Small presses fill a niche in books about Japan

Developments in digital printing, combined with Internet-based marketing, have allowed small publishers to flourish. The Japan Times takes a look at several small presses serving Japan and Asia

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Isobar Press (Tokyo)
Speciality: Poetry

“There is a crisis of the printed book, but poetry is one of the genres that works best as a physical book,” Isobar Press founder Paul Rossiter says. “A lot of the readers are themselves poets and it can sound a bit ingrown, but actually it’s quite healthy. It provides a solid, loyal and almost passionate audience which is not going to go away.”

Rossiter should know, as a poet himself. The former University of Tokyo professor started Isobar Press two years ago when he retired from teaching, and hopes to publish six titles a year. Within the poetic world, Rossiter strives to publish works that showcase the “variety and excellence available within the poetry community associated with Japan.”

“An isobar is a line on a weather map joining points of equal pressure,” he explains. “So metaphorically, it does not matter where you are on the stylistic landscape of poetry, quality works engender equivalent pressure.”

Recent books include “A Great Valley Under the Stars” by Royall Tyler.

Stone Bridge Press (Berkeley, California)

Peter Goodman started Stone Bridge Press in 1989 when all the risks for small publishers were still in place and he’s weathered many a publishing storm. Still going strong, Stone Bridge knows how to survive.

“I wish I were 25 again,” Goodman says, “because the future is so interesting and there is so much energy and so many different things we can do. There’s now a whole other world of digital publishing that enables us to still get our content out to areas where there are no longer bookstores that carry our books. It is no longer the case that people who want our books cannot get them.”

Indeed, Stone Bridge has embraced digital technology: “We recently did a book on Taiko drumming, not only as an ebook but also with sound files available, so that you can beat on the drum or hear how the bells sound or hear words pronounced for you,” Goodman explains.

As the veteran among small presses featuring Japan, Goodman believes “there’s always new stuff to learn, so I am not treading water, but I am building on a pretty solid foundation of experience. It is nice to flex your muscles, not in a bad sense, but to keep doing things that are challenging and to do it with a reasonable amount of confidence.”

Recent books include “The Way of Taiko” by Heidi Varian.

Chin Music Press (Seattle)
Speciality: Japanese aesthetic

Bruce Rutledge started Chin Music Press after 15 years in Japan working in media-related industries. Returning to the U.S. in 2004, he felt “Seattle was a good place to support this venture, because we have lots of rain, lots of bookstores and lots of readers, so I thought it was less risky to start something here. We felt strongly that our books had to reflect what makes a book worth being a book, so the physical aspects of our works are strongly influenced by Japanese design and Japanese book making. Even our books that have nothing to do with Japan are influenced by an aesthetic that helps us last longer on the shelf and draws interest. Beautiful, well made things these days actually have more value than they used to because everything is going digital.”

Not that Chin Music Press ignores current technology. “We hope to apply the aesthetic regard that we bring to the print and paper and take it to ebooks as well — a lot of ereaders are more formatted to a digital dump of text, but technology like the iPad offers more options, so it is a matter of the technology catching up too,” Rutledge explains.

Recent books include “Cute Grit” by Enfu.

Bento Books (Tokyo and Texas)
Speciality: By translators, for translators

Founders Alexander Smith, Tony Gonzalez and Joseph Reeder first logged in considerable experience as translators before deciding to start their own press.

“We are doing everything we can to create the kind of company that we wanted to work for as a translator — including giving large royalties to our translators, but it’s not only money,” Gonzalez explains. “Usually translators just work for hire. But especially in entertainment, the role of the translator is a very creative one. It’s a win-win situation, because as a work for hire, there is a different mindset than if you are also invested in the finished product, and it does change your attitude about what you put on the page.” Since good translation is the starting point, their books so far offer a wide range of styles and genres, and Smith admits it is intentional. “It can be frustrating to try to sum up Bento Books, as we’re kind of all over the map,” Smith says. “Entertainment is very important to us, but we want to provide thoughtful entertainment; a story that moves you along and keeps you engrossed, yet still engages with thought-provoking content underlying the story.”

Recent books include “Cage on the Sea” by Kaoru Ohno. Translated by Giles Murray.

Kurodahan Press (Fukuoka)
Speciality: Japanese Literature in English, Speculative Fiction

Edward Lipsett, founding member of Kurodahan Press, is also CEO of Intercom Ltd., a commercial translation and production company that has been in business for more than 25 years.

“Intercom makes the money that KHP spends,” Lipsett says. “Technology has made it much easier to publish books and distribute them internationally, but at the same time it has also brought about an inundation of new authors and publishers releasing their own books. The sheer quantity of titles on the market makes it hard for us to be noticed. Social media promotion and tightly targeted advertising are essential for any small press to succeed these days. And of course publishing quality books that people talk about is a good strategy, too!” Kurodahan focuses on speculative fiction and literature. “We try to find books that deserve to be read in other languages,” Lipsett continues. “They reveal a different perspective on life, illuminate Japanese society, or are truly outstanding stories.”

Recent books included “Oh, Tama!”by Kanai Mieko. Translated by Tomoko Aoyama and Paul McCarthy.