A bibliophile’s whodunit: Who is killing the book?

by Janet Ashby

Who is killing the book in Japan? That is the provocative question posed by veteran nonfiction writer Shin’ichi Sano in his recent book of the same title (“Dare ga ‘hon’ o korosu no ka,” President Sha, 1,800 yen).

He has several suspects. Could it be the distribution system and bookstores that fail to deliver books one is looking for? Or is it publishers and editors who produce a flood of uninteresting books?

Certainly the publishing industry is hurting, with gross sales of books and magazines down 15 percent over the past four years, returns near 40 percent and bookstores closing at the rate of 1,000 a year.

Despite his title, Sano is not searching for villains but, based on two years of extensive investigation, reporting on the state of the industry as it struggles to adjust to changing times and to the promise and threat of e-publishing.

Sano’s stated focus on reportage rather than cultural commentary, however, results in limited consideration of two other prime players: the author and the reader. After chapters on bookstores, distributors, publishers, regional presses, editors, libraries, book reviews and electronic publishing, he devotes just 10 pages to the authors and readers who will “decide the life or death of the book.”

In an epilogue he notes the passing of “national authors” like Seicho Matsumoto (d. 1992) or Ryotaro Shiba (d. 1996). In a speeded-up and more diverse age, perhaps such cultural convergence in one author is no longer possible. While Sano believes that books have by no means become unnecessary in our fast-paced age, there is an inherent disjunction between the rapid pace of change and the non-speedy nature of the medium, where the true value of reading a particular book may only become apparent years later.

The severe business environment for publishers is reflected in the business records last year of two major publishers, Kodansha and Shogakukan, as detailed in the April issue of Tsukuru. Revenues declined at Kodansha for the fifth year in a row, down 5.1 percent from the previous year overall and down 9.3 percent for books. At Shogakukan, revenues and profits went down for the second year, falling 4 percent overall and 16 percent for books.

Reasons cited for the poor showing include the recession, downward pressure on prices, competition from other media such as i-mode on cell phones, and pressure from discount- and used-book chains like Book Off. And although the entire industry is witnessing a relatively large number of best sellers, competition is intense in the lower price range (“bunko,” “shinsho”) as well as for shelf space in bookstores.

Countermeasures being taken include such seemingly obvious steps as conducting a careful cost analysis for each book, choosing proper print-run sizes and reducing inventory. Shogakukan is hoping to achieve increased accountability, horizontal communication and flexible use of personnel by replacing an unwieldy organization structure of 34 separate sections (one for each magazine, etc.) with eight divisions (children’s, comics, information magazines, weekly magazines, women’s magazines, communications, books and multimedia).

While it is undeniable that the environment for publishing is changing, it is less certain that the Japanese have stopped reading. In an interesting discussion in Tsukuru (April), Yasuo Ueda, a professor at Sophia University, Yoshiaki Kiyota, the editor of Shuppan News, and Hiroyuki Shinoda, the editor of Tsukuru, take up such questions. They point out that although people are buying fewer new books, they are patronizing libraries and used-book chains like Book Off. The drop in overall revenues can also be attributed in part to price deflation.

There continue to be megasellers against a backdrop of lowered sales in general. Recently, translations of American advice books have been doing well, among them “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki and the current No. 1 seller, “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson. There are over 2 million copies in print of this second title, a fable about dealing with loss and change that seems to be striking a chord in Japan. Kiyota comments that equivalent Japanese popularizers combining knowhow and storytelling skills are writing manga, not books. In earlier times, leading authorities like Masao Maruyama would write for the masses in shinsho, but now shinsho tend to be the province of rising academics writing more guardedly.

Another trend the three cite is the establishment of Internet bookstores, largely in response to the entry of Amazon into the Japanese market. Publishers are also actively exploring the possibilities of digital publishing, which Kiyota comments is perhaps a tacit recognition of the problems in the present system. Cooperative ventures are also emerging, such as a Web site set up by eight bunko publishers last year to make out-of-print bunko available online or a project started last month for on-demand publishing.

On the whole, however, the industry is displaying a low level of energy, with very few bold new initiatives. The three agree with Sano that publishing needs more passion and a higher sense of professionalism, especially in the face of current efforts to restrict press freedom through new privacy and youth laws.

It doesn’t look as if the trying times for Japanese publishing will end anytime soon.