Our second in a series on the Korean publishing industry. Brought to you in partnership with Pressian.
Type “writing classes” in search bars on Korean web portals and you’re in for a surprise. You’ll see scores of classes touting the names of people who have authored books, from well-known writers to experts across various fields. There are a number of government offices offering classes too.
These classes focus on different types of writing, from autobiographies to book reviews, to even social media posts. You’ll come across more promotional slogans for these writing classes than you’d expect, with clear practical aims like “Up your game with writing” or “Prepare for the second chapter in your life through writing”.
Classes are only one part of the how-to-write frenzy. A huge amount of books on the subject have been published too. They range from general writing to technique-oriented books, such as Writing for Presidents (Medici Media), written by Kang Won-guk, former Blue House speech writer, Rhyu Si-min’s Special Writing Class (by Rhyu Si-min, published by Saenggak-eui gil), Finding Myself through Writing (compiled by Sungnyemun Hakdang, published by Book By Book), The Secret to Writing is in Tailing (written by Park Chan-young, published by Liber), and Frontlines of Writing (written by Eun Yoo, published by Memento). It seems that this interest in writing has become a ‘boom’.
The existence of a writing boom proves that there are many people who wish to be authors. And we have seen ordinary people around us becoming the authors of bestselling books. How to Quit Your Job (written by Park Jae-hyeon, published by The Seed Company), Nightly Engineering Comics (written by Maeng Ki-wan, published by Puri-wa Ipari), Memories of Quitting (written by Jang Su-han, published by Lets Book), and Company Lingo Translator (written by Peter, published by Next Wave) are books written by novice authors that the media and the public have noticed.
Naturally, this leads to the question: Why are there so many people trying to publish books? I thought only the few outstanding writers, researchers, and leaders in their respective fields wrote books, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
So the ‘World of Books Beyond Cover’ series decided to explore the reasons behind the writing class fever and try to understand what the implications of such phenomena are. This is a summary of the dialogue between Jang Eun-su, the CEO of the Edit Culture Laboratory, and Lee Hong, Executive Editing Director at Hanbit Biz, held at the Printing Culture Research Center on November 21, 2017.
In the age of social media, everyone is already an author
Jang Eun-su : Strictly speaking, I think this is not a writing craze but an ‘author craze’. There are a lot of people who want to be authors, and because of that there is a writing craze.
Perhaps it’s obvious in some ways. People like to write more than they like to read. They like to sing more than they like to listen to songs. You don’t think so? But it’s true. Aren’t you happy to see someone ‘liking’ your Facebook post? When someone posts a comment on something you wrote on an internet forum, don’t you want to go and check the comment right away?
So it’s time for us to look at what’s behind the current craze to be author. In the past, it was difficult to get your writing out there. It was hard to find people to read it. But not anymore. It’s very easy to find readers. When you write something on your blog or Facebook, someone comes to read it. Books made of paper are only the results of the act of writing. Because of the internet, people can now express themselves ad infinitum. The foundations have been laid and people have begun to express their desire to produce better writings.
Recently I had a chat with a developer of a web novel service and realized that I wasn’t reading the flow of the times right. People with publishing background like me tend to think that writing can only be produced when people are paid to write. But that developer believes that if given a proper platform, writers will flock to it. In fact, that’s how web novels were born.
These days, an author is not a term for someone who writes for money. Anyone can be an author. It’s just that among them those who have their own readers, those who have good contents can publish print books too. I guess we could say that a league of writers has been formed. Now, anyone can get to the top (print books).
In particular, the middle-aged and older people who are either looking to retire or have already retired can start the second chapter in their lives as authors. Their lives with their first careers have ended, but there are new opportunities to restore their experiences and life—becoming an author is the most elegant and sure path to glide through your life as a retiree.
Lee Hong : I agree with Mr. Jang. To add a little explanation, people were content with remaining as readers until now. The only times people wrote something voluntarily was for homework or when keeping a journal. Other than those who wished to become professional writers, writing was a largely irrelevant act to most people.
You can see this in publishing trends. About a decade ago, most writing related books were about writing project plans. There was only the need to write for a practical purpose. But the internet changed this flow and shook people’s desires. The information and knowledge provided by the internet is based on text. And the general public are in charge of producing text. The public has begun to enjoy the pleasure of communicating through writing in this new open space. In this way, writing has become a universal method of communication in the modern age. Many people write something on their social media accounts every day, right?
People who have understood this desire have succeeded in commercializing writing classes and writing books. I believe that was the starting point for this writing craze. It’s kind of like private education for writing. Now, most organizations with some kind of self-development program offer writing related programs.
Jang Eun-su : That’s right. All across the world, we’re seeing more books on writing, editing, typesetting, as well as practical bookmaking.
‘I’ have to be alive, even in “editing-based” writing
Lee Hong : Structurally, anyone can write, and anyone can make their book. In this regard, there is one important technology that enables the public to write as much as the internet does. The word processor.
For the general public, the main form of writing is gathering together a vast amount of information and summarizing it in a certain way. A major example is the Broad yet Shallow Knowledge for Intellectual Conversations series (published by Hanbit Biz) that made Chae Sajang into a celebrity in the publishing world.
An important task in writing in areas other than in literary genres is how to make the vast information yours and use it your my own unique way. Back when writing used to be done on paper with pencil, it was impossible for the public to attempt such writing. That’s because it’s extremely difficult to organize and summarize knowledge that has not been fully confirmed and completely internalized.
But word processors make this an easy task with copy and paste. And when you add proactive editing, it becomes possible to flesh out the details in your own way and make all the knowledge of the world into your own.
It is symbolic that literary books have not increased in number despite the rise in the number of writing classes and the new author phenomenon. Mostly, the public has been writing popular non-fiction books and self-help books. This, of course, is because the word processor has become the basic platform for writing.
Jang Eun-su : This kind of writing can be called editing-based writing.
Until now, our idea of writing was what Eun Yoo teaches in SuyuneomeoR and Learning Community Gajangjari. A kind of narrative writing, where you write about your own life with your unique perspective and your own thoughts. On the other hand, the mainstream writing of the public these days is more editing-based. Many tend to bring information from the existing knowledge cloud and edit it to their taste.
Of course, it isn’t that editing-based writing is something that just anyone can do. The starting point for editing-based writing is in finding the point of contact between the knowledge cloud and the author’s life. For this, the author needs to have a career. In recent years, the majority of previously unknown authors were people with professional experience, as either employees or self-employed, or with expert knowledge in their hobbies.
Lee Hong : There is a role that editing-based writing plays. It helps encourage the publication of books that speak to the general public at their level and in their words.
However, among the people who wish to jump on this bandwagon and become authors, many lack originality. Even if you filled 70 percent of your book with edited knowledge, the remaining 30 percent needs to have something uniquely your own. If the books lack that 30 percent, even if the other 70 percent of edited materials is great, they’re nothing but repetitions of the same available information. Most of the books that are submitted to publishers only to be returned to the submitters tend to focus on editing and not necessarily on writing. They lack the 30 percent of ‘own identity’.
Jang Eun-su : I believe that Mr. Lee must know all about this from experience. I heard that a huge number of people send manuscripts to Hanbit Biz in particular.
Lee Hong : It’s rare, but there are days when we get more than 20 submissions. The interesting thing is that we get a lot of submissions on Mondays. From early Sunday morning to Monday morning is the peak time for manuscript submissions. I assume it’s because people who have nine-to-five jobs tend to send their manuscripts over the weekend.
Also, there is a wide range of occupations for those who submit their manuscripts. Recently, we have been receiving submissions from many housewives and teachers. As for genres, many focus on children’s education and self-help books. Publishers expect manuscripts that explain the knowledge and information the authors have gained from their areas of expertise, in their voices, and with personality. We receive a few of those, but in general the submissions aren’t very high quality.
Jang Eun-su : That’s right. Reader-friendly books are possible. In the cases of unknown authors writing bestsellers, those writers tend to be great at editing-based writing.
This is the age of public authors
Jang Eun-su : Of course.
Now, more knowledge is produced outside of school than within school. Unlike in the past, companies, research centers, self-employed jobs, and huge corporations also actively produce new knowledge. This was possible because the rate of higher education is high. Korea’s higher education rate is one of the highest even among OECD countries.
Having received higher education means that theoretically you can study on your own. You can also produce your own knowledge. If such people build up experience in their areas of expertise, they can then objectify their experiences in their own language and share them. This means anyone has the potential to become authors. This potential exploded when it met with the development of the internet.
We should focus on the fact that a considerable number of people who wish to be authors are people in their 40s and 50s, who are considered the baby boom generation. They were the first generation for whom higher education became generalized. Since the basis of their knowledge was books, it seems natural that they have the desire to share their knowledge at the point of their retirement or at the peak of their careers.
Lee Hong : From my experience, it feels like most submissions are made by those in their 50s.
I think we can examine the recent writing craze by looking at the trend of self-help books. Up until the Asian financial crisis in 1997, mainstream self-help books taught people about how to survive within organizations. But after the financial crisis, lifetime workplaces disappeared, and the age of personal brands emerged in the self-help book market. You could increase your self worth by branding yourself.
After the 2008 global financial crisis incited by the Lehman Brothers collapse, the trend in the self-help book market was about teaching how to keep hold of your self-esteem. More than simply surviving, you have to be a unique person with a sense of self-worth.
In order for you to keep your pride, you have to be able to confirm your worth. To do that, you have to be able to express yourself. You have to sing well, dance well, speak well, or make great food. Writing well is one way to express yourself.
So considering this broad flow the times, the writing craze we have now is a reflection of people’s desire to express themselves through writing. And this is closely related to the improved level of education and income. People who are really poor and in difficulty don’t even have the time to write.
In this perspective, the writing market has not in full bloom yet. It would be right to say that it just opened up.
Jang Eun-su : I agree. It is evident that this is the age of the Big Bang of contents. Since it became possible for anyone to express themselves, the democratic identity of Korean citizens became bigger as well. I believe that a society where anyone can become an author is a better society.
I encourage everyone to write. When you write, you can create your own knowledge.
The characteristic of the modern society with highly developed capitalism is that humans can easily become beings who only use the services created by other people. In the past, there were quite a number of people who were able to fix broken radios. And people who fixed their own cars. But modern society turns us into passive consumers.
Similar things happen in relation to books. The ability to document our lives, solve problems through this and learn from it is important to all. Simply reading isn’t considered great. Accepting other people’s wisdom is important, but creating your own knowledge and sharing it with those around you is also important. By writing books, we can change from a simple knowledge consumer to an active producer.
Lee Hong : Those who are interested in Japan and its publishing market probably know… In Japanese bookstores, there are a lot of books that make you think, “They publish this?” It was published years ago, but there was one book written by a woman manager of a famous restaurant in Ginza about the customers she met over 20 to 30 years. It was a book that could not have been written by anyone other than an experienced woman manager. This is the power of diversified writing. There has to be a lot of professional and academic books as well as books written by ordinary people.
In short, the path to becoming an author is wide for the Japanese general public. This is because publishers don’t rely solely on the publishers’ editing ideas. They have a well-developed culture of people in different sectors writing books with their own ideas. And such culture is based on a solid foundation of reading habits. People who don’t read can’t write good books.
Jang Eun-su : That’s right. These examples show that what we need in Korea right now are editors focusing on developing publishable content. We need editors, or agent-like editors, who scout writers. An important role that editors need to play is to develop and publish the content of unknown authors who might not have the highest quality manuscripts but do have their own, unique stories.
Lee Hong : Personally, over the past six months, I gathered together information of about 200 writers who had sent in manuscripts. Some people might think this is pointless, but I believe that I might be able to find some meaningful possibilities among them. I also tell the people of our company to look not only at the quality of the submissions but at the personal information of the submitters. Because there are great potential writers among them. People who have great stories but are unable to write about them or express their ideas properly. Just as Mr. Jang said, if there are experts who can link such potential writers and publishers and organize manuscripts, then I believe the public author market will grow much larger.
I feel bad because I seem to be walking back on what I’d said before, but from the perspective of a publisher, there are still many cases in Korea where people who should write have not yet made their debut as writers. It is important to have books written by the general public, but there are many people who could but have not yet written books on their expertise. So objectively speaking, Korean publishers still thirst for professional writers.
What kind of submissions do publishers like?
Jang Eun-su : There are largely three categories. First, you have to send your manuscript to the right publisher. If you send a manuscript of a self-help book to a literature publisher, obviously the editors won’t choose to publish it. Surprisingly, a lot of submitters ignore this point.
Second, even if the content is great, there are manuscripts that editors can’t work on. If the sentences are terrible or if the content is too disorganized, publishers can’t focus on fixing the manuscript much.
Third, there are manuscripts that are generally well written but are not original. Those have a difficult time being published. Simply speaking, these are manuscripts that don’t have the 30 percent emphasized earlier. A professional editor can tell what was copied and pasted from what immediately.
Lee Hong : I’d like to add one more to Mr. Jang’s list. The manuscripts that imitate bestselling books. There are numerous manuscripts that copy existing bestsellers. The ones that imitate all the success factors of a bestselling book have no charm.
-So we learned that with the writing boom, there is a wannabe author craze. But also that many submitters lack their own content and that such manuscripts can’t really survive. I wonder if there are also side effects to the writing craze.
Lee Hong : One of the problems with the writing craze is that it misleads people regarding the essence of writing. It makes me wonder if it’s not forcing a certain style of writing, writing that works, writing with a certain formula. That kind of writing is not natural or serious writing.
Unsatisfactory sentences are not a problem. That’s why we have editors at publishers. But from my experience, it feels like there are a lot of manuscripts that lack content but follow a certain form and pattern, to the point I wonder if many people are teaching others, “You can write a bestseller if your table of contents is this way.”
Fundamentally, it’s good that the general public is becoming more interested in writing. How wonderful is it for everyone to have their own book?
But many people teach that there is a formula to commercial publishing, and that if you cram your writing into this formula you can write a book. That shouldn’t be understood as a good writing.
Jang Eun-su : I think people who are easily tempted by this kind of writing are people who know the additional things they want after becoming authors. People who crave good reputations or people who want to give lectures, and those types of things.
The purpose of writing is not to be an author by to find myself.
Jang Eun-su : There is nothing better than writing to organize your life.
To write is to find the most brilliant time in your life and organize it. With that, writers can reconfirm the value of their lives.
If you want to write something that’s your own, you have to be able to properly categorize and arrange your life, your knowledge, and what you know. That’s not something you can learn from someone else. The techniques of arranging that information can be learned from others, but the sincerity in arranging that information must come from your own life. Writing that reads well but are isn’t sincere, that is the kind of writing that will betray you.
Recently, I went to a lecture by Ms. Eun Yoo, and I remember this funny question and answer. One of the students asked, “If you write about your life every day for about ten years, can you publish a good book?” She said “No, but your life will change.”
It is difficult to publish a book. But there is a reason people should write—it’s because your life becomes more valuable through writing. Books are only the results or the byproducts of that. If someone continues to write with this in mind, they’ll be able to publish a book under their name.
Jang Eun-su : That’s right.
There are about five different effects of writing. First, you can preserve your life. Your life remains as a record. Second, it has a healing effect. Even if you’ve experienced something terrible in the past, you can heal yourself by writing. Third, it provides an opportunity to reflect on your life. Everyone has experiences that they don’t necessarily know the meaning of at the time; but they can later think back on what those experiences meant. Writing is fundamentally an act of reflecting on your life.
Fourth, you can completely focus on the present through writing. At least you can realize that you are a cherished human being. And lastly, there is the effect of creating something. Other people do not give meaning to your life. You have to make that yourself. When you organize your life through writing and compare your experiences with other people’s you can create something that is uniquely your own.
Lee Hong : Your life has to be reflected in your writing. If this process is missing in your writing, you’re bound to exaggerate yourself and go too far. This is wholly reflected in your writing. And this kind of writing cannot move readers.
Writing is not simply technique. It’s not advisable for someone who’s trying to write for the first time to focus completely on techniques and try to get the status of an author.
Writing is a marathon
Jang Eun-su : I’ll tell you a few important things. First, writing a book is not a 100 meter sprint but more a like a marathon. It is best to write a certain amount every day, consistently, in the same place.
Second, you have to write about something you know well. The value of books is determined in the detail, not in the idea or the plot. So if you don’t know the details of what you’re writing about, you can’t write well. Third, a good book has a point of contact between what the writer wants to say and what the readers want to resolve. A good book makes readers eager. For this, the author shouldn’t be talking to the readers but letting the readers speak and provide answers.
Fourth, books have to fall in step with their readers. They shouldn’t bore people, but move slowly enough. This is the secret to narrative. A good author has a sense of speed in their pacing. Fifth, you have to use everything you can and you have to be able to discard everything. While you’re writing, you inevitably come to a point where there is a conflict between what you are attached to and the narrative. You can write a book if you learn to let go of what you love. If not, you simply have to write a different book.
Lastly, tons of writing classes are spreading a false awareness of popularity, and I’d like to straighten it out. To write for the people means “to bring ordinary things into the realm of extraordinary” (Lee Seong-bok). Like taking something that everyone thinks is their story and making it look really special.
Lee Hong : Don’t try to write a completed work from the very beginning. Instead, write a paragraph or two every day. Have other people read your writing and get feedback. Use Facebook or blogs, where you can share your writing easily. If you’re aiming to be published, you must receive feedback from multiple people.
And an additional suggestion from a publisher would be, instead of sending the whole manuscript, it’s best to explain your intentions and publishing plans and send only a part of your writing. Then the publisher can guide you as to the direction of editing.