More than 200 new books are published daily in Japan, and the total market of books and magazines surpasses ¥2 trillion. But experts say the publishing industry is facing a historic crisis.
Hundreds of bookstores nationwide shut down every year, and the market has largely been shrinking since 1996.
The daunting new challenges the industry face have book-loving intellectuals worrying about the future.
Following are some questions and answers about the domestic publishing industry and bookstores:
How large is the book and magazine market in Japan and what are recent trends?
In 2007, sales of books and magazines, including “manga” comics, reached an estimated ¥2.08 trillion, down 3.1 percent from the previous year, according to the Research Institute for Publications, a noted body specializing in the publication industry.
With sluggish sales in the first six months, 2008 is likely to again see a drop of around 3 percent from the 2007 level, said Toshiharu Sasaki, chief researcher at the institute.
In fact, the market has largely kept shrinking since its peak of ¥2.653 trillion in 1996, which means the size has shrunk 21.5 percent over the past 11 years.
Why is the market shrinking so rapidly?
Several factors are involved.
One is that people are simply reading fewer books while tapping other new diversified media that have emerged in recent years, including the Internet.
According to an annual survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun, 52 percent of 1,812 adult respondents said last October they did not read a book in the previous month, 14 points above the figure 20 years earlier.
The percentage of people who read one to three books a month had exceeded those who read none until the early 1990s. But the latter group has exceeded the former in number since the late 1990s, according to the survey.
Are there fewer bookstores as a result?
Yes, hundreds of small and midsize bookstores have closed in recent years.
The number of shops belonging to the Japan Booksellers Federation, a national industry group of bookstores selling newly published books, came to 5,869 in 2008 from a peak of 12,953 in 1986.
On the other hand, total sales floor space at bookstores nationwide increased by 11.68 percent from 1997 to 2002, according to a survey by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
This phenomenon indicates bookstore chains have opened larger outlets to replace small outlets.
Sasaki warns that some chains will soon be forced to close many of their stores because the size of the total book market will keep shrinking, despite their aggressive investments in larger stores.
How many new books are published in a year’s time?
2007 saw 77,417 new books published, which means 212 were published daily on average. The corresponding number was 65,458 in 1997, or 179 books daily.
Publishers have churned out more and more new books in recent years, trying to offset sluggish sales.
But this has resulted in more publication of cheaper, short-lived books. Of the 30 best-sellers of 2007, nine were “shinsho” books, or midsize paperbacks priced at ¥700 to ¥800, and another five were “keitai” novels, which were originally written for young people to read on cell phone screens and later published as books.
Why do stores rarely offer newly published books at discounts?
Discounts are rare because book distribution is based on fixed-price sales and consignments.
The antimonopoly law prohibits producers from compelling retailers to sell items at fixed prices. However, books and magazines are exempt because protecting the prices of copyrighted materials is considered important for maintaining the nation’s culture.
So publishers and wholesalers usually oblige bookstores by contract to sell new books at fixed prices.
In return for selling books at fixed prices anywhere in Japan, publishers meanwhile allow bookstores to return books on their shelves to publishers anytime to avoid inventory surges. This is the consignment system.
Many publishers, bookstores and intellectuals have long argued that maintaining this system is necessary to provide a stable and vast variety of books at reasonable, uniform prices nationwide.
They claim that without this arrangement, academic books would be too expensive or go unpublished, prices would shoot up in less-populated areas and the number of bookstores across the country would see a drastic decline.
But the fixed-price system allows wholesalers and retailers all to operate inefficiently.
According to the Research Institute for Publications, 39.4 percent of books in bookstores were returned to publishers in 2007, up 1.2 points from the previous year.
The Fair Trade Commission, the watchdog of the antimonopoly law, concluded in 2001 that the fixed-price system should be abolished. The commission, however, has not submitted a bill to the Diet to abolish the system, saying there is no national consensus on the issue.