Best-seller lists do not coincide with ideals

Best-seller lists do not coincide with ideals

The best-selling books section of Kyobo Books in central Seoul / Korea Times file

Money-making playbooks, literary works that pit conservative and progressive voters against each other dominate best-seller lists

By Kang Hyun-kyung

The most-read articles and top 10 best-selling books at bookstores compiled by media outlets have one thing in common: readers here don’t seem to find well-researched, insightful works to be fascinating.

This week’s best-seller list from Kyobo Books, the nation’s largest bookstore, reaffirmed this trend. Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s memoir, “Cho Kuk’s Time: Pains, Truth and Untold Thoughts” published by Hangil Books, topped the list, while several books that teach people how to get rich or profit from property speculation also made it on the list.

Yet, this week’s best-sellers delivered some positive news for the literary industry.

Star novelist Jeong You-jeong returned with a new crime thriller tentatively titled in English as “The Complete Happiness.”

Jeong’s new novel has been on the best-selling books list since late May when the publisher began to take pre-orders from readers before its official release in June.

Word of “The Complete Happiness” spread among readers in May when the author appeared on tvN’s hit reality show, “You Quiz on the Block,” prior to its official release. She talked about the thorough preparation and extensive research she does before writing stories.

Her promotion on TV helped her book draw attention from readers. Her past work, “The Good Son,” which captivated Western readers since its English translation earned critical acclaim, also made the top 10 best-selling books list.

Jeong’s two works simultaneously making it onto the best-seller list is considered to be an encouraging sign for Korean novelists who are grappling with sluggish book sales.

Despite such encouraging signs, Kyobo Books’ top 10 list in general, like other online and offline bookstores’ best-seller lists, does not seem to coincide with common perceptions of what ideally should be the most worthwhile works everyone should read. Rather, the lists show a particular formula ensuring the commercial success of publications.

Books that provide information on how to grow rich or become masters of property speculation have an easier time to make the bestseller list.

Another genre of books that show great popularity are the politically-motivated publications that pit voters with opposing views against each other, such as “Cho Kuk’s Time.”

“Cho Kuk’s Time” is a memoir by the former justice minister who is on trial after being accused of abuse of power and other charges.

According to the publisher, the author tells his side of the story about what happened after he was hand-picked by President Moon Jae-in to serve as justice minister in August 2019. The book also offers Cho’s account of how he became a member of Moon’s inner circle and was appointed first to serve as senior presidential secretary for civil affairs before being nominated for justice minister. The book also discusses Cho’s ideas about “reforming” the prosecution.

The controversial former justice minister’s memoir became an instant best seller as soon as it went on sale at online and offline bookstores, creating a stir among the public. Readers’ reactions were poles apart. His supporters loved it, while his opponents were left scratching their heads trying to guess Cho’s motive behind publishing such an “unconvincing” memoir at this time.

“Cho Kuk’s Time” ― and similar books which have the potential to divide the nation ― sell better simply because the writers have an unspecified number of die-hard fans who would support him no matter what he does. His book successfully rallied support from them, although the same book raised the eyebrows of many Koreans on the other side of the political fence.

Cho’s memoir becoming a best-seller reminds readers of the publication of a book last year, called “The Unprecedented Nation: How Democracy Comes to an End,” coauthored by five progressive intellectuals. The book critical of the former justice minister stormed into the best-selling books list as soon as it was released in August last year. Among progressive circles, the five authors were treated like enemies from within.

The dominance of politically-divisive books or money-making playbooks in the best-seller list has become a source of concern for those in literary circles.

Writing stories necessitates authors to go through a painful process. Part of the reason why authors of great works are lauded is because they successfully endured such a painful period to create their insightful works that resonate with readers across various walks of life.

If publications that are seen to have skipped such toils or bypassed the rite of passage find commercial success easily, I’m afraid full-time literary creators who solely rely on income from their book sales would be discouraged as their hard work is not rewarded. They would wonder if they still should sit up late at night continuously writing and rewriting their drafts to create innovative, inspirational and incredible works.

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