If you'd stepped aboard a Japanese subway train 15 years ago, you'd have witnessed passengers engrossed in hefty, telephone directory—thick manga comic books. Today, you are more likely to see commuters of all ages peering intently into their cellphone screens, reading the same tales of comic heroes, romance, and sleaze— only this time carried in mobile digital libraries that have made Japan a forerunner in the burgeoning e-book—for—phone industry.

After a slow start, Japan's e-book market is now booming, with $464 million in sales in 2008, up 131% from the previous year. E-book publishers predict that 2009 will have finished with similar growth, while a report by RD Impress suggests Japan's e-book market will be worth 98 billion yen ($1.1 billion) in 2012. With few dedicated e-readers sold in the country, Japan's large screen and comparatively hi-resolution mobile phones, known as “ketai,” are primarily used as e-readers. Despite the obvious limitations of the phones—small screens that glare compared to e-readers—Japanese comics have proved their most popular reading content.

One of the top publisher/distributors in terms of sales is the Ebook Japan Initiative Co. It exemplifies the comics industry's digital evolution; it began the decade as a startup and today is a publishing engine that now drives e-book sales in Japan. Starting in May 2000 as part of the Japanese government funded E-book Consortium project, which aimed to create a new e-book market, EJI now commands 250,000 paid downloads per month and forecasts sales of one billion yen ($11.1 million) for 2009.

With half of all books and periodicals sold in Japan being manga, it was logical to focus on selling comics. “By concentrating on comics, we have increased our e-books sales by 20% to 30% per year,” said EJI's executive v-p Hitoshi Koide. “Our success, I think, is due to the huge variety of manga volumes we offer on the Web site.” The company's e-bookstore offers more than 28,700 titles and continues to increase the number available by about 1,000 each month.

Renowned by manga aficionados for the sheer variety of comic books on offer, EJI's online site attracts over one million visitors each month and generates 400,000 subscriptions per month. Downloaders and subscribers can pay using the preferred system in Japan for cellphone data—painless payment by adding the cost to their monthly phone bills or by the more usual methods seen in the West—credit cards or prepaid cards. The e-book comics are downloaded once and don't expire.

Titles, encrypted in EJI's original format, can be downloaded via the company's free application, which is used to store up to 50 e-books without charge at the EJI site's “trunk room.” IPhone and iPod Touch users can store up to 20,000 titles in their trunk rooms, and EJI said it will be extending this ability to other smartphones in the near future. “We provide e-books for PCs, iPhones/iPod Touch, and Microsoft phones, while 99% of our sales are manga,” said Koide. “The prices range from 300 yen to 400 yen [$3.35—$4.40], and we pay royalties to rights holders per download. The costs of royalties are high, so we are continuously negotiating rates.” EJI has signed contracts with a few hundred manga artists.

Koide believes the success of his venture is due to strictly controlling its content: “We are dedicated to making profits by selling books, not by increasing page views of the Web site by giving away free e-books to users. This has gained us trust among publishers and rights holders.”

Not only are some artists happy to see their work on phones, some are also writing and illustrating specifically for the ketai and using the advanced functions of some phones to make reading comics more absorbing. Manga artists are now incorporating phone vibration and sound functions in their storyboards. Readers can also click the story along one panel at a time or zoom in on a particular character, making manga on cellphones the first choice for many youngsters, though the company is attracting readers of all ages. “Good manga can be just as attractive to adults as reading regular books,” Koide said.