Govt Support Opens New Chapter for South Korean Bookstores

Chihiro Kosugi / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Japanese publishing officials visit a bookstore operated through a unique cooperative method in Gyeonggi Province, South Korea, on April 25.

Brick-and-mortar bookstores, which have declined in recent years due to factors including the emergence of online booksellers, are making a comeback in South Korea – a trend that will be of interest to Japanese bookstores struggling to stay afloat amid a slump in publishing.

Small and midsize independent bookstores have gained a new lease on life thanks to various support measures compiled by the central and local governments and designed to position such stores as community culture hubs.

In a corner of a quiet residential area of Gyeonggi Province, on the outskirts of Seoul, stands “booksdot5”. This unique bookstore, which is run in a cooperative style, has a floor area of 56 square meters and sells more than 2,000 different books including novels, essays and Japanese picture books.

The shop opened seven years ago after members of a book club that had been meeting up at a nearby public library formed an association with the goal of setting up their own bookstore. A range of events including lectures and gatherings of the book club are frequently held at the store, which local residents also support through a system in which they pay an annual fee.

“‘Dot5’ [in the name of the bookstore] means ‘0.5,’” a 52-year-old representative of the association explained. “By combining the efforts of our group that operates the store with those of the people who live in the area, we want to make this store ‘one.’”

Online booksellers in Japan do not, in principle, sell books at discounted prices. However, online bookstores in South Korea previously sold books at massive discounts, which resulted in a sharp decline in brick-and-mortar stores. A law revision strengthened South Korea’s “fixed book price system” from 2014 and capped direct price discounts at up to 10% of the listed price, and a limit of less than 15% on price discounts combined with consumer benefits such as reward points. This gave small bookstores enough breathing space to stay in business.

According to a handbook on South Korean bookstores issued by the Korea Federation of Bookstore Association, the number of such stores in the nation dropped from 3,589 in 2003 to 2,165 in 2015. This figure has rebounded since then and reached 2,528 in 2021. A striking feature of this change has been the opening of so-called independent stores – such as booksdot5 – that have roots in the local community. Unlike chain bookshops, many of these stores have distinguishing features such as an in-house or adjoining cafe, or specialize in certain fields such as poetry or fine arts.

Cultural spaces

The central and local governments are providing extensive support to these bookstores. In 2016, the Seoul city government established an ordinance aimed at revitalizing booksellers in that region. This has had an impact on the central government’s policy. Public libraries have also been cooperative in running some of these bookstores. The Seoul Metropolitan Library allows bookshops access to its premises to hold events. “Community bookstores sell culture, not just books,” the director of the library said. “I hope the library and booksellers will work together so city residents can enjoy this cultural space.”

The central government support is mostly provided by the Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea of the Culture, Sports and Tourism Ministry, which is broadly equivalent to Japan’s Sport Agency and Cultural Affairs Agency. The promotion agency pours about 450 million won (about ¥45 million) into 88 bookshops across South Korea each year to assist with projects such as developing cultural programs and building shelves that attractively display books. This agency also organizes seminars that offer guidance on the running of a bookstore.

Another legal revision in 2021 obligates local governments to urge libraries to give community bookstores priority when purchasing new books.

Vital social role

According to culture ministry statistics, South Korea’s publishing market in 2021 amounted to about ¥706 billion, or a little over 40% of the Japanese market. Textbooks and study-aid books account for a relatively high proportion of this market, and the magazine and paperback markets remain undeveloped.

The central government is supporting efforts to reenergize the publishing industry itself, which is the foundation of the bookstore business. It has set up Paju Book City, a complex in northwestern South Korea that is home to numerous companies involved in the entire publishing process. The government is also devoting resources to improving the translation of books so they can be shared with audiences around the world, much like South Korean movies and television dramas are. In Japan, South Korean literature – dubbed K-lit – has been riding a wave of popularity in recent years, especially since the release of a Japanese translation of “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982,” a story depicting the challenges a woman faces in her daily life.

“There are limits to the support administrative authorities can provide, so what we really need is bookstores that can stay in business,” the head of the Publication Industry Promotion Agency said. “That won’t be possible unless people want to go to these stores.”

The agency chief added that bookstores ultimately will aim to operate independently. “Community bookshops are playing a social role as cultural facilities,” the chief said.

Japan numbers still falling

The declining number of bookstores in Japan shows no sign of slowing. According to a survey by the Japan Publishing Organization for Information Infrastructure Development, a Tokyo-based industry group of publishing-related companies, 15,602 bookstores were operating in Japan in 2013, but this figure had dropped by more than 20% to 11,952 in 2021.

The Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture, a general incorporated foundation formed by domestic publishers, bookstores, book and magazine wholesalers and other bodies, has calculated that 456 of Japan’s 1,741 municipalities – or 26.2% of the nation’s cities, wards, towns and villages – do not have a single bookstore. Sluggish sales of paperbacks and magazines, which were a major pillar supporting local bookstores, amid increasing use of the internet, has been a major factor behind this situation.

When bookstore numbers decline, people can lose opportunities to interact and meet others. However, the reality is that measures to support booksellers in Japan are – unlike in South Korea – being shouldered largely by private companies in the publishing industry.