A daily bulletin of news & opinion

23 January 2010

Once upon a time the word “book” unequivocally meant a simple object consisting of a cover, white pages and sentences printed in black ink. Today, however, the formerly humble book has undergone a 21st century techno-makeover. One such model is the latest all-singing all-dancing Amazon Kindle electronic book reader launched this week outside the US.

With wireless access to 400,000 books and 80 international newspapers, 60-second downloads and a 9.7in screen, it bears little resemblance to any conventional notion of a “book”. But as Amazon’s biggest, shiniest, fastest e-book reader wings its way around the global market, there is one country where its presence is unlikely to receive the warmest of welcomes: Japan.

No stranger to the surging popularity of the electronic book, Japan is already home to a sophisticated e-book market, albeit one currently more tailored for mobile phones. The rise of the mobile phone novel has been well documented in Japan. Known as “keitai shousetsu”, mobile phone novels regularly eclipse paper books in the bestseller charts confirming its status as a postmodern literary genre in its own right.

As the e-book revolution fuelled by new generation reading devices gathers pace around the world, it was perhaps only a matter of time before international publishers started knocking on Japan’s door to tap into its lucrative techno-friendly market. But the uneasiness of Japanese publishers at their arrival was reflected in a decision this week taken by 21 domestic companies to form the Japan Electronic Book Publishers’ Association.

All the big names are present and correct – from Kodansha and Shinchosha to Shueisha and Japan Broadcast Publishing Company – and their aim is clear: to streamline Japan’s e-book industry and collectively renegotiate copyright law with the government to ensure domestic publishers are able to benefit from the pending e-book revolution – not outsiders.

At present, authors currently have the right to choose who publishes e-versions of their books regardless of the paper book publisher – a situation that has left Japanese publishers feeling vulnerable. Shinichi Yoshizawa, director of digital media operations at Kodansha, explains succinctly: “Our aim is to create a sane and sound market for e-books in Japan.”

For Japan’s publishing market, it is a crucial time: there are persistent reports that Amazon has further plans to launch a Japanese-language version of its Kindle device. Meanwhile, speculation of near mystical proportions surrounding Apple’s long-awaited tablet (due, it seems, to be unveiled on Wednesday) has no doubt done little to quell uneasiness in the Japanese publishing market. But among the ambiguity and the rumours there is one certainty: the e-book market is poised to boom in the coming decade in Japan and beyond.

In Japan, the mobile phone-fuelled growth is already underway. The number of e-book sales hit ¥ (€356m) in Japan in 2008 – marking a 31 per cent rise from the previous year, according to Tokyo market researchers Impress R&D. Further forecasts have reportedly predicted that the industry will grow to an estimated ¥300bn (€2.3bn) by 2013.

And with Japan’s competitive edge in mobile phone technology and e-book reading material, many are confident of domestic success despite the international competition. “I think that those reading-only devices such as Kindle will find it very
tough to increase the number of their users in Japan where competition for these devices is pretty intense,” says Yusuke Tanaka, from Impress R&D.

Modern books in all their 21st-century glory are quite clearly here to stay. Just don’t expect people to bestow quite as much attention in future on anything as simple as a book consisting of a cover, white pages and black ink.


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