Kudos to South Korea

As one of six UK editors recently taken on a fact-finding trip to Seoul, supported by the British Council & Literature Translation Institute of Korea, I had to feel a little sorry for our South Korean hosts.

We heard about, and met, brilliant writers and editors, and visited a beautifully designed new city built by and for publishing houses called Paju Book City, but our British obsession with North Korea was never far away. It was the books set in North Korea that we tried to keep away from the other editors’ ears, and could imagine selling well back home.

South Korea is the country of Samsung and hyper-connectivity, but its publishing is not what you might expect. E-book sales have not yet shown the growth they have in the UK. As far as books go, readers are still traditionalists. Ask the local publishers for tips for the next big thing in crime, and it quickly becomes clear that clearly defined genre literature does not really exist. I was starting to feel a little sorry for my fellow visitors looking for their next breakthrough crime novel.

For a literary publishing house, however, South Korean writing is paradise. There is such rich, varied writing. Why? Firstly, authors are not used to editors’ heavy intervention. Their waywardness, or genius in the best cases, is unlikely to be ironed out.

Writing as escape

Secondly, while Korea is changing, it is still a conformist society by Western standards. Perhaps writing is a rare escape from that? For example, Jang Eun-Jin’s No One Writes Back (Dalkey Archive Press) is a delightful, quirky, warm-hearted book that the Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard picked up recently as his Choice of the Week.

Thirdly, Korean publishers seem old-fashioned, in a way I like, in their attitudes on what to publish. Gregory Limpens, acquiring editor at the publishing house Open Books, said he had been in the job for four years before he was asked to look out for bestsellers as well as “important books”.

Open Books has published a lot of important authors; it has also enjoyed huge sales of a writer much less known in English - French sci-fi writer Bernard Werber.

What did it do with the profits from Werber’s sales? It created Mimesis Museum, a beautiful museum of modern art designed by Alvaro Siza. Some other publishers have their own book cafés in Hongdae, a studenty area of Seoul. Hats off to my Korean publishing counterparts!

Stefan Tobler is m.d. of independent publisher And Other Stories