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Sunday, April 14, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Desperate times call for innovative measures


No quick recovery is on the horizon for the slumping Japanese book business. That is the consensus of commentator Kazuhiro Kobayashi, writing in Shuppan News (January), and of three experts discussing the matter in Tsukuru (March) -- Yasuo Ueda, Yoshiaki Kiyota and Hiroyuki Shinoda. Unit sales, revenues taken in, sales of books, monthly magazines, weekly magazines, all were down last year for the fifth year in a row of overall decline. In terms of units sold, business has fallen back to the level of 1986 and, in terms of revenues, to 1991.

They agree that one major problem is that desperate publishers are glutting the market with new books, whose number is estimated to have risen almost 2 percent to over 70,000 new titles last year. As a result, books disappear from bookstores to make way for the next ones before they can find an audience -- returns of new titles have reached a rate of 60-70 percent.

There are some signs that publishers are starting to realize that it is no longer enough to simply put together a book and throw it out into the distribution system. For example, the publisher of Mandino's "Twelfth Angel" first did a test run of 200 copies, advertising 100 of them on the Internet, and gathered comments from ordinary readers to use as blurbs on the book when it was finally printed. Also, a paperback title became a best seller when a publisher's representative noticed a handwritten recommendation for it in a bookstore and had this printed up and sent to bookstores throughout Japan.

Kobayashi points to the domination of the best-seller lists by translated titles -- largely fantasy and inspirational books like Harry Potter and "Who Moved My Cheese?" -- as a sign of the decline of Japanese publishing. Ueda similarly notes that Japanese readers no longer want how-to books with experts lecturing them from the heights, in the traditional Japanese style, but rather interesting-to-read narratives speaking to them as equals.

Kiyota further connects this trend of author and reader being on the same level to the impact of the Internet in turning ordinary people into writers of e-mail messages and creators of their own Web sites. In fact, publishers are now checking out Web sites in search of new writing talent, according to Aera (Nov. 11, 2001). One amateur writer submitted 185 texts over a period of eight months to a Casio PHS site and these have now been collected into a book by an on-demand publisher. Another author, Yuji Hayashi, also came to the attention of an editor through his popular Web site; he has now published three books and writes columns for four magazines.

There are also a few success stories in publishing. Recently, Aera (April 8) reported on the popularity of Japanese fashion magazines in China. Indeed, the Chinese edition of Shufunotomo's Ray now sells more copies than the Japanese edition: 400,000 in China and 320,000 in Japan. The Chinese version started in 1995; Kodansha launched ViVi in China in 2000 and a trial run of Oggi (Shogakkan) began in November.

One reason these magazines appeal to Chinese readers seems to be that they deal with ordinary women, unlike such Western magazines as Elle or Cosmopolitan. Japanese coloring and body type are also closer to those of the Chinese, and an added bonus is that the Western fashions have already been adapted by the Japanese to suit an Asian sensibility.

The case of the medium-size publisher Tokuma Shoten is less unequivocably a success story. According to Shukan Asahi (March 15) the box-office success of animation master Hayao Miyazaki's "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi," especially since it was awarded the top prize at the Berlin film festival, has been a very welcome windfall for Tokuma. The film is now heading toward record receipts of 30 billion yen; as of late February, it had sold 22.8 million tickets since its opening last July.

The founder of Tokuma, Tokuma Yasuyoshi, had pursued a multimedia strategy of books, movies and music before his death two years ago, and Tokuma covered 60 percent of making "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi." In addition to its cut of the profits, it will also be making money on related books and goods.

However, under Tokuma the company was overextended, and had borrowed heavily to build a new 12-story flagship building, a longtime dream of his. It is now under the administration of its main bank, the former Sumitomo, and the new president, Takeyoshi Matsushita, was dispatched there from Sumitomo in January of last year. When he took over there were reportedly debts of over 100 billion yen.

The new administration sold off a music-related company and next month will be moving out of its fancy new building to less luxurious quarters.

The much larger Kodansha, as seen in a report in Tsukuru (March), has been run in a much more businesslike (dare I say by the book?) way. Its sales in the 2001 fiscal year of 173.9 billion yen represent a decline from the previous year, the sixth such year of decreased sales, but its comics registered growth, amounting to close to half of sales and over 80 percent of profits.

However, the readership of comic magazines is aging and "manga" are starting to have an "ojisan" feel to them, as shown in the many recent revivals of past hit comics. It is unclear how preteen and teen readers can be brought back to manga.

Another main support of Kodansha is the still-healthy sector of women's magazines. In addition to its effort in China, last year this section founded two new magazines to fill gaps in its range of women's magazines. In particular, Style is aimed at a new type of "office lady" with "the head of a man and the body of a woman."

Kodansha is receiving advice from the McKinsey consultants and plans to use attrition to reduce its present work force of 1,150 to 1,000 in the next four or five years.

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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