This is the first in Korea from England, my new series on issues that come to mind during my master’s in publishing at Oxford Brookes University. Rather than compare Korea and the UK, I aim to review familiar topics in a completely new setting and to imagine new possibilities in life. — JC
The question I hear the most since starting my program is “Why are you here?” It probably isn’t the most asked question of other students—that might be “What was your major?” But conversations with me usually arrive at it eventually. I ask “What do you want to do be? An editor? Marketer?” and my fellow students either say what they want to do or that they haven’t decided yet, and return the question. I say “I’m taking a year off work, so I have to go back to that” and in the ensuing conversation they discover I’m an editor with over eight years’ experience in Korean literature. And they start to wonder why I’m here.
According to a 2015 study conducted by the Publishing Labor-Union of Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, only about 20% of people in the Korean publishing industry have seven or more years experience and only 7% are in their forties. When I landed a publishing job straight out of college, forty seemed a long way off and I wasn’t feeling the pressure of impossible sales goals. Nevertheless, I felt anxious: Is it good for me to stay at one company for so long? There aren’t that many commissioning opportunities in Korean literature—What if I can’t reach my full potential? Can I become the kind of person capable of sharing a wealth of experience with younger colleagues and opening doors for them?
My constant state of apprehension extended to the Korean publishing market, which reports low growth rates every year, with even that data difficult to verify. The feeling of despair would weigh even heavier when I heard of companies brazenly forcing the inclusive wage system on employees— with excuses like “When did we start making books for money?” and “The publishing industry is in trouble”—or when I heard keynote speakers describing the illegal practice of including mandatory severance pay as part of wages as if there was nothing wrong with it. It is true, of course, that many a company is in financial difficulty, but it’s important to remember that reducing losses in personnel costs is ultimately the basic principle of extortion.
Last year, as I was looking into overseas study programs with these mixed feelings in tow, I recall telling an editor friend I was headed to Britain and adding, “Perhaps it’s prejudiced of me to think that advanced countries know better.” But the truth is that the UK is called the “country where the sun never sets in publishing”, and its publishing industry is marching forward even in the chaos of Brexit. It’s fair to say that the reason the UK is able to export a huge number of copyrights and see a high usage of electronic services in academic journals is because it publishes in the English language. However, I think we cannot ignore the liveliness of the domestic market, the development of new types of books through technological innovation, and the fresh approaches to editing and marketing based on analyses of data. And above all, there isn’t really anywhere an editor with eight years of experience can study in Korea.
When I tell them about all this in my broken English, my kind, nerdy, book-loving friends respond with serious expressions on their faces: “That’s amazing”, “Good luck”, and “We have those problems in our country too”. And I find myself embarrassed about my dramatic presentation of the Korean situation and wonder if I should have just said I’m here so that I can make more money when I go home. But when I do go back, it will be to the same company, which is unlikely to offer me a raise, so I instead earnestly repeat the same answer each time, like a Joseon delegate in a foreign land. I still find it difficult to finish all the reading assignments, and I hesitate to put my hand up and express my opinions, but I try a little harder every day because of “my reason”.