Last year, with the arrival and immediate success of the iPad in Japan, expectations were raised for the future of e-books in Japan. According to the latest figures (from Impress R&D), in fiscal 2010, sales of e-books increased 13 percent over the previous year to some ¥65 billion.

By comparison, print book sales totaled some ¥821.3 billion, down for the fourth year in a row.

As the market moves from cell phones to iPads and other reading devices, the content is changing as well, from comics to novels and business books.

Three major publishers — Shinchosha, Kodansha and Gakuken — have announced plans to release all of their new publications in digital as well as print format. The sales price will be set at 20 to 30 percent less for the e-book version.

The rise of electronic publishing is often framed as a zero-sum game with traditional ink and paper books, but the March quake and tsunami demonstrated anew the importance of both.

With the disruption of the usual distribution networks, publishers and libraries used electronic means of getting information to the disaster areas. As a response to the demand in the disaster area, materials ranging from manuals on first-aid and the psychological care of children and other victims to data on nuclear power plants and comic magazines were sent out.

The important role of traditional media was also highlighted in the wake of the disaster. People in the afflicted areas soon expressed a hunger for reading material.

Newspapers and magazines provided immediate coverage of the ongoing crisis and issued special commemorative records of the disaster. Books from the backlist of publishers, on earlier tsunami for example, became relevant once again.

And new nonfiction, especially in new paperback (shinsho) editions, is playing a crucial role in the post-disaster national debate over nuclear policy, government, technology and the future of Japanese society.

The business model for e-books in Japan is not yet clear. And if the recent bankruptcy of the Borders bookstore chain in the United States is any indication, bookstores are particularly at risk, but as seen in the postdisaster situation, there is at least the hope that digital publishing can develop into a complementary relationship with print books.

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