Trends in Korean Comic Publishing
Current Conditions in Korean Comic Publishing
The comic publishing industry in Korea is currently facing various problems that arise from sluggish market conditions and those involved in the industry are working hard to develop and implement countermeasures. The three most pressing issues are the proliferation of book rental shops, the fixed price system, and the Internet. One particularly controversial subject is how to correct the market structure imbalance in which 80% of comic sales are to book rental shops. The debate among comic authors, publishers, consumers and related institutions has focused on lending rights.
According to the Korean Publishers Association, the number of comic titles and the number of copies published have been declining annually since 2000. The number of titles dropped by 5.2% in the first half of 2003 compared with the same period in the previous year while the number of copies dropped 13.3%. People in the industry take this trend seriously, believing the rate of decline in actual sales to be even greater.
Problems Confronting the Korean Comic Market
Publishing Company Problems
Whereas in Japan a single comic title may be produced and sold in three or more different forms, going from publication in a comic magazine to publication as a pocketbook and then as a more durable collectors' copy, the Korean comic market has no such mechanism. Neither have there been any successful examples of spin-offs from an original comic title such as an animated television series, etc. In comparison with Japan, therefore, comic authors in Korea have only one-third the chance to earn a profit on a single work. If nothing else, their perseverance in producing new works, despite the fact that each will only be published once for the extremely limited book rental shop market, deserves high praise. The comic publishing industry must find ways to nurture them.
Regardless of the restricted market and difficult conditions, there are still many ways in which comic publishers can improve. There appears to be a trend for Korea's major comic publishers to produce 5,000 copies in the first printing (although recently 3,000 copy first editions are increasing) without verifying a work's value, putting blind faith in their company's name power and the number of book rental shops and assuming that the market can easily absorb this amount. 80% are distributed to book rental shops and the remaining 20%, to bookstores. The majority of the latter are returned, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
Korean publishing companies, it is true, must compete by the number of titles published rather than by quality in order to survive, despite the knowledge that they will pay for this in the end. Yet, if they would just change their perspective, the solution would become obvious. The answer is to phase out their dependence on the seemingly secure book rental shop market where readers borrow comics and develop a new market in which readers buy their own comics. The shortest steps towards achieving this goal are to diversify the types of comic being offered and to launch aggressive marketing and advertising campaigns. A fixed amount of the profit earned should be reinvested each time.
The greatest oversight of Korean publishers, however, is their neglect of their readers. They need to plan marketing campaigns that will attract readers' interest.
Another issue is the quality and expertise of the editor. The three areas I believe to be essential editorial skills are:
a. Planning new works for diversified targets
b. Discovering diverse material
c. Creating an environment within which the author can work
Naturally, it is necessary for publishing companies to provide support to improve the quality of its editors, including investment, effective personnel placement and retraining.
The current conditions surrounding comic magazines, that is, the environment in which the editor works, are unpredictable and severe. Until recently, losses in magazine sales could be covered by comic book sales, but recently even these are not selling and many comic magazines have been discontinued. Countermeasures must be taken.
These are the impressions I have gained through my work in a comic publishing company. Another topic of concern is the current market environment.
Current Conditions in the Comic Market and Distribution
There are as many as 106 publishing companies in Korea that specialize in comics. Of these, three major publishers account for more than 50% of comic publications: Seoul Cultural Publishers, Inc., Daiwon C.I. Inc. and Haksan Publishing Co., Ltd. These three companies combined produce more than 250 comic titles a month.
The vast majority of comics used by book rental shops are produced by these three companies. If comics produced only for these bookshops and adult comics are included in this category, a total of over 800 titles are produced monthly. This is sufficient evidence that the number of comics printed is greater than the scale of the current market. Obviously, there is an imbalance in consumption and supply.
Another problem that has received much attention is the expensive and inefficient distribution system, a legacy of the pre-modern system with its heavy distribution costs and unclear inventory. Lack of adequate infrastructure, unplanned additional printings and unreliable distribution data result in large volumes of leftover stock (the current return rate from distributors to publishers is 25 to 30%) and poor business practices, such as the exchange of security deposits and promissory notes between publishers and distributors. Fortunately, the industry recently announced a proposal to construct a unified distribution management system and a comprehensive data centre in order to improve the comic industry's distribution system.
Book Rental Shop Conditions
The majority of book rental shops are extremely small in scale with premises ranging from about 16 to 33m2 and the number, currently estimated at about 10,000 nationwide, is reaching saturation point. The greatest problems currently facing such shops are deterioration of lending market conditions due to the debate on lending rights and the rising purchase price of books caused by enforcement of the fixed price system. The latter leads to higher book-lending fees, which in turn discourages consumers from using the shops.
Resolution of the lending rights issue will require a great deal of time and effort. Copyright, however, must be protected. Legislation is being demanded to ensure that lending rights are recognized as belonging to the authors of original works and are adequately protected. In addition, ways must be found to change social awareness of copyright protection.
Other Issues in the Comic Market
Illegal online scanning of comic is also having a significant impact on worsening market conditions. With the dissemination of the Internet in Korea, the majority of Korean comics are available online for a fee from one month after publication. Unauthorized scanning and online publication, however, is rampant, particularly of Japanese comics or works by authors who have not given permission for online publishing.
According to experts in the field, newly published comic are updated within about one or two days on illegal or P2P sites. The lack of understanding of copyright among consumers extends not only to MP3 (music) and DIVX (movies) but also to comics.
Revision of Illogical Clauses in the Legal System
The negative image of comics in Korea has not yet been overturned. The foundation must be laid for a change in national consciousness by relaxing or abolishing clauses that are based on this prejudiced view and adjusting them to reflect contemporary conditions.
Police and prosecutors must be prevented from overzealous enforcement of legislation and certain regulations based on juvenile protection laws should be abolished to ensure that freedom of creativity and expression are protected.
The Awareness of Comic Authors
Comics must be interesting and this means that authors should write interesting works in a variety of genres. Comics by some popular authors are sold through book rental shops and bookstores while others are sold directly to readers, obtaining a wider readership. Writing well-composed, high quality comics may be the best way for authors to survive.
The Future of Comics in Korea
The Korean comic industry is currently confronted by crisis and opportunity. The crisis consists of such threats as social prejudice against comics, an unreasonable legal system containing a variety of restrictive clauses, atrophy of the domestic market due to an excessive influx of Japanese comics, declining creative drive caused by the discontinuation of magazines, etc., disagreement between education and industry, a continuing decline in the number of aspiring comic authors, excessive distribution losses caused by the non-transparent distribution structure, an incomplete copyright protection system, and the introduction of new forms of entertainment (Internet, cell phones, online games, etc.). This crisis, however, can be utilized as an opportunity and many improvements and experiments are being undertaken in a variety of directions, including the incorporation of comics in educational texts and materials and the reconfirmation of the commercial value of the multimedia environment and comics, the government's willingness to support and the development of an environment conducive to export overseas.
One example of opportunity is the serial comic website, a medium which is invigorating the comic industry. A young author, Seunghyun Shim, portrayed the daily lives of young people in the form of warm, frank essays about the love between the characters Pape and Popo. Since this comic was published in book form last October as Papepopo Memories, it has sold over 500,000 copies and is still topping the bestseller list. It speaks with a lyricism lost by the digital generation.
Its success inspired the publication of more than 100 titles, and of these three have sold over 100,000 copies. In conclusion, the only way to invigorate comic publishing in Korea is to produce comics that readers will buy and read.
Serial comics for magazines must be transformed to make them so entertaining that the reader wants to buy the magazine and looks forward eagerly to the next addition. Advertising utilizing a variety of media must also be undertaken and comic books should be designed so that readers will want to collect the whole series.
One editor I know wants to write the following words on the last page of every comic he can: The works of xxx Company are literature. I, too, hope the day will soon come when comic take their rightful place as literary works.
(translated by Hirano Cathy)
Born in 1959, graduated from Yonsei University (Rep. of Korea), studied in Chiyoda Institute of Technology and Waseda University (Japan). After working in the music copyright field, he has established Nix Media Inc. to develop business of publishing, animation, game, etc. He has been working in Seoul Cultural Publishers, Inc. as Chief Manager, International Division since 1997, and is in charge of copyright business of comics, animation, general publications, online business, etc.
Chief Manager, International Division, Seoul Cultural Publishers, Inc., 2-35, Hankangro-2ga, Yongsan-ku,, Seoul 140-012, Rep. of Korea, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.ismg.co.kr