Grappling with shift to e-books

SEOUL: Korea’s e-book market has long been dormant. Even though there have been a handful of attempts to kickstart the potentially huge market in the past few years, the parties involved – writers, readers and publishers – did not pay much attention.

The chronic shortage of attention, however, is giving in to renewed public interest, thanks to fresh developments in the e-book market in recent months.

For starters, Samsung Electro­nics, the country’s biggest electronics firm, unveiled an e-reader that attempts to mimic what Amazon’s Kindle can do.

A smaller yet recognisable Korean firm iriver, known for its MP3 players, also put out a similar e-reader armed with six-inch screen and a QWERTY keypad.

The e-book reader initiatives by the major device makers have helped create a growing list of news articles about the fledgling market in the past weeks, and Korean publishers are now duly set to focus on the topic of digital publication in the forthcoming Paju Bookcity Forum (, which will kick off its two-day run on Nov 19 under the theme of “Evolution of Books & Future of Digital Publication”.

“In the previous forums, we dealt with some ideological or philosophical topics, but it’s time to explore key issues regarding the digital publication and e-books, given that some progress is being made in the US market thanks to the’s Kindle,” said Song Young-man, executive director of Paju Bookcity Culture Foundation, which organises the annual forum.

Song said the Korean e-book market was still in its infancy, but there are new signs that the market will see a major development as local publishers form alliances to develop e-book solutions and bigger digital libraries.

“The forum will provide a great opportunity to examine the positive and negative aspects in digital publishing as panellists from the United States, Japan and other countries are set to discuss the key issues,” Song said.

Yi In-hwa, professor of digital media at Ewha Womans Univer­sity, said the change in favour of a new digital format in the publishing market is irreversible and even destructive for paper-oriented publishers.

“Paper-based books are not mass media any longer,” Yi said.

“The publication market is currently moving towards the content-oriented business model, not today’s dying model of a manufacturer, and print media is facing a critical juncture in which they have to embrace new platforms to survive.”

Yi acknowledged that e-books will not overtake the paper-based book market overnight, but the time-honoured platform of traditional paper and ink is becoming obsolete and ineffective amid the revolutionary shift in technology that introduces a number of new platforms ranging from mobile handsets to e-book readers to laptops.

“Media convergence that makes content delivery seamless and ubiquitous is inevitable,” Yi said.

“Publishers should not complain about the shrinking paper-based book market but must find a way to a niche segment through new platforms.”

Lee Joong-ho, director of Booxen Digital, an e-book service provider, said publishers are scrambling to secure digital content to take a slice in the e-book pie, but they still remain uncertain about the market.

“Compared with the US or European markets, Korean publishers are still reluctant to bet on the e-book market,” Lee said.

“But things are changing as new devices are introduced, and several publishers are forming a new alliance to launch a distribution unit for e-book services.”

Lee said Booxen Digital will launch a commercial e-book service targeting the launch of Apple Inc’s iPhone in the Korean market, scheduled for later this month, while developing other solutions for local e-book reader devices.

But experts said the e-book market in Korea will confront many difficulties before taking off.

Among the thorniest issues are the standardisation of e-book formats and new practices for copyright arrangements regarding e-books and other new platforms.

Baek Won-keun, chief researcher of Korean Publishing Research Institute, said publishers will struggle for a while to come up with a viable vision about the act of reading itself at a time when other options such as video gaming, Web surfing and mobile texting are widely available.

“At the heart of the problem is that people are spending less time reading books in general and we have to think about whether we can persuade them to read books again by offering a digital version.”

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