and what we can gain from this program in an era when people are growing more distant from books. This dialogue between Jang Eun-su, the CEO of the Edit Culture Laboratory, and Lee Hong, Executive Editing Director at Hanbit Biz, was held at the Printing Culture Research Center on April 17, 2018.
Establish a book culture department in celebration of the National Book Year
Jang Eun-su : This is the first National Book Year in 25 years, since 1993. (2012 was the National Reading Year—Editor’s note). This means that in the past 25 years, books have not been a nationwide agenda. People in Korea today often talk about the importance of “content”, but mainly in terms of films, games, and other sectors that could be easily digitalized. And the government was also focused on industrializing these sectors. That’s how the government budget was allocated. The government agency that reflects this interest is the Korea Creative Content Agency. With the establishment of an organization that systematically executes national investment in the long term, related Korean cultural industries were able to become somewhat competitive in the international world.
Therefore it is rather symbolic that the Moon Jae-in administration designated this year as the National Book Year. A country that has lacked interest in books finally answered the demands of the book industry for the first time in 25 years. I hope that it provides an opportunity for national cultural policies to form around the ecosystem of books.
Lee Hong : As someone who works in the publishing industry, I welcome it. But from the readers’ perspective, I’m a bit skeptical about what it means for this year to be the National Book Year. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but even a lot of people in the publishing industry are unaware of the fact that this year is the National Book Year.
Sometimes I think that every year is the National Book Year, because the Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea hosts events and does something every year. But they don’t attract a lot of interest—no major impressions or shock. If these book campaigns are to succeed, they need to attract the attention of readers, but related events until now were causes of excitement only among the organizers.
I’m saying that national events to encourage the book culture were not helpful, and as a result the publishing industry doesn’t have a lot of expectations. I’ll probably mention this again, but there are a lot of good programs that should be continued rather than just end as a one-time thing. But I think there are limitations. I think we’re mired too deep to reverse the trend of a shrinking book culture with a public campaign.
Jang Eun-su : Since the National Book Year in 1993, the book culture has been shrinking over 25 years. And with the onset of the mobile era, the shrinking book culture became a worldwide phenomenon.
But the government has made no investment to help overcome this situation. The state has funded other industries for the reasons of promotion but has neglected books, which form the root of these industries. The Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea was established, but the agency has had run ins with the publishing industry. In addition, the agency has a very limited budget, and it tends to operate based on distributive policies, so we haven’t felt the wave of promotion as of yet.
I hope that the National Book Year will revitalize related investments and that people will come to understand the importance of books at the national level.
Jang Eun-su : The major links within the book ecosystem are publishing, reading, and libraries, but there is no single public organization in charge of all three of these links. Currently, the Library Policy Project Association is in charge of libraries, while the Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea is in charge of publishing. Reading remains an area where people are uncertain as to whether we need an organization in charge. The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism also doesn’t have a division for handling the overall book culture and exchange of opinions.
The fact that there is no macroscopic frame that binds the book culture together for discussion is a problem. The ecosystem of books is so closely knit that when something happens on the one end, it creates a ripple effect that affects the other end. Since this structure has continued to exist for a long time, even people within the system are unable to understand the problems specific to areas outside of their own. It is difficult for officials connected to book culture to hold an in-depth conversations. I hope that a government agency that handles the book culture on a macroscopic level can be created in the future.
Jang Eun-su : Of course. France, for example, has Direction du Livre et de la Lecture (DLL), which is in charge of bookstores, libraries, publishing, and reading culture. Adding to what I said earlier, not only those in the book industry but also readers need to actively participate in related discussions. People who read books are the real agents of the book culture. There are all kinds of forums happening as part of the National Book Year events in Korea, and I hope that it will provide a platform for readers to participate in the discussion as well.
The National Book Year of “Reading Together”
Jang Eun-su : These projects have mainly been led by the government until now, but this year the plan was for the public sector to develop related programs to make them more approachable for the readers and the government to efficiently provide support. Now everything is up to how much these programs can appeal to the readers.
Lee Hong : I agree within the big frame. But in order to attract the readers, you have to give them a sense that they are really participating in the program. And I’m not sure if that’s going to work well. The executive committee for the National Book Year has been formed mainly with members from the private sector, but they’re all people from the publishing or library industries. We will have to wait and see whether they’ll be able to move the readers.
Jang Eun-su : The executive committee’s current plan is to continue the promotion of the National Book Year nationwide, starting with the celebration event on the Book and Copyright Day on April 23. They are currently creating a special TV broadcast and a series of articles on the events in collaboration with newspapers.
Strictly speaking, this year is not simply a National Book Year but a National Book Year of Reading Together. The readers’ participation that Director Lee pointed out is included in this name.
One of the issues that library officials are concerned about in terms of the book culture is that only those who read books read. People who stop reading don’t naturally start to read again. And people who are not interested in books don’t become readers. Not even when you show them the most appealing book. It’s because there are a lot of other things to spend time on.
Unless we start reading together, there is no way for us to pull them into the world of books. This is the reason that there are way more reader participatory events in the program for the 2018 National Book Year. Of course, as Director Lee said we will have to wait and see how effective they are.
What will be the legacy of the National Book Year?
Jang Eun-su : I’d like to point out that in line with the purpose of the National Book Year, there are reading campaigns and social media events. Those who like books can participate without a huge commitment. For instance, you can get a prize for recording and posting a related video for the BookTuber program.
If you’re interested in book clubs, then you can participate in the Book Club League. Related information can be found on the website for the National Book Year and at your local libraries.
It’s also worth mentioning that books are the catalyst to revitalizing local communities. There is a program that supports urban regeneration focusing on books for communities at the village, township, and neighborhood levels (with less than 10,000 residents) that apply to be book towns.
There are many such cases in other countries. Wigtown in Scotland is one such town. It’s an isolated town in the countryside, far from train stations even, but the Scottish government designated this town as a Book Town to revitalize the local economy. The whole town is made up of bookstores and cafes with books. The Wigtown Book Festival is held here every year, and the town becomes crowded with visitors. Recently, local governments in Korea have been considering revitalizing local communities. So communities with book lovers should consider applying for this program.
Lee Hong : Events that encourage people to read together also catch my eyes. We tend to think of reading as an individual activity, but I can see how these events aim to bring together people to read. The With Book and the Reading for 10 Minutes a Day campaigns are programs that are going in the right direction.
Jang Eun-su : Personally, I think the non-reader research is particularly important among the National Book Year events. A study will be conducted from May to July and the results will announced at the September “People who read and people who don’t read” forum. This research on non-readers is a rare study not only for Korea but for anywhere in the world.
You’ve asked earlier about the significance of the National Book Year. The legacy of the 1993 National Book Year is the National Reading Survey. The government was able to study the readers and books and come up with related policies. The National Reading Promotion Act was enacted as a result of the survey. I think this year’s non-reader research will provide an opportunity for us to think about the future of book culture in the long term.
Compulsory establishment of small libraries
Lee Hong : One thing I’d like to tell the members of the executive committee is to refrain from trying to enlighten the people of the importance of reading. Voluntary reading is important, and guidance would only only backfire.
This is an era with no smell of books. The number of local bookstores is decreasing while online bookstores are growing. The biggest problem of our book culture is that books aren’t in our daily lives. There are no bookstores and there are no books.
Natural exposure to a lot of books is necessary. Repeated exposure is powerful. The most important factor that the executive committee has to consider in this National Book Year is to expose more books to the readers more frequently. Ironically, places that most naturally expose books to the people are not bookstores but book cafes. Do we go to book cafes for drinks or for books? I’ve said this often, but we need to think outside the box and turn spaces in public organizations or other profit-related businesses into spaces where people can find books.
A while ago, there was a discussion about making it mandatory for new apartment complexes to have small libraries. Usually, constructors provide senior centers within apartment complexes for the residents, so the proposal was to build libraries in a similar manner.
In Germany, for example, you can easily see spaces in department stores and public buildings where books are displayed and used as places for book signings or places for authors and readers to talk about books. During the Frankfurt Book Fair, you can see posters and flags with images of people reading all throughout the city. It’s an attempt to expose people to more books. With the growth of online bookstores, books have disappeared in our daily lives. Bringing books back into our daily lives is the most important.
Jang Eun-su : That’s a great idea. Another thing that I’d like to mention is that high rise buildings are required to have installation artworks. (According to the Culture and Arts Promotion Act, buildings with a total floor area of 10,000 square meters must install artworks that cost less than the 1/100 of the cost of construction—Editor’s note). This idea could be extended to creating a regulation for making small libraries mandatory. To do this, it is important for the people in the book related industries to band together.
For the book culture to blossom, supported by the National Book Year, we need to create momentum that would last for a long time this year. The central government must create a department in charge of book policies and local governments must come up with models, such as a reading city council, and local communities must have a motive to voluntarily continue promoting the book culture.
Lee Hong : Along the same lines, I wish that there was a street like Tokyo’s Jimbocho, which is known as the world’s best used bookstore street. It is an example that proved that an old street full of the scent of old books can be a cultural product. Our reality is the opposite. Used bookstores in Korea are disappearing one after another.
Publishers need to reflect on themselves as well. Try going to the Paju Book City. It’s called a book city, but you don’t see any books. There’s only the ridiculous display at the building that some famous architect designed. Publishers just don’t know what’s important. Instead of using the government budget to host events and ceremonies, publishers need to independently think of ways to expose books in our daily lives.
Jang Eun-su : That’s right. People in the publishing industry need to think and reflect on themselves for the development of the book culture. They shouldn’t only be interested in making books. If they shift the responsibility for encouraging the reading culture to the government, then the establishment of a reading culture will be a long time coming.
Jang Eun-su : I feel sad about that. Reading programs have disappeared from TV. Even the national broadcasting system, KBS, doesn’t have a program on books. KBS created regular book programs for many year after the 1993 National Book Year, but now we don’t have books on TV shows anymore. It’s pretty deplorable.
This is a reason that some people are requesting the revision of the Broadcasting Act. Article 71 of the Broadcasting Act on programming stipulates that a broadcasting business must program a certain percentage of domestically produced films, animations, and popular music. I think we should revise this article and include books as well. People might say that it’s not right, but when you think about it, it’s strange that the government supports films, animations, and popular music but not books.
It’s time for us to change our values
Lee Hong : For people to enjoy the experience of books in daily lives, the value of our social lives need to change.
Think about the reality. For instance, the college entrance exam. Every time the government administration changes, the entrance exam system changes, which is troublesome for the parents. But no matter how many times they change the exam system, the fundamental problems remain unresolved. It’s because there is already a firm social structure that dictates “going to a good university leads to a good job and a good life” in place no matter what kind of college entrance exam system you create. In order to resolve the problems related to the college entrance exam, we need to change the social structure and resolve the issue of wealth inequality.
It’s the same for the book culture. We need to resolve the issue of spaces and life where people are unable to see or read books. Officials in the publishing industry meeting and holding conferences and putting on campaigns with likeminded people are not going to change the lack of a reading culture in Korea. We need to examine whether non-readers are exposed to books in our society.
I’m not saying that the programs created by the executive committee of the National Book Year are bad. The programs are great and I agree with the committee on the purpose of the programs as well. I think I would’ve come up with the same programs had I been a member of the executive committee.
But there is definitely a structural issue as well that the executive committee cannot touch. We talked about the significance of the National Book Year earlier, and I think, even though there may be limitations in the events of the National Book Year, we need to realize that our society needs to get out of this materialistic life.
I hope that we will have an opportunity to think about the essence of books in the publishing industry. Frankly speaking, there are a lot of books that were planned and created without thinking about them more. The world is changing, and the means to acquire the knowledge and information that people need are changing rapidly. Despite that, as someone who works in the publishing industry, the thoughts of the people who are thinking about books have not changed much compared to 25 years ago. It’s something that I need to reflect on myself as well.
There is a bright side and a dark side. The Korean film community has changed in terms of quality in the past years. The distribution system was changed, and large scale investments were made, allowing creators to produce great results. It’s time that people in the publishing industry seriously consider what kind of challenges we need to overcome.
Jang Eun-su : The backbone of the publishing industry is disappearing. It’s been a while since I left a publisher, but I still get a call at least once a week, looking for an editor with five to seven years of experience. Inadequate investment has been made in the manpower, so now the publishing industry lacks the people who understand the book culture and have the ability to connect readers and authors.
It’s proof that the publishing industry has not been able to satisfy skilled human resources and therefore people who used to be passionate in publishing are leaving the industry. As we celebrate the National Book Year, the publishing industry needs to create a driving engine to rekindle the passion. We need a full-fledge reexamination of the publishing culture.
In terms of our society as a whole, I hope that we can find a reason to continue the cultural campaign that began as part of the National Book Year in the long term. It’d be amazing if 100,000 reading communities are created. It numerous cultural communities where people come together and read are created, and if government policies can help them, then the quality of our culture will be greatly improved. A continuous education culture can be established.
One role model is Sweden’s ABF (Arbetarnas Bildningsförbund). When the people voluntarily develop a passion for education, the government faithfully supports them. A considerable number of Swedish citizens belong to two or three clubs supported by the ABF. This would be difficult at the onset, but I hope that we can establish a system where voluntary reading and education communities are created to meet once a month or so and receive active support from the government.