Hwang Sok-yong decided to take his novel, "Yeowulmulsori," off the market after his publisher was found to have stockpiled the copies of the book to inflate sales records. / Korea Times photo by Park Seo-gang
Struggling publishers needed stockpiling scandal like hole in the head
By Kim Tong-hyung
Allegations that publishers are inflating the sales of books are another scandal the country's terminally ill book market can do without.
Two of the country's most celebrated authors, Hwang Sok-yong and Kim Yeon-su, have taken their newest works off the shelves as their reputations and dignity came under threat. Kang Byung-chul, the CEO of Jaeum & Moeum, is stepping down after his publishing house was found to have stockpiled large volumes of the books and fraudulently represented them as being sold.
The writers claim they didn't know about the deception and Kang insists it was an isolated case. However, book industry insiders say publishers hoarding copies is the industry's worst-kept secret, a habit so-deeply rooted it would require considerable time and effort to clean up. It's easy to understand why publishers would want to write their sales records imaginatively: in the post-crisis world, Koreans won't read books and won't read magazines, although they will go to movies. The only books that have a prayer at selling a meaningful number of copies appear to be those placed on bestseller lists, which have a strong influence on today's casual readers with short attention spans. Publishers will do almost anything to get their books on these lists, including faking sales records.
Han Ki-ho, head of the Korean Publishing Market Research Institute, stresses that stockpiling is a symptom, not the disease. Roped into desperate marketing efforts, publishers often find themselves practically giving away books through lavish discounts or ''one-price-for-many'' e-book deals. The difference between selling books and stockpiling them in company finances, therefore, isn't as big as one would think.
''Nothing is surprising about the recent incident. I think that Hwang's dramatic response to it made it a larger issue than it otherwise would have been. Nonetheless, I hope this would be a shock treatment for the publishing industry to eliminate its stockpiling behavior,'' said Han.
"This represents the state of the Korean publishing market, which has become a black hole that sucks up everything except for books listed as bestsellers. Industry people talk about how big bookstores and online retailers will concentrate on promoting the books they anticipate will be absorbed by the publishers themselves, rather than the works they think will appeal to readers the most.''
SBS television's current affairs show, "In Depth 21,'' reported Tuesday that three novels published by Jaeum & Moeum ― Hwang's "Yeowulmulsori,'' Kim's "If the Waves Belong to the Sea'' and Baek Young-ok's poetry collection "Seven O'clock Breakfast Meeting" ― were hoarded by the company to inflate sales numbers.
Hwang's "Yeowulmulsori'' reached the bestsellers list of major bookstores and online retailers right after its release in November last year and maintained high positions on the charts since.
Kang admitted to the wrongdoings and stepped down. Jaeum & Moeum will be temporarily led by chief editor Hwang Gwang-soo before it finds a new CEO, a process the company expects to take about three months.
After taking a public relations beating, the Korea Publishers Society, the industry lobby for publishers, announced a statement promising stronger self-regulation. However, Han was skeptical whether the stockpiling problem will go away quickly.
"I know a number of publishers who have a deeper bag of dirty tricks than Jaeum & Moeum ever did. Stockpiling won't disappear but will become harder to detect. For publishers, exposing their books on the front pages of online retailers is the highest objective of their marketing activities. So they will always try to inflate their sales record in some way,'' Han said.
A report from Statistics Korea last month showed that book consumption ― measured by the sales of hardcovers, paperbacks and magazines ― hit a new low last year with the average spending of households sinking below 20,000 won (about $18).
New books released by publishers decreased by a staggering 20 percent in 2012. Online purchases of books pulled back for the first time since the statistics agency started keeping track of electronic commerce activity in 2001.
The 19,026 won households spent on books per month last year represented a 7.5 percent drop for the previous year and a 28 percent decline from the 26,346 won measured in 2003, when the publishing industry was at its peak.
According to separate data from the Korean Publishers Association, publishers introduced 39,767 new books last year and printed and published 86.97 million copies. It was the first time since 2000 that less than 100 million copies of new books were published over a full year.
Through a wave of consolidation that accompanied the bad economy in the past decade, the market is now dominated by mega retail chains like Kyobo Bookstore and a few large corporations that control the most influential publishing houses. Diversity was hurt as small publishers were driven out or marginalized, an intellectual vacuum epitomized by the slew of self-help books that are often worse than useless.