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Will Foreign Digital Competition Change Japanese Publishing Culture?

In 2010, the arrival of the iPad was compared to the Black Ships of the 1800s.

By Edward Nawotka

Book publishing in Japan is a $20-22 billion annual business, largely dominated by a handful of large publishers. Isolated by language, with little outside competition, and with a business culture that is comfortable with large conglomerates dominating the landscape, the publishers have long dictated the terms on which they do business with customers. Any threat to this status quo is viewed with suspicion, at best, and paranoia, at worst. Digitization and e-books have been especially stymied. In 2010, on the announcement of the iPad, Japan’s Communications minister Kazuhiro Haraguchi and the Electronic Book Publishers Association of Japan compared the tablet to the “Black Ships” that opened trade with the USA in the 1800s. Now, with even more foreign companies expected to land on Japan’s shores in the coming year, our contributor Robin Birtle suggests that “things are about to change,” in particular when it comes to opening up the market to new titles.

He writes:

The inevitable entry of Amazon, Apple and Kobo to the Japanese market will do nothing to hasten the digitization of Japan’s print backlist, but it will bring large-scale, open and transparent self-publishing programs. Overnight the closed ranks of Japan’s e-bookstores will be reduced to nothing more than a digital Maginot Line, around which the self publishers will swarm.

What’s more, with the recent acquisition of Kobo by Japanese e-retailer Rakuten, the pace of change in retailing is likely to hasten as well, particularly as the close collaboration between publishers and retailers comes under even more strain, as retailers realize just how many opportunities it affords them to sell directly to consumers.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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    Posted February 9, 2012 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    I don’t know why Publishing Perspectives routinely gives critical articles for the Japanese publishers. (I’m thinking too much?)
    Japanese e-book publishing was around 50 billion Yen (about 500 million dollar) market already in 2008, and 65 billion Yen in 2010.
    Most were manga and novel for mobile phone.

    The problems of Japanese e-book are;

    1) Publishers have any rights. When they publish an e-book, they have to negotiate again with its author who often worries to digitize his or her own work. Amazon’s way doesn’t work for the Japanese publishing industry.

    2) E-book devises. Japanese paperbacks (“Bunko”) are smaller, lighter and cheaper, and reader-friendly than yours. Many Japanese readers don’t feel the necessity for reading e-books. And many e-book devises are unsuitable for Japanese vertical writing books.

    3) Japanese mobile phones are very usable. Japanese people even watch TV on their phone. So they tend to carry no more devises like e-book reader!

  2. Posted February 9, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Why is 8 percent considered low? I think the number is, for foreign books, pretty high. In the USA, the number of foreign books on the market is probably below 1 percent.

  3. Posted February 9, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    As I think the japanese publishing industry is a special one – like Tomita said bunko-sized books for reading everywhere – so will be the digital change.
    Regarding the mobile phone comics which never played any important role in Europe, japanese customer behavior is different and should be considered while making digital steps. But creating one big ebook-market accessible worldwide (problems with bought content via kindle regarding which country you are etc.) could be advantageous for everybody: the publishers, the authors and the readers.
    “Give the people what they want so they don’t have to look for it elsewhere” is a statement I highly appreciate but until there it is a long way. Nevertheless I think the japanese book industry is evolving in a good way as the topic “reading” is still a main part of everybody’s daily life in Japan.

  4. Posted February 9, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I’m sure Lee Childs cries every night in his bed of money that he doesn’t have as much exposure as he would like in Japan.

    I’m not saying the Japanese publishing model couldn’t be more open, but do the Japanese people really need more of OUR crappy bestsellers to kill time while commuting?

  5. Posted February 9, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    What I really think Japanese need is an Amazon CreateSpace. They have a lot of poets and some authors who have to spend outrageous sums of money to create print books of their works. My Japanese friend who translated into Japanese an English-language poetry book concerning a famous old Japanese poet was amazed at how inexpensively I got my book pubbed via Lightning Source and how easy and relatively inexpensive CreateSpace is. The book was too niche for Japanese publishers to take on.

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