Like many small book fairs around the world (see our recent articles on the Buenos Aires and Jerusalem Book Fairs for a few examples), the Seoul International Book Fair (SIBF), a once domestic and consumer-directed event, is looking to professionalize and internationalize its image. In the past 5 years, major funding and programming from the Korean Publishers Association (which founded the Fair in 1995) has significantly grown the number of international agents, scouts, and editors who attend, including those from outside Asia. Even within South Korea, editors and agents who once wrote off the event as a noisy market where children’s publishers hawked their wares say they have begun attending again, with renewed interest in the event’s professional potential.
Historically, setting up a stand at SIBF served principally as a way for Korean publishers to sell their books directly and “to introduce their name-brand value to the public,” says Michelle Nam, Executive Director of Minumsa Publishing. She points to the Korean-language SIBF Facebook page as evidence of the event’s ongoing success as a consumer brand in its own right: as of this writing, SIBF has over 11,750 Likes on Facebook, representing a popularity far beyond the bounds of the Korean publishing profession. (Compare these numbers to just over 12,000 Likes on the Frankfurt Book Fair’s main Facebook page, and 7,700 for the London Book Fair). Events aimed at readers remain popular, as do “refurbished” books, sold by their original publishers at steep discount prices, reports Jungha Song, Foreign Rights Senior Manager at Sigongsa. All these factors point to an event that has been successful and widely known among consumers: they are the target audience, and they attend in droves to buy large quantities of books at discount prices.
But increasingly, popularity among consumers isn’t the kind of cache that the Korean Publishers Association (KPA) think it most important for the SIBF to cultivate. “We are trying to turn the SIBF into one of the main copyright trade-oriented book fairs in the region,” says Seung-Hyun Moon, Director of the KPA’s International Project department, and the shift is palpable in a number of ways. Tables in the Rights Center are still free to all applicants, but general admission to the event, long free, now costs 3,000 won (still only about $2). Over a third of this year’s 620 exhibitors are international and hail from 25 countries, more than ever before.