S. Korean Fantasy Saga Rakes in Record-high Deal for Overseas Rights

Zo Sunhi/Golden Bough via The Korea Herald
Author Lee Yeong-do

The author of the fantasy saga that broke the record for a single export deal in Korean literature said he could never have predicted it.

“I don’t know how to say this right … but I have seen people who hated my writing. Of course I do see readers who loved my work but it doesn’t feel real,” Lee Yeong-do told The Korea Herald.

Lee’s four-part fantasy series “The Bird That Drinks Tears” recently sold to a European publisher for about 300 million won ($236,000) in advance royalty payments for overseas rights, according to publisher Golden Bough, the fiction imprint of Minumsa Publishing Group, on Jan. 3.

This marks the highest amount for any Korean book published in a single country. The previous record was for Kim Soo-hyun’s essay “Comfort Without Trying Too Hard,” which sold for 200 million won in 2020.

“I just wrote what I can … how it would work in other languages or cultural regions, I believed the opinions of experts,” Lee said.

“I think every reader — Korean or not — has a different point of view so they are bound to interpret things in their own way. For my part, I keep writing because it’s fun.”

First published in 2003, “The Bird That Drinks Tears” is set in a universe with four races — human, dokkaebi, nhaga and rekkon — who each serve different gods.

Nhaga are a “heartless” race who become semi-immortal when their hearts are removed. Dokkaebi, based on Korean folktales, can handle fire freely. Rekkon, who specialize in combat, have chicken-like heads and gigantic bodies.

A rescue team is sent one day to bring a nhaga safely home. Human Kagan Draca, a legendary nhaga eater, dokkaebi Beehyung and rekkon Tynahan embark on the mission. They are joined by Ryun Paye, a nhaga who runs away before his heart removal ceremony.

The series has dominantly Korean fantasy elements inspired by Korean folktales and legends, weaving in Korean cultural aspects such as sirreum, or Korean wrestling, the traditional game yutnori and the floor heating system ondol.

The book has sold over 600,000 copies in South Korea.

This is Lee’s first book to be published in the West. His debut work “Dragon Raja,” another iconic fantasy series, sold over 1 million copies and was translated in Taiwan, China and Japan.

Although the author was unsure whether his work would appeal to English-language and European readers, the publisher had confidence.

It is unusual for an entire saga to be signed at once. Only two such cases — Jo Jung-rae’s “The Tae Baek Mountains” and Park Kyongni’s “The Land” — are on record, according to the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.

The publisher produced rough English translation drafts of Lee’s four books from 2018 to 2022. They introduced the English version at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2022.

“You can’t fully appreciate this book by reading just a fragment because it is even more amazing when you see it to the end. So [we] prepared the whole translated version,” said the editor at Golden Bough in charge of Lee’s saga.

“After the book fair, emails poured in. And we received so many letters from the overseas publishers that they loved ‘The Bird that Drinks Tears,’” he said.

The series has been sold to 12 countries, including the United States, the U.K., Germany, Italy, Poland and the Netherlands, exceeding 600 million won in advance royalty payments for the overseas rights. Its English translation will be published by Harper Collins Publishers, one of the world’s largest publishers. Celebrating the anniversary of the book’s release, a special 20-year edition is scheduled to hit shelves soon, according to the publisher.

A graphic novel adaptation by Korean gaming giant Krafton is also scheduled for 2024. As part of the project, an art book for games and filming titled “Crossing the Latitude” was published in October with the involvement of acclaimed artist and filmmaker Iain McCaig of “Star Wars.”