Prismatic Merchandise in South Korea

Jane Eyre also gets translated into objects. In this post, Prof. Eunjin Choi, who has been working on the Prismatic Jane Eyre project in collaboration with Prof. Sowon Park at the University of California, Santa Barbara, delves into the strange phenomenon of literary collectibles in South Korea.

A few years ago, a friend of mine who had traveled to England gave me a souvenir of Wuthering Heights from the Brontë Personage Museum: a Vintage Ink Bookmark with the famous phrase, ‘I am Heathcliff!’ printed on it. The gifts I receive from my friends who have traveled abroad are always pleasant, but this was even more meaningful in that it had come from a place that holds special meaning for fiction lovers and, in particular, confirmed my friend’s literary sensibilities. It had a more British and emotional meaning than the more expensive gifts you could buy in duty-free shops.

For more than a decade, classic novels, especially foreign literature, have had a growing influence in Korea’s stationery market. ‘Aladin’, which is gaining huge popularity as an Internet bookstore, is the front-runner, while ‘Yes24’ and other large bookstores are also mass-producing stationery that features design motifs from literature. Aladin has its own brand called ‘Born to Read’, which uses literature beloved by the public for its designs of various stationery and household goods. For example, The Secret Garden key rings, Anne of Green Gables notebooks, Sherlock Holmes book stands, The Old Man and the Sea eco bags, Moby Dick mugs, and Alice in Wonderland pouches are being sold.

Literature as Stationery

After building its initial base in business with membership discounts and fast delivery services from the 2000s, Aladin’s sales began soaring in the 2010s as the company started producing literary goods as free gifts. The popularity of ‘goods,’ which were originally given as gifts for total purchases more than a certain amount such as 30,000 won (US$25) and 50,000 won (US$42) or more, prompted the company to launch its own brand called ‘Born to Read’. The idea behind the business is undeniably sound: few readers are willing to reject pretty goods made using the motif of a book they love. Even now, some of the goods are produced only as free gifts, and serve to boost Aladin’s sales. In 2013, Aladdin’s sales were worth about 197.7 billion won (US$165 million), but sales doubled to 356.3 billion won (US$297 million) in 2018. There is no doubt that the driving force behind this rapid growth is the sale of literary goods. As such, literary goods have affected book sales; it has become commonplace for major publishers to market such goods in partnership with bookstores to coincide with their new releases.

Popular Korean author Kim Young-ha once tweeted that the beer glass offered with one of his books was so pretty that he ordered his own book from an Internet bookstore.

Wants beer glass; buys book

‘I wanted the beer glass that was part of a promotional offer in the online bookstore, so I ordered my book. The publisher gave me one, but how can I get a beer glass only for me, the author of Only Two People? It doesn’t make sense – I needed two! Anyway, another glass arrived yesterday. The book that I don’t have to read anymore because I know the story so well came along with it.’

What fascinating goods that make even the author buy his own  book! It seems that there is no better shopping deal than literary goods, which offer a pretty design, reasonable price, and show off consumers’ literary sensibilities.

In South Korea, the literary goods market is booming, illustrated by the frequent joke, ‘I bought goods and the book was delivered with it.’ There are plenty of clips about literary goods on YouTube such as ‘Aladin Goods Haul’ and ‘Publisher Goods Unboxing’, and even a market for out-of-print used goods has developed. I was curious about Jane Eyre goods, I searched and found traces all over the internet of its sensational popularity in 2017, the year when Aladin Jane Eyre goods were launched. Several bloggers published posts boasting about Jane Eyre goods being delivered. Most of these goods were out of production as of 2019, but some still seem to be trading in second-hand markets. Korean readers do not have to go directly to the country to visit the roots of foreign literature; they can also enjoy the essence of the book in their daily lives through goods produced for Korean readers.

I heard that there is an offline Aladin bookstore in Los Angeles and visited it not long ago. I found a Jane Eyre bookend and bought it without hesitation. As a reader who loves Jane Eyre, I couldn’t help but buy it. At the moment I came to imagine the bookend on my desk, I was doomed to buy it. This is the moment when I proved to be one of the participants in Korea’s vibrant literary goods market.

Eunjin Choi is Korea Foundation Visiting Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara(UCSB).

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