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E-books expected to herald new reading culture

 Reading used to be one of the hardest tasks for Joo Jae-young, a 24-year-old graduate school student. He had the time and all the mental faculties, but lugging around thick reference books and other printed materials as a chemistry major required feats of physical strength. Adding novels or other nonfiction books to that stack was pie in the sky.

But when he bought a Galaxy Tab, a tablet PC manufactured by Samsung Electronics, last week, he suddenly found himself able to read fiction despite the ponderous weight of his backpack.

“For years I’ve read only a few books per year. Even though I wanted to read while commuting, I didn’t dare add an additional book to my mountains of heavy hardcover books,” said Joo, showing his backpack full of English-language reference books printed with chemistry formulas on their covers.

“With the tablet PC, I can search for the story that I want to read most on the Internet. Now I don’t have to think about how heavy or how big a book is.”
Amazon Kindle (AP-Yonhap News)
Amazon Kindle (AP-Yonhap News)

Joo is a typical case among the Korean population, who, at best, could be described as occasional readers.

Koreans read 10.9 books on the average last year, according to a survey of some 1,000 respondents by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, which comes out to fewer than a book per month.

They spent only 28 minutes per day reading on weekdays, while they watched TV and movies for 120 minutes and used the computer or Internet for 115 minutes.

A quick look around the average Seoul subway car during rush hour will show commuters snoozing, tapping on their cell phones or listening to music. Only a few open a book and read it.

When electronic books were introduced in Korea years ago, however, experts had said that the e-book would immediately encourage people to read more, thanks to their convenience, easier access and cheaper price.

“A paper-based book was no longer considered the only medium for reading,” said Jang Ki-young, director-general of the Korea Electronic Publishing Association (KEPA).

“If you want to read a book, you have to go to a bookstore and buy it. But if you have a smartphone, tablet PC or an e-book reader, you don’t have to do that. Turn on your phone and download the text file onto your device.”

But sales of e-book content and devices have been sluggish for years, accounting for a mere 6 percent of total sales in publishing this year, said Kyobo Books, the country’s leading on- and off-line bookstore.

This is because many young Koreans tend to use digital multimedia devices including smartphones and personal media players (PMPs) to enjoy online video clips or movies.

“Koreans use their phones or PMPs mostly to watch movies or listen to music. E-book readers, however, are designed solely for consuming digital books and failed to draw people’s attention,” said Jang from the KEPA.

“I don’t read with my iPhone. For me, the feeling of turning the pages of a book is important,” said Kim Byung-ki, an iPhone user. “There are many (unauthorized) text files of famous books on PMP sites and I had some. But I didn’t even load them onto my phone.”

Local electronics firms and book distributors have produced their respective e-book readers and offered exclusive digital content, but the devices have failed to make their presence felt in the publishing market as they do not offer program compatibility.

But market officials said they are expecting that the growing number of sales of open-source media, including smartphones and tablet PCs, will pave a new way for expanding the whole book industry and create a new consumer group.

“The e-book will spread a new reading culture in Korea. The young generations, who are familiar with multimedia devices and video culture, will start to read books in their own way and companies will move fast to meet their demand,” said Jin Young-kyun from Kyobo.

According to Kyobo, sales of e-book content from January to Dec. 13 in 2010 have risen by 175 percent from the same period in 2009.

It said that the growth is partly attributable to the introduction of Apple’s iPhone in late 2009 and Samsung Electronics’ signature Galaxy S smartphone and Galaxy Tab this year. Electronic text files of best sellers and classics are released in app stores.

“As a growing number of people began to own smartphones and tablet PCs, demand for e-book files soared notably,” he said, declining to disclose exact sales figures. “But (e-book sales) do not eat away the paper book market, definitely. They boost the whole publishing market and draw new readers as e-book consumers.”

In fact, Brazilian mega-hit writer Paulo Coelho’s new book “Brida” was released in October in both paper and electronic editions. His paper edition, on the best seller list for weeks, was not affected by e-book sales.

The new breed of reader surfs the Net and enjoys YouTube videos while walking down the street or riding public transportation, and at the same time they download and read books and post their reviews online.

“I like reading. It gives me a different world,” said Joo, the chemistry student. “I can read a book whenever, wherever I want, and communicate with the open world in real time. It’s cool.” (Yonhap News)
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