Harry Potter’s magic works for Korean publisher
Poet’s daughter hit jackpot when she bought license with money saved for wedding
By Lee Sun-kyo
He closed his eyes and ran the trolley full of luggage into a brick wall between platform nine and 10 in London’s King’s Cross station. Readers from all over the world know how Harry enters Platform 9 3/4 to catch the train to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And as the film adaptation of the last of the Harry Potter series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” released in July in Korea, enjoyed tremendous success, people continue to love the magical world of wizards and muggles.
Perhaps the greatest magic from Harry Potter is J.K. Rowling’s personal success from a penniless divorcee to a published author richer than the Queen of England. If Harry Potter turned the British woman’s life around in 1997, two years later it brought success to a young Korean woman and the publishing house where she had been working for just a few months.
Nine British publishers rejected Harry Potter before Bloomsbury decided to market the manuscript, which was unconventionally long for a children’s book. In five attempts to introduce the book to Korean readers, Kim Eun-kyung, 35, insisted that Moonhak Soochup publish the fantasy novel — a genre neither popular in Korea nor regarded as proper literature at the time. Kim went as far as to say to Kim Jong-chul, her father and the CEO of the publishing house, that they use the money set aside for her wedding to buy the publication rights for Harry Potter. It became a hit on an unforeseen scale, turning Moonhak Soochup into one of the most successful publishers in Korea.
Kim, now a veteran rights director, first stepped into the field of publishing hoping to help with the family business. The former music student, who majored in haegum, a traditional string instrument, said that she found the interpersonal aspect of the business attractive.
“I think the key success factor in the publishing business is recognizing and grabbing at an opportunity and not letting it go. Many publishers say regretfully that they had also considered the manuscript of Harry Potter before Moonhak Soochup published it. But in the end, Moonhak Soochup was the one that took the risk of bringing in the fantasy novel despite the worry that the genre would not garner wide popularity.”
Although the first and the second volumes of the Harry Potter series had settled atop best-seller lists in the U.K. and the U.S. for two years by 1999, publishers hesitated introducing the series to Korean readers because of the Asian economic crisis and the prejudice that the fantasy novel had neither literary value nor any prospect of becoming popular among Korean readers.
But Kim held the firm belief that the series would make it in Korea. She saw that the market for fantasy fiction was about to bloom. A 130,000-page long fantasy fiction, “Dragon Raja,” by Lee Yeong-do was published in 1998 after it attracted thousands of readers on Hitel, a nationwide online network, where it was first serialized. Computer games that allowed players to roam imaginary settings were also popular, implying that young readers were ready for fantasy novels.
But her conviction in Harry Potter was solid regardless of the genre.
“When I read the book for the first time, considering it for publication, I was captivated to the extent that I could not stop reading and bringing myself back to work. I could picture the scenes so clearly as I followed J.K Rowling’s well-crafted sentences.”
Usually when a proposal gets turned down three times, the editor gives up. But Kim persisted.
“Perhaps we need to be more generous to failure so that editors can make creative, unconventional proposals more freely.”
The success of Harry Potter has turned Moonhak Soochup, a mid-sized publisher that focuses on literature, into one of a handful of major publishers in Korea. However, the rest of the publishing industry does not enjoy the same kind of success. As people depend on the Internet to gain knowledge, and with the advent of the e-book, the publishing industry is shrinking every year and editors are desperately fighting to win the rights of self-help books or works of previous bestselling authors — the books that sell.
“We as a profit-making business have accepted today’s trend too. I believe the profit we make will allow us to continue to publish quality books,” says the father Kim. Careful not to reveal too much, the CEO said that the publishing house is developing revenue sources that utilize Harry Potter characters.
One of Moonhak Soochup’s ultimate missions is to foster literature. Aside from searching for hidden gems among unpublished authors’ manuscripts, the publisher has awarded fantasy literature writers ranging from elementary and middle school students to adults since 2009. The Chosun-Ilbo Fantasy Literature Award was instituted jointly with the Chosun Ilbo, the most-read daily in Korea, and presented the awards last June.