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E-books look set to swamp us just as microwave ovens once did

by Roger Pulvers

The “microwave phenomenon” is with us again. I use this term to describe a product that arrives on the market before its time, then disappears for a while before returning with a vengeance to strike at people’s hearts and wallets.

In the mid-1950s, microwave ovens hit the American market and manufacturers obviously had high hopes of changing the cooking habits of a nation. But the product didn’t catch on. The microwave, as it has come to be known, went out as fast as it came in.

Why did people shy away from this convenient product, one that saves the bacon of many millions of working people by enabling them to ching up a dinner in no time flat? (Americans use the term “nuke up” for zapping in a microwave; but I have an aversion to that phrase and prefer “ching up,” from the Japanese chin suru [to microwave]. In our household, the microwave is called “the chinger.”)

Microwave ovens in the 1950s were both expensive (more than $1,000) and clunky. In addition, with the pervasive news of nuclear-weapons tests in the atmosphere, I believe people were worried about being irradiated by these new-fangled cookers.

But then cheaper and sleeker microwave ovens were reintroduced onto the market in the mid-’70s — and they caught on like a house on fire.

Now, from ovens to books.

On May 27, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported that a consortium of four companies will establish a new company to distribute e-books, including manga and periodicals, and deliver them to the reading public from around the end of this year. Each of the four companies — Sony, Toppan Printing Co., KDDI and the Asahi Shimbun — will take a one-quarter share. The Asahi noted — just as Apple’s iPad came onto the market in Japan — that major publishing companies such as Shueisha, Shogakukan and Kodansha have welcomed this chance to get their products into the hands of consumers via their computers and phones.

This isn’t the first foray into the market of computerized reading materials in Japan. Previous attempts, however, were not successful. Two years ago, I tried to buy an e-book pad for use in Japan, and was told that, although they had once been available, they were no longer on the market.

In 1993, electronics maker NEC came out with a digital book-reader, followed by Sharp and Panasonic. Sony had marketed an e-reader as early as 1990, but by 2007 the total PC e-book market was still only worth a paltry $150 million. Compare that to the nearly $20 billion-worth of books and magazines sold on paper, CDs and DVDs, and you will see how insignificant the sector has been.

Clearly, the public simply wasn’t interested in reading their favorite manga or whatever on a screen; and hardware makers withdrew their products for lack of demand.

Mobile phones proved to be the first exception. In 2002, leading publisher Shinchosha started its mobile eBook Web service, and two years later telecoms giant NTT followed suit with its mobile comic Web service. The Shinchosha venture proved to be a great success, and even fostered some nationwide bestsellers.

Novels began to be written for the mobile phone, though their style — given the medium — was characterized more by short sharp shocks of teenspeak than any Dostoevskian ruminations.

This market, though, is judged not by the length of brain waves it engenders in subscribers’ heads but by the clicks per second their fingers make. As for manga, with their individual frames and paucity of words, they lent themselves to the hand-held intimacy of the mobile phone.

Yet, even as e-book sales began to rocket in the United States, there was a strong resistance to the movement here in Japan. There are a few reasons for this.

First, the Japanese have truly loved their books and periodicals. When I arrived here in the 1960s, one of the first things that struck me was the number of people reading on the trains — as many as you now see fiddling with their mobiles. People loved their weekly and monthly magazines. The former carried, in many cases, the only investigative journalism done in Japan; and the latter offered in-depth articles on society and the arts — pieces that were hashed over at length on radio and television. Most households subscribed to both the morning and evening editions of a daily newspaper. There were used-book stores in every neighborhood, full of people buying, selling or just standing around enjoying a free read.

In other words, the Japanese public are not to be easily weaned off paper.

Second, most of the powerful publishing houses have been stubborn in their resistance to digitization, despite the few early attempts at creating a niche for themselves. They generally band together to stop anything that might smack of discounting, and naturally are not well disposed to handing over access to their properties to other corporate entities. Moreover, the legal aspects of digitization are formidable. Intellectual property may be divisible, but whose product is it anyway?

Third, the actual technology of digital delivery, in terms of ease, speed and clarity of image, were, even as late as a few years ago, not what they are today.

This has all led to the microwave phenomenon taking hold in e-book publishing in Japan. But be prepared. We are about to see, I believe, an entire nation won over by the onscreen reading of books and periodicals. Paper manufacturers of the world, diversify!

Just two months ago, book publishers in Japan formed an organization to deal with issues relating to e-book publishing here. This is really a case of better-late-than-never; but, knowing how jealously Japanese companies guard their turf, it’s amazing that 31 of them could come together at all on this. The members of the Electronic Book Publishers Association of Japan, as it is called, have seen the light — and it is on the portable computer screens and mobile phones of the nation.

For the publishers’ part, they are anxious to retain a hold on primary product — that is, the work of authors, journalists and manga artists. To them, the medium is definitely not the message; and they want to ensure that they can get their message across to as many consumers as possible. They are now — finally — aware that paper is no longer the medium of consumer choice.

I am sure the Japanese reading public will take to the e-book as all Japanese have to the mobile phone. If books and periodicals are cheaply and readily available to be downloaded, then — whether you are a writer, publisher or telecoms concern — it’s a win-win situation all around.

Who knows, maybe Japanese people will start saying, “Hon wo chotto pin shite” (“Ping me up a book, will you?”). The microwave phenomenon in reading is about to hit Japan big time. It’s coming to a screen near you.