Cultivating Japan’s E-book Market

In Digital by Hannah Johnson

Despite Japan’s technology-driven economy, its e-book market remains small…but publishers and tech companies are looking for ways to grow this business.

By Hannah Johnson

TOKYO: Japan overflows with digital technology — every taxi has several Internet-connected devices mounted on the dashboard, mobile phones of all shapes and sizes are ubiquitous, and ultra high-speed Internet (80 mb/s in my hotel in Tokyo!) seems to be the norm. But for all that, the e-book market in Japan remains small.

Japanese ebook panel discussion

Yoichi Sato (Google), Juergen Boos (Frankfurt Book Fair), Fujio Noguchi (Sony), and Bill McCoy (IDPF) at the E-Book Expo Tokyo

During the E-Book Expo at the Tokyo International Book Fair on July 7, an international panel of publishing and technology experts addressed the current status of e-book markets around the world, and how publishers and other companies can develop the e-book market in Japan.

Masahiro Kitagawa of Impress Holdings, which owns several publishers and software companies, presented statistics and trends regarding the e-book market in Japan, and how it compares to e-book markets around the world.

According to Kitagawa, Japan’s total book market for 2010 was valued at 1.95 trillion yen ($18.6 billion), of which e-books comprised 65 billion yen ($806 million) or 3.3% of the overall market.

Masahiro Kitagawa of Impress Holdings

Masahiro Kitagawa of Impress Holdings

Kitagawa said that mobile manga comics created the Japanese e-book market, and continue to dominate over other types of e-book content like fiction and nonfiction titles. However, Kitagawa predicted that the Japanese e-book market would grow rapidly to 200 billion yen by 2015. Both the dropping price of e-readers and the wider adoption of smartphones in Japan could contribute to this growth.

One reason the market has not grown at the same speed as the US is that Japanese publishers are still very much focused on print books. They are conservative when it comes to digital content and digital rights. Business models, distribution and sales channels are rooted in the print world, and the digital initiatives are coming mostly from non-publishing companies that are more eager to embrace digital content than book publishers.

Kitagawa’s advice to the audience on how to grow Japan’s e-book market came from an unexpected source…Yoda of Star Wars: “You have to unlearn what you have learned.” He noted that current business models may not be suited for e-books and that the industry will have to adjust if it wants to take advantage of digital opportunities.

Juergen Boos, Director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, echoed that sentiment in his presentation, saying “We should not see digital media as a threat to us, but as an opportunity.” Boos said that in Germany, e-books accounted for around 0.5% of the overall book market and that 35% of publishers in Germany currently offer e-books. While Germany’s e-book market is expected to grow rapidly — “2011 is the time to get into e-books,” Boos said — German publishers still take a more conservative approach to e-books, much like Japanese publishers.

Ebook Expo Tokyo crowd

Audience at the E-Book Expo in Tokyo

One of the roadblocks to developing Japan’s e-book market lies in the usability of e-book stores and devices, according to Fujio Noguchi, Senior General Manager of Sony’s Digital Reading Business Division. Noguchi said currently, customers are confused about where to buy e-books and how to get that content on their devices. For this reason, Sony has formed a partnership with Kinokuniya (the largest bookstore chain in Japan) and Panasonic in order to create a seamless customer experience when buying and reading e-books on a variety of devices. In this way, Noguchi said, “we hope we can cultivate the market further.”

DISCUSS: Is E-book Innovation at a Standstill?

About the Author

Hannah Johnson


Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.