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Book industry cries murder

by Janet Ashby

Although everyone agrees that the Japanese publishing industry is in trouble, there is less consensus as to the causes. Book and magazine sales have been declining for five years and book revenues for last year were at roughly the same level as a decade earlier; indeed, some say that if it were not for the Harry Potter series sales would have fallen over 30 percent from the previous 30 years.

The nature of the best-seller list has changed as well, with the top 10 sellers for 2001 and the first half of this year dominated by the sort of books relegated by the New York Times best-seller list to the side category of “Advice, How to and Miscellaneous.” The No. 1 seller in Japan last year was “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson, and, with the exception of Harry Potter, fiction has been conspicuous by its absence.

Last year saw the publication of several books on the crisis in Japanese publishing, of which “Dare ga hon o korosu no ka” (Who Is Killing the Book?) by noted nonfiction author Shinichi Sano particularly received attention. Now Sano has put together a new volume, “Dare ga ho o korosu no ka Part 2,” gathering together the speeches and interviews he did on the topic after the first book came out, as well as the many book reviews it garnered.

In it, Sano and those he talks with ponder the reasons for the loosening of the formerly strong ties of the Japanese to books. One factor, they agree, is that life in Japan has speeded up while the book remains a slow medium. Also, in a time of 24-hour convenience stores and instant Internet access, people don’t want to wait for a book that isn’t in stock or to pay a premium for special services.

Akira Nagae, who frequently writes about the publishing industry, points out that books these days are a consumer product little different from a Prada or Vuitton bag for many buyers. In an earlier time readers looked to books to shake up their preconceptions, but contemporary readers seek out “healing” books like “Who Moved My Cheese?” that will affirm their views and tell them that everything is OK.

Similarly, Sano comments that books are a superior tool for cultivating the imagination, gaining insight into other people, and finding answers within oneself, but recently people want books that will give them the answer to life — to getting ahead, getting rich, achieving perfect health, and so on. He feels it is tragic for readers that editors and publishers are willing to give them such books and, conversely, tragic for editors and publishers that readers will buy such books.

In addition to the problem of reader expectations are the structural problems of overexpansion in publishing companies and bookstores during the fat times. Consolidation seems inevitable and the current flood of an average of 180 new titles a day unsustainable. Sano compares Japan’s large publishers today to the six major Japanese movie studios that became dinosaurs unable to adapt to a new age of TV and video, and Nagae points out the similarities to the music industry, which has million-sellers but a shorter and shorter life for each song or album and declining sales overall.

And, just as the American music industry has blamed all its problems on Napster, there has been a recent movement by writers and publishers to blame their problems on the so-called new-used bookstores and public libraries. The new-used bookstores are chain stores that sell recent best sellers secondhand at 40-50 percent of the fixed retail price. Since authors ad publishers receive no royalties from such sales at Book Off or Book Market, they blame them for reducing sales of new books in ordinary bookstores.

However, as Wataru Hoshino points out in Japanese Book News (Spring 2002), it was the publishers themselves who fostered in the 1970s and 1980s the culture of cheap and disposable reading matter that such chain stores are now exploiting; it is the protectionist system of price maintenance imposed by publishers that prevents discounting by regular bookstores.

As an American who grew up with public libraries, I was shocked by the first article I saw calling public libraries free rental shops, published in the prestigious Bungei Shunju in December 2000. In this article, Nozomu Hayashi praises Book Off for saving good books that got buried in the avalanche of new titles and for helping readers fight back against the price-maintenance system. However, he criticizes libraries for pandering to cheapskates and for wasting money on ephemeral best sellers. Since the fate of a new book is decided in the first three months after publication, he calls on libraries not to lend out books until that period has passed and to pay user fees to authors and publishers when lending out tens of copies of one title.

Writing in Shincho 45 in October 2001, Shuhei Nire is more measured in his concern. Although estimating lost royalties because of library lending for a volume of a best seller by mystery writer Miyuki Miyabe at 7.9 million yen, Nire appreciates the role of libraries in supporting literary novels with small print runs and social science and art titles from smaller publishers. He calls for increased funding, independent administrative status, and professional staffing in order to enhance the role of the public library and improve selection policies.

Last June, the Japan Pen Club issued a statement critical of new-old bookstores, manga coffee shops and libraries, but more recently authors seem to be increasingly viewing the library as a potential partner in the effort to protect print culture. A petition from the Japan Writers’ Association to the government in June called for the establishment of a public lending right system, as found in several European countries, in which national funds would make up for lost royalties from library lending of books. However, as Ryoichi Minami of the National Diet Library points out in Shuppan News (July 2002), it is difficult to envision the national government establishing a substantial new fund for such a system in its current financial circumstances. Rather, it would probably just make further cuts in library budgets, which have already been slashed in recent years.