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Books going through digital transformation

Audiobook cards are displayed for sale at Arc.N.Book in the Euljiro area of Seoul. (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
Audiobook cards are displayed for sale at Arc.N.Book in the Euljiro area of Seoul. (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
The prolonged battle against the COVID-19 outbreak is changing life patterns, including how we read and digest books. Public libraries have shut down with some offering delivery-only services, or activating “e-bookshelf” sections online as an alternative way out during and after the crisis.

Efforts for new reading experiences seem to have gained overall success so far. According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, in 2019, the rate of e-book readers hit 16.5 percent for adults and 37.2 percent for students. They respectively showed a 2.4 percent and 7.4 percent increase, compared to 2017. Those in their 20s and 30s showed the highest increase rate in the shift from paper to e-books.

On the other hand, the average annual paper book reading for adults dropped from eight books in 2017 to six books in 2019, whereas teens read an average of 32 books yearly. The most common reason for reading fewer paper books than in the past is that there seems to be a flood of media content, along with a great variety of devices that make readers choose eye-catching sources over paper editions.

Domestic data gathered by audio content company Audien showed that in 2018 paid membership audience numbers in the audiobook industry exceeded 350,000. Along with e-books, audiobooks are easy to carry around, and give less or no eye strain at all for the same amount of information.

“Our strategy is not to think of audiobooks as a separate medium, but to work together with paper books and their existing avid readers,” said Yoo Jae-sun, director of marketing for Welaaa, in an interview with The Korea Herald. “There are cases in which paper books regain popularity later on after a second birth as an audiobook series. Our company experienced the same case in sales with ‘Unscripted,’ MJ DeMarco’s book.”

Yoo said that since book readers also carry the value of buying books as gifts for their loved ones, the company recently formed a partnership with an offline bookstore to display audiobook cards on the store’s top shelves, experimenting with whether they could also serve the need for purchasable goods.

To keep up with demand for wider choices of readable and audible books, bookstores that have a head start are joining hands with not only traditional book publishers, but also emerging media companies that are interested in book contents, to pave the road for future business models.

Ko Young-eun, 32, who commutes to work in Yeouido, Seoul, said she listens to two hours of audiobooks on a daily basis.

“I have designated places and time to enjoy audiobooks -- the subway and the gym. I’m a big fan of short stories and novels since I was young, and the greatest merit of this platform is that I can easily multitask while receiving the book contents.”

Luring readers to new devices can mean a huge deal in the digital era, but original content remains the most significant factor in swaying the market regardless. Portability and convenience might seem like key factors in readers’ choices nowadays at first glance, but there is more to books than meets the eye.

By Kim Hae-yeon (hykim@heraldcorp.com)
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