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Publishers Weekly International

Japanese Publishing Report
Sally Taylor -- 4/15/98

Book publishers in Japan are suffering along with everyone else in the Asia region with an economy that is sluggish and money that is tight. But people still read, in fact Japan has one of the highest per capita book consumption rates in the world, three times that of the USA. Thus, with only one third the population, Japan is just as big a book market.

The vast majority of what the Japanese read is locally produced and in Japanese. In 1997, book sales were down by 1.8 percent to roughly 1 trillion yen or less than US$9 billion in value, 875 million copies, well below the 1989 high of 941 million copies. There are half a million book titles in print in Japan, with 60,000 new titles published annually.

In other words, this is still quite a book publishing market!

The barrier for exchange with the rest of the world's book publishers is primarily linguistic. Japanese students all learn to read and write English, few learn to speak it, or have confidence in the speaking skills that they have. But translated books represent half the top 50 best sellers in hard cover, and both Wild Swans and Forrest Gump sold over one million copies each.

Still, the industry as a whole is stagnant and Toshikazu Gomi, Managing Director of the Japan Book Publishers Association, expects lower total sales figures for 1997 and warns, "serious consideration must be given to the future of printed publications and approaches to new and multimedia."

Gomi also notes that trade paperbacks in Japan today are a bargain, averaging 806 yen, roughly US$7. And multimedia products have proliferated in recent years, but "Specialization and division of labor are distinguishing features of the Japanese publishing industry," he reports.

"Editing and publishing are the domain of publishing companies, of which there are approximately 6000. Printing and binding are contracted out to printing companies....Distribution and sales are accomplished through a variety of routes, the most common of which is the wholesaler to book store route. Approximately 80 wholesalers distribute books to close to 26,000 book stores. Convenience stores, of where there are over a million, are another popular outlet. Then there are schools, new stands, vending machines and mail order.

"Book stores account for approximately 70% of total sales, and there is one store for every 4800 people in Japan, twice the concentration of the USA."

Of course, book stores in Japan tend to be quite small, compared to the USA, too. Though retailers are trying to new "super store" model in Japan, so far the results have not been overwhelmingly good. Japan also suffers from the same consignment system in book selling as d s the USA.

"The wholesaler distributes books purchased on consignment from the publisher to each book store on the basis of computer analysis of the store's scale, characteristics and previous performance, as well as regional characteristics, a method known as computer distribution," Gomi explains. "Book stores can return free of charge any books which do not sell after a fixed period of time, paying only for those sold. Minimizing the risk for book stores in this way makes low-volume sales of a wide variety of titles possible, giving the consumer a greater selection of books to choose from."

In recent years, however, returns have reached 40%, forcing publishers and national wholesalers to reduce print runs and the number of copies shipped. Partly to blame are the retailers themselves, who refuse to risk unsold inventory. Nearly 1000 bookstores closed down in 1997, the smallest suffering most. Book sales were also down, overall, especially in children's books, how-to books and professional titles.

Current Issues in Book Distribution

In 1997, Japanese book publishers dealt with three major issues: the retail price maintenance system, a consumption tax increase to 5% on April 1 which left book prices covering only part of that tax, and the first availability of Japanese Books in Print online, as of September of this year. It was finally decided to change all book prices to "plus-tax" basis and as this report is written the Government is considering abandoning the retail price maintenance system.

"There is no sign consumer spending will improve in the near future," says equally pessimistic Nori Watanabe, President of YOHAN, the largest importer of US books and magazines into Japan, in his latest quarterly report on "What's New in Japan" in March.

But he did cite big gains in a Toys R Us, which became the largest toy retailer in Japan in 1996, with 64 stores and $800 million in turnover last year. They carry only Japanese language children's books, to his regret, but many of those are English language translations.

Among the top ten hit products in 1997, three were books, though all were Japanese originals. The Princess Mononoke from Tokuma Shoten is a book is based on the animated film which broke all ticket sales records in Japan last year with $83 million in sales that have only increased in 1998.

Shitsurakuen (Lost Paradise) by Junichi Watanabe (no relation to Nori), published by the giant Kodansha with 2.7 million copies sold in two volumes so far. Another Kodansha best seller was Shonen H (Young Boy Called H) an autobiography by Kappa Seno, selling 1.6 million, again in two volumes.

Another hit, of course, was the Winter Olympics in Nagano, at which Yohan sold imported books and magazines. This event broke Japan's record for foreign visitors, taking it to 4.22 million.

Tuttle Shokai, part of the Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Co. Inc, is the other major importer and distributor of English language titles, besides Yohan. Bought last year by Eric y, already a major distributor of English language titles in Indonesia and a member through his mother of the Tuttle publishing family, which dates back five generations in Vermont, Tuttle has a 50 year history in Japan.

Tuttle Shokai's manager of purchasing and sales is the young Robert Self, an American fluent in Japanese who reports that his biggest growth in foreign book sources is Europe.

"Germany, France and Italy are bigger now than the U.K. Mostly in visual books, because Japan, Germany and France are more visual in their cultures. Still, the situation is not easy for imported titles or translations of foreign works."

"In 1996 we saw five titles that were 'million sellers'," says Yoshio Taketomi of the rights agency, Japan Uni, in describing the state of the industry last summer. One of the five was a translation of Graham Hancock's Fingerprints of the Gods. In 1997, one of the hits was M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie.

"In terms of statistics, they did help pull the sales figures up, but still the gap between the sales of best sellers and those of other titles was so great that as a general trade, the overall performance of trade books has definitely been on the decline."

Even "bunko" (cheap paperback editions, originally of perpetual classics but now covering a wide range of subjects and tastes, including new titles) and "manga" (comic books for adults as well a children) have declined in popularity. So it is not a factor of price.

A recent book-reading survey, conducted by one of the major national newspaper companies, Mainichi, together with the National Federal of School Libraries, shocked the industry by reporting that among 12,500 students interviewed, 70% of high school students, 55% of junior high students and 15% of primary students said they do not read books at all. (Excluded from the survey were textbooks, reference books, dictionaries and manga.)

Of those who didn't read, 70% said it was because they didn't want to, 15% said it was because they had no time and the final 15% said it was because they did not find anything interesting to read.

"Publishers have tried various means of diversify bunko titles and thus attract readers," Taketomi continues. "There are 26,000 book stores across the country, selling magazines and manga, but only about 2000 of them also carry books. Of those, 1000 are considered serious book stores by the publishers.

"So with an initial print run of 7000 copies, a publisher is able to supply 1000 book stores nationwide. But consider the floor space of these bookstores. The average is 100 square meters (1000 square feet), and they must also carry magazines, books usually get just 40% of the space.

"The large book stores in the big cities are the only ones well stocked with books. From the large number of new titles delivered every month to the book store, it is not uncommon to have books returned without anyone ever having unwrapped the packages."

Taketomi, who has been a literary agent in Japan for 30 years, sees a very big change in the types of books bought in Japan.

"Statistics on translated books are somewhat lacking, but let it be said that they are about seven to eight percent of new titles per year. This is a figure not too different from 30 years ago, but the content of the translated books has changed dramatically. In the early years, about 40% of the translated books were literature titles and about the same figure were books on thought or philosophy.

"Today, most of the translated books are commercial titles. One reason for this is that a larger number of mysteries and thrillers are published as bunko. But commercial titles also have their trends. Mysteries and thrillers have seen their heyday and the business books and manuals that so enjoyed good sales are also no longer popular.

"Last year, thanks to the arrival of Windows95, computer books have enjoyed a big boom. And I think the success of People of the Lie may provide a hint for the revival of the publishing industry in Japan. Translated into Japanese as, 'People who have no compunctions about lying", it helped people understand how so many scandals in the financial and political arenas of Japan could be taking place.

"With more than one million copies in print, publishers and book sellers realize that it is not easy to gauge the latent interests of readers. And they must. How to bring books back to their original role as intellectual stimulants is the issue that Japanese publishers face today."

Some like novelist Kobayashi Kyoji argue that a new kind of publishing is taking hold.

In the latest issue of Japan Book News (number 20) published by the Japan Foundation and available on-line, he wonders:
Will the literature-led publishers make a come-back, or will both the information publishers and the old-hierarchy publishers yield the scene to a completely different brand of publisher with a new cultural consciousness? This I believe will be the crossroads for publishing at the dawn of the 21st century.

Scholarly Publishing

In dollar volume, academic books are by far the largest group of imported titles into Japan, and that market is dominated by two importers, Maruzen and Kinokuniya, both of whom also wholesale, distribute and retail foreign language books, including trade titles.

While book sales decline, in favor of the increasing number of academic journals, the numbers are still huge, even though the number of scholarly publications in Japan has also grown in the last decade.
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