The Japanese bookstore world used to be one of “If you put it out, it will sell.” But that comfortable age is over. Seven straight years of declining book sales have killed off some 1,500 bookstores.

Now, five years after the battle between independents and superstore chains was taken up in the Hollywood movie “You’ve Got Mail,” mega-stores have popped up in Japan, spurred on by lower post-bubble rents and the threat posed by online booksellers.

Just this month, Maruzen opened Japan’s third-largest bookstore in the Marunouchi section of Tokyo, with a stock of 1.2 million books (200,000 of them foreign), while Junkudo — which operates Japan’s largest bookstore in Ikebukuro — is opening up a new store next month directly opposite the Kinokuniya’s older store in Shinjuku.

In this new competitive environment, bookstores have started to move away from making the same old piles of new titles and best sellers and are trying to differentiate themselves with special displays and events. In particular, POPs — “point of purchase” recommendations written by the clerks and placed next to displays of certain books — have helped launch several best sellers and led to the emergence of an unlikely new “charisma” category — the charisma bookstore clerk.

According to Nikkei Entertainment (September), Japan’s leading charisma clerk, Rie Fujisaki, who works in Narita, helped propel the tearjerker “Sekai no Chushin de Ai o Sakebu (Crying for Love in the Center of the World)” to mega-hit status. The story also gives us the latest recommendations (and details about the different uniforms worn at each chain store).

The first annual Bookstore Award has also been a success, leading to higher sales for the winner, Yoko Ogawa’s “Hakase no Aishita Sushiki (A Numerical Formula a Doctor Loves).”

In an interesting discussion in the magazine Tsukuru (March), four bookstore managers lament the difficulty of selling books in the current sales environment. Million-sellers like “Baka no Kabe (The Wall of a Fool)” may bring new customers into their stores, but they just buy that one book and leave.

While they find it discouraging that readers seem to be declining in number, especially young readers, and that the recent best seller rankings are full of celebrity and TV-related books, the managers accept this new reality and try not to blame others for their falling sales, unlike many editors and publishers.

Norio Chaki of Tokiwa notes that bookstores are still far behind convenience stores and fast-food restaurants in terms of customer service, product development and marketing. Takashi Suzuki of Kinokuniya says the publishing industry is odd in that it has shown weak business sense and acted complacently in the face of recession. Publishers still apparently feel little pressure to make their output more interesting to consumers and instead churn out product after product, many of which are returned by bookstores within a week or so.

The most common response to the slump has been to flood the market with books in the hope that something will work, but some publishers have been more successful combining sharp editorial sense with savvy business skills.

Since its founding in 1993, Gentosha has published nine million-sellers. In DaCapo (Sept. 15), Gentosha chief Toru Kenjo attributes the company’s success to passion and conviction on the part of author and editor. That energy comes out in the book, giving it life and capturing the hearts of readers. He points out that other publishers have tried to imitate their marketing methods but, lacking that passion, haven’t been able to achieve the same results.

That passion is shown by Jun Hino, one of the four editors who worked on their latest million-seller, novelist Ryu Murakami’s innovative “13 Sai no Hello Work,” which describes various jobs to young people. He recalls that in the last two months of editing, he often worked all night long in the conference room.

Another publisher that has been financially successful in these crisis years has been Chikuma, which is profiled along with 12 other small and medium-size publishers in “Shuppan o Meguru Boken (Adventures in Publishing)” by Nagaoka Yoshiyuki.

Founded in 1940, Chikuma went through many of today’s problems a quarter of a century ago: Unable to divorce itself from a once successful business model — subscription sales of zenshu (large sets of literary works) — it desperately hired more people and put out more and more titles until sinking into bankruptcy in 1978. As it restructured, it shed employees, cut salaries and diversified its output. Many veteran managers left, but under younger management and the shock of bankruptcy, Chikuma established better balance and cooperation between the business and editorial sides of its operations and developed knowhow in analyzing computerized sales data. This work paid off by giving Chikuma better knowledge of when to place ads or start new print runs to increase sales and decrease returns from bookstores. It learned the hard way that it couldn’t continue publishing quality works without a firm financial base.

As Nagaoka notes, some publishers put sales above all else, quality be damned, and others think only of quality, blaming buyers for not being smart enough to buy its books. But Chikuma has rebuilt itself and flourished by giving judicious weight to both aspects.

This article was originally published in The Japan Times on Sept. 23.

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