The Bizarre State of Japan’s Failing Book Publishing Industry: What We Can Learn

You step into a Japanese bookstore. Wall to wall you see nondescript, two-tone spines with black lettering, so you decide to search by author and genre. Unfortunately the books are grouped by publisher and you don’t know which one you are looking for, so you ask the attendant for help. He tells you, “That’s a foreign book. We only stock bunko, or proven bestsellers.” And it’s the biggest bookstore in town.
Much like in the West, the Japanese publishing industry was hit hard by the rise of digital media and the Barnes & Noble–style superstore. These changes and the resulting panic they caused have largely settled down in the West, where print has proven to be resilient to total destruction, but publishers are struggling to remain relevant by adopting new technologies and upending traditional business practices. Can the same be said for the nation that, in 2016, does business almost exclusively through fax machines? No, seriously . . .
Yes, Japan’s book publishing industry is almost certainly in the toilet, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. With Apple, Google, and Amazon slowly but surely expanding their digital distribution services in the country, the problems will only compound. But I’m more concerned with what we can learn from this as future publishers in a risky business. How did it go so wrong? Here is just a taste of what I think happened:

  1. Japanese Pricing Models and Return Rates Are Insane – The Japanese bookseller is operating on saihansei, or consignment, meaning they don’t have to pay for their stock and instead are making 20 percent on each product sold to the consumer. If the book doesn’t sell, it can be returned to the publisher, just like in the West. There is, unfortunately, a huge caveat to this system: the vast majority of Japanese books are priced by the publisher, and the price cannot be adjusted at any point in distribution or sales. This hurts the publishers the most, as a poorly judged market can mean unprecedented rates of return, sometimes averaging over 50 percent. While there have been pushes to deregulate this rigorous sales model, Japanese publishers are resistant to losing total control over their products in the storefront.
  2. Foreign Titles Are Almost Universally Disregarded – Earlier, I mentioned Bunko, or mass-market bestsellers. They are small, paperback books with undecorated spines and little to no cover art. They are also virtually the only format for foreign works in the Japanese bookstore. Scouts for Japanese publishing houses will typically only choose certified bestsellers with clear mass-market appeal for localization, and they don’t choose many of them. It is estimated that only 8 percent of the books on sale in Japan were originally printed in other countries, and that 8 percent doesn’t mean the newest and hottest books on the international market. It’s not uncommon to see nearly all foreign shelf space taken up by ancient but proven backlisted titles. Patricia Cornwell, Michael Connelly, and even Aldous Huxley—deceased since 1963—take up the most visible and marketable positions in Japanese bookstores. Here is a great article on the impossible challenge for the foreign bestseller in Japan if you’d like to delve a little deeper.
  3. Print Media is Not Made Valuable in Japan – Many western publishers put a remarkable amount of effort into increasing the heft, build quality, and aesthetic appeal of the books they release. Why do so when condensed paperbacks are so much cheaper to produce? Because a consumer will perceive a bigger, prettier book as more valuable, though not strictly from a monetary perspective. A book’s build quality and art are powerful marketing tools, as a fancy book becomes more than just its contained information. It can also be sold at a greater profit margin. In Japan, however, there are almost no hardcover books, especially in trade publishing. Even guaranteed bestsellers are printed in a publishing house’s uniform paperback style, devoid of the typical artistic embellishments of the western hardcover. And if the value of a text is solely the information within, then what’s the incentive for purchasing physical over digital?

Ultimately, these examples show that it was an unwillingness to change that brought Japanese publishing to its knees; a steadfast reliance on older models of sales and consumption that couldn’t hold up in a more competitive market. Now, Japan seems to have no choice but to prepare for the all-digital future that we are actively and consciously adapting to in the West.

One thought on “The Bizarre State of Japan’s Failing Book Publishing Industry: What We Can Learn

  1. Kento

    I do apologize if this turns out being too much, this is just a subject that has been on my mind a lot of late and this post runs counter to my experiences and to my thinking in a way that makes me want to write.
    I walk into a major bookstore within walking distance of where I live in Tokyo. There is a directory that indicates which floor houses which type of book. Periodicals? Second floor. Humanities? Third floor. Foreign language books? Fourth floor. I go to the third floor. Each aisle is marked with the different kinds of books that can be found within it. Civil engineering? Western philosophy? Business? Programming? I came for philosophy. There are several bookshelves of books written in Japanese on Western philosophy. Helpful dividers tell me where the sections on each major philosopher begins and ends, they are arranged roughly chronologically. Each section includes translated major works, as well as commentaries. I’m curious about the civil engineering section, so I check it out too, and while I know little about civil engineering, nothing seems particularly strange or inconvenient about the way the books are arranged.
    It is true that Japan prints a great portion of works in standardized formats (mostly derived from ISO standards), but there are, for the reader, practical advantages to this arrangement. Books published in the dominant formats do not occupy a great deal of space, and are highly portable, perfect for reading on the train without burdening other riders. (The decline of reading on the train is, I think, a reasonably plausible lead on what is causing misfortunes in the Japanese publishing industry, but I don’t think this decline can be attributed to some sudden deficiency in the bunkobon format.)
    If there is a problem with the bunkobon format, my guess as to what it is is that the economic conditions that lead to the widespread usage of the format have changed. Japan after WWII was very poor, and subsequently published very austere looking books. The poor economic conditions in Europe after the war also lead to austere looking books being published on the continent as well. What marked Japanese economic development until the 1990s though was a remarkable degree of economic equality, which may have encouraged the maintenance of a relatively austere but still fundamentally egalitarian and democratic format as the bunkobon as the preferred book type. Economic equality has disintegrated quickly in recent years though, and perhaps this has made the bunkobon less attractive. This may, of course, may just be nonsense, but I hope at least to make plausible the case that particularities of the Japanese publishing industry could be tied up with historical circumstance and wider political concerns.
    A lot does get published outside of the bunkobon format, but they have specialized purposes. Hardcover books are most often children’s books, where sturdiness is a more desirable feature (the association with children’s books may be another reason hardcovers are rare in Japan, there’s just a number of reasons why hardcovers might not be value added in a Japanese context). Art books take on a variety of forms (I missed this year’s Tokyo Art Book Fair, but from all reports it was a wonderfully interesting and exciting). Doujinshi can be very eclectic.
    The characterization of Japanese publishers only being interested in foreign works certain to be best sellers seems very off. One of the best selling foreign-origin non-fiction books in recent years was Thomas Piketty’s Capital, the rights of which were sold to its Japanese publisher Misuzu Shobo before its publication /in France/, that is to say, well before there was any indication that it could sell well even in its country of origin, let alone become popular around the world. There are many small publishers in Japan picking up interesting foreign language works, taking on as big of risks as any other of the world’s most daring publishers.
    The idea that 8% is a dismal rate of foreign origin books also seems curious to me. The Scottish author Ali Smith recently said in a radio interview for the BBC that only 3% of books published in the UK are translated from other languages (the UK obviously does print many books from other English speaking countries, but Japan can’t draw on other countries with a Japanese-language textual tradition, the barrier for entry for Japan for foreign books is always going to be the same as the barrier for foreign language books). Not incidentally, this interview was on the topic of one of Tove Jansson’s novels only just becoming available in English- Tove Jansson being listed in the linked Publishing Perspectives article as being the single most discoverable foreign language author in Japan. If this 8% figure includes manga, which take up a considerable portion of the floor of popular Japanese bookstore chains, the 8% rate seems more remarkable because of the singularness of the manga publishing industry on the world scene.

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