On Being a Writer in Korea – Getting Down to Dirty Truth

Part 3

The fact of the matter is that if you are writing in Korea then you are going to find it very difficult to get paid for your work. For all the writing I do, I have never been paid for any of the contributions I have made to the media here. Is there something wrong with this? Yes. Is it my fault? Yes. Can I do anything about it? No. Am I complaining? No.

There is writing work out there that will pay, but much of it is related to proof-reading and copy-editing, work that I have done and been paid for. I could go on about the problems in this area too but I won’t because I don’t do enough and it’s not in my mandate. Basically, this kind of writing work doesn’t really interest me that much – that being said I’d jump at a chance to take a job that would fit my schedule – I prefer writing about stuff basically, and copy-editing a poorly written ESL book isn’t that exciting.

The long list of publications in Korea that I provided the other day is a little more limited when you consider that the chances of being printed in many of these are even more limited. Those who do regularly accept and print pitched submissions, such as Groove and 10 Magazine, are your best option for getting any sense of a writing career started. The only problem with these is that they do not pay for the work they print.

Don’t go running off screaming at the injustice of such a practice. This is the way it is and the way it always has been. I’ve been submitting to both for over a year fully aware that I will not be given any money for the work I do, and I don’t object to this.

Let me explain to you the mechanics of this madness from my own experience.

Magazines like these serve a function in the community. From a writer’s perspective it provides a stage for budding journalists to establish their name, give them their five minutes of fame, help their friends out, or whatever reason it is that they submit articles with no payment in exchange. My reason is that I am building a portfolio of writing that I hope to be able to use in a pitch for a job that pays someday. Don’t ask me when. That’s my payment.

The magazines operate as a cheap but informative source on lifestyle and entertainment in Korea for what they call the ‘Expat Community’ and, as I have heard them described, ‘globally minded Koreans’.

I have a job that pays me well enough to live comfortably. I do things I enjoy with Herself and my friends, and have a good time travelling around the country, going to concerts, eating delicious food in great restaurants (nearly called the restaurant delicious). I don’t blog about it because there are enough people doing it already. If I’m going to cover stuff like that I’d like to try and challenge myself and write in a nice generic travel critique style that could be found in a magazine. I think of this writing as practicing how to sell something, in this case my ability to write. This thing you’re reading here is enough of me and my worldly opining.

The thing about it is I think it would be hard to expect the magazines to pay everyone for articles. It would be nice of course if they could, but you need to sit down and consider the demographics and the magazine reading of the general readers of some of these magazines.

I think that the vast majority of the reading market is made up of English teachers, with some exceptions, and these people are spread out all over the country. There are very few condensed communities. The places where these kinds of readers congregate are usually in bars owned by expats or friendly to expats. Unlike back in one’s home country, there are no magazine or newspaper stands that readily stock magazines for the expat community. Many in fact don’t even stock the English language newspapers, and expats are far from the habit of browsing the magazine rack for an easy read to pick up.

I would imagine that the only way you’d find any of the magazines in these small spaces is if they were taken over by a major publisher willing to take the risk to distribute and sell them nationwide.

While Groove magazine is free, 10 Magazine is for sale, but only at the very low price of a few thousand won. I imagine this is to not discourage readers with a price representative of the hard work made by the writers, but one to encourage a large amount of sales and to increase the size of the magazine’s readership, which is its main goal.

Of course advertising is the main income source for both magazines, and those who do advertise in these magazines have different goals. If you look at 10 Magazine, which is sold in Hotels and bookstores in Korea, there are more elaborate restaurants and medical clinics advertising in the magazines, while Groove seems to have more interest from alcohol brands, bars, and expat owned restaurants.

Does this make any difference to the fact that the writers don’t get any money? No.

I have on occasion been offered a few freebies though. Once I got tickets to the Seoul international DJ festival and then another time I got tickets to some exhibition and some theatre extravaganza-esque thing that looked like Nanta. Of course the catch was I had to use them before I came back from a three month holiday in Ireland. While these little perks are nice, it would be nicer to receive these on top of a cheque every so often.

In case you get the idea that I’m complaining, I’m not, these are just observations based on my own experiences. As I said, I don’t mind, in fact I enjoy working on an assignment and submitting it. I also enjoy seeing my work printed in the final product. My payment comes in the form of having my articles published in very professionally put together magazine with good content and a good feel to it.

This is how I see it now. Maybe I won’t feel the same the next time I think about this.

3 thoughts on “On Being a Writer in Korea – Getting Down to Dirty Truth

  1. I have to say, I agree with Julie Schwietert in her interestingarticle ( http://cuadernoinedito.wordpress.com/2012/09/08/we-all-have-to-stop-working-for-free-dont-we/) that people willingly submitting articles to websites for free is devaluing writers and writing itself. “As a provider of goods and services–writing and photography are products, after all–I’m not willing to participate in a financial system that operates any differently from the office supply store. The radio station producer doesn’t walk into Staples and say she needs office supplies but won’t pay for them because she doesn’t have the budget for them. Why should creative services be any different?”


      • The market reacts only to commercial value, but a writer is free to react to the market in any way he or she chooses. If your prime driver as a writer is commerciality then you may have to accept the fact that you’re not going to make much of an impact as a writer.

        Many writers choose to do unpaid work to improve their portfolios, I’m one of them, but I think you have to evaluate the work on two factors: will it REALLY help my portfolio, and is the work of it’s own inherent value? If the answer to the second one is no, and you’re doing it anyway, then you’re a hack, plain and simple. I write for two well-respected film magazines, both of which I read and admire and am honoured to write for. One is an academic journal printed by a university which never pays its esteemed contributors, the other one is a fantastic boutique publication with a very limited budget which can only afford to pay for certain articles, and pays me about 30% of the time, which I’m okay with. Other writers include one of the BBC’s main film critics and Oxbridge professors.

        Just because the market acts in one way doesn’t mean an artist should. The film market responds primarily to screenplays with clear commercial prospects, but it’s only the shills and hacks who jettison their own artistic vision to write mediocre but commerically viable scripts. Their careers may buy them a house, but no-one will care once they’re dead. Mediocre writers who don’t value their work write for free, talented writers who do value their work go away for a few years and write a novel. So, if there’s no market for your writing, go work on your writing until it’s too good to be ignored. If it’s never too good to be ignored, you can only blame that on your own limitations, and I’d much rather do battle with them than with the endlessly venal vacillations of ‘the market’. A writer should be like a salesman as little as humanly possible.

        And if you don’t want to write any novels and screenplays and purely want to work and a jobbing writer for magazines and websites, well, first of all that’s almost unheard of, and second of all, you’re in for a disappointing life.


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