Publishers in the early stage of modern era
Publication culture of Korea underwent great deal of changes in the 20th century. During the Joseon Dynasty prior to the 20th century, it was the government that published most of the books because it was very costly to manufacture paper, and woodblocks and metal types for printing. In addition, since there was no book shop that we know of today during the Joseon Dynasty, the government also played the core role in distributing books to the institutions or individuals who needed books.
Prominent families capable of procuring enormous funds other than the government institutions also published books themselves. However, such books were limited to highly specific types of books published for the purposes of flaunting and long-term preservation their domineering authority such as genealogy and collection of literary works. Others, if they had books they needed, would borrow and read them or manually copy every page of the books they need to keep them in their possession.
Of course, there also were cases of purchasing the books to read by paying money to the book traders (bookstore). However, people did not particularly like the idea of trading books like any common products during Joseon Dynasty. Although it was partly due to the attitude of the people considering books containing truth to be sacred, the desire of the small number of the ruling class to have monopoly over the ownership of books, thereby having monopoly over available information would have been more prevailing reason. If the trading of books becomes activated, the lower social classes at the time could become more intelligent by reading books and could threaten the status quo of the ruling classes by asserting their human rights.
However, with the introduction of new printing technology developed in the western world, it became possible to publish books in large volumes in short time and at markedly lower cost than the past. It also became a common practice to sell and buy books as the society itself underwent changes fundamentally on the basis of market economy and capitalism that began to be established in the society. As the result, it was possible for anyone to get hold of and own books easily if one wanted. Accordingly, era in which books became a factor that led the public culture has arrived in the Korean society.
Private publishers were one of the principals that were at the forefront of the innovation in publishing culture. Since the publishers at the time also functioned as bookstores, publishers played the central role in leading the manufacturing and distribution of books. The role that government played during the Joseon Dynasty was now passed onto the publishers.
Publishers in Korea began to emerge in earnest at around 1905. When the fate of Korea became threatened by Japan due to the conclusion of Protectorate Treaty between Korea and Japan in 1905, enthusiasm of the people to arm themselves through education exploded. People began to believe that they needed to learn and be more knowledgeable in order to protect the nation. Accordingly, publishers that began to be established everywhere in the country focused on publishing various textbooks necessary in learning the knowledge and technologies of the western world and historical biographical works aimed at arousing patriotism. The latter part of 1900’s in which the modern publishing culture flourished explosively is specifically referred to as the ‘era of modern enlightenment’.
However, having the sovereignty of the country taken away by Japan in 1910, extensive restrictions were placed on the activities of the publishers with only the publishers with approval issued by the Japanese Government General of Joseon allowed to publish books. As the result, many of the books that were published freely in the past were designated as censored books by the Japanese Government General of Joseon. This compelled publishers to plan publication of new books and many of the publishers at the time began to focus on literatures, in particular, novels. Not only new types of novels that opened the door to the history of modern novel in Korea but also old novels that were popular during the Joseon Dynasty began to be printed by publishers using the modern printing technology. Novels that were published in large volumes in the 1910’s are the novels well-known to us under the nickname of ‘Ttakjibon’. Thanks to the efforts that publishers put in publishing literary works in the 1910’s, grounds on which the modern literatures could have flourished in Korea was established.