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Sunday, June 10, 2001

Publishing still in a slump; DaVinci stays popular with young


Last month, the National Tax agency made its annual announcement of those paying more than 10 million yen in income tax and, as always, the list reflected major trends of the times.

In the year 2000, profits based on stock transactions, such as those of Son Masayoshi, Softbank president and the No. 3 taxpayer nationally, continued to replace those based on real estate and, as the Asahi Shimbun and other papers noted (May 16), the winners were those who through low prices or original ideas could manage to attract consumers during the continuing recession. Thus the president of the Internet shopping mall Rakuten ranked No. 2, the president of McDonald's Japan No. 27 and the head of the Uniqlo chain of clothing stores No. 31.

The list of the top 20 author-taxpayers is dominated by writers of mysteries and suspense, with no breakout novelists like Haruki Murakami or Banana Yoshimoto. At No. 1 for the third year in a row is Kyotaro Nishimura, author of railroad-based mysteries often made into two-hour TV dramas. Mystery writer Jiro Akagara, No. 2, has published over 400 books, according to the Asahi Shimbun, and at No. 3 is Miyuki Miyabe, whose two-volume novel about a copycat serial killer, "Mohohan," is now a best seller. New on the list at No. 9 was Yuichi Shimpo, who wrote the screenplay for "Whiteout," a hit film last year based on his suspense novel of the same title.

Actually, recent best-seller lists have been dominated less by such escapist fiction than by translated self-help books and inspirational celebrity books. Long in first place is the short parable about dealing with change and loss, "Who Moved My Cheese?," by Spencer Johnson, whose appeal in an age of uncertainty is summed up in the jacket blurb: "Atarashii sekai e tabidatsu anata ni kono issatsu o" ("The book you need as you enter a new world").

Others in this category include "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," by Robert Kiyosaki, "The Personal Efficiency Program," by Kerry Gleeson, "Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps," by Allan and Barbara Pease and "The Blue Day Book: A Lesson in Cheering Yourself Up," by Bradley Trevor Greive.

Beauty hints from a model, "Simple Beauty" by Ayako Kawahara, has been selling well. "Minikui ahiru no ko datta watashi" ("I was an ugly duckling"), by Anna Umemiya, was another celebrity memoir, and "Crash," by Tetsuya Ota, tells how this race-car driver recovered after a bad crash. "Tate" ("Shield"), by Yurie Nitani, is widely regarded as a response to "Daddy," by Hiromi Go, a best seller three years ago about the pair's high-profile divorce. There is also a new book out, "Anata wa hitori ja nai" ("You are not alone"), by Mitsuyo Ohira, the lawyer whose account of overcoming "ijime" and other adversities was a big best seller last year.

The trade figures for 2000, reported in Shuppan News last month, illustrate the general slump in the publishing industry, with revenues down for the fourth year in a row. Revenues for books and magazines declined 1.7 percent (books 2.6 percent, magazines 1.0 percent), which Shuppan News hopefully noted was an improvement over the 2.4 percent drop registered in 1999.

Bucking the deflationary trend in Japan, the publishing world seems to have decided on the perhaps self-defeating course of making up for lower sales per title by raising prices slightly and issuing more titles in the desperate hope that lightning will strike at least one of them. Of course, this means even less shelf space for titles in bookstores and increased difficulty attracting the attention of reviewers and readers.

Japanese literature in particular has been losing readers for over a decade, and young Japanese are reading less as other forms of information and entertainment compete for their limited time and disposable income. Books' new status is demonstrated in the weekly town-information magazine Pia, which devotes two pages each, in very similar layouts, to video and DVD releases, Web sites, books and video games respectively.

Sano Shin'ichi takes up this topic in a discussion of book reviews in his book on the state of Japanese publishing, "Dare ga 'hon' o korosu no ka" ("Who is killing the book?"). It is obvious that while he accepts in his head the arrival of the new mass-information society and the loss of the special status of the book, in his heart he resents the book becoming just another disposable consumer product and the dumbing down of reviews aimed at younger readers.

He has a particularly visceral reaction against the glossy book magazine DaVinci and what he sees as its pandering -- such as having its best books of the year decided by readers' votes or celebrities rather than by editors or other experts.

A monthly founded in 1994, DaVinci has a circulation of 300,000, of which 60 percent are women and 40 percent men, approximately one-fourth college students and having an average age of 26-27. The editor in chief and publisher told Sano that from the start they have focused on readers rather than the opinions of professional reviewers and used four basic concepts: from person to books (i.e., arousing interest in books through celebrities); from topics of the day to books; from data to books; and from peripherals (book covers, illustrations, etc.) to books. They say that one survey done by a publisher found that over 50 percent of new college graduates read DaVinci.

I must admit that, unlike Sano, I enjoy DaVinci, although at times it is disconcerting to see the hard sell -- featuring rocks stars, book horoscopes and splashy graphics -- that its editors feel is necessary to make books appealing. It is perhaps a forerunner of the digital age, in which users have to sort through a mass of information for themselves rather than having it filtered for them beforehand by editorial gatekeepers. Its publisher is connected to Recruit, an employment company that puts out job-listing magazines, rather than a more traditional publishing firm.

The special features can be quite interesting (whether or not to have children in the June issue), and DaVinci also introduces many more of the flood of new books than the dozen or so reviewed in each newspaper book section once a week. Rather than deploring the superficiality of DaVinci, perhaps we should be gratified by its success, providing evidence as it does that the younger generation still has some interest in books and reading.

Janet Ashby, a freelance writer and translator, came to Japan in 1975. She has a special interest in Japanese pop culture.


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