Posted on November 4, 2013 in Archive

Japan’s ebook market does things a little differently


Japan has had a handle on the ebook market for a good deal longer than most Western markets. In fact, in 2012 Japan’s ebook market was valued at 72.9 billion yen, or USD $740 million. This figure has been steadily increasing, and is expected to continue to do so. Despite this, some say that ebook development in Japan is slow. What are they doing differently?

For one thing, the usual market demographic for ebook use is almost completely reversed in Japan. In most markets, it’s expected that younger to middle-aged people would adapt to ebook readers faster than their senior counterparts. In Japan, this isn’t so – this article discusses the fact that over half of Japan’s septuagenarian market prefers ebooks to traditional paper books, while 70% of Japanese people in their 20s prefer paper. These statistics do not include the huge manga and comic book market that exists in Japan, which I find skews the results a bit. But more on manga later! (How often do you read that sentence in everyday life?)

In any case, Publishing Perspectives provides some good reasons why this might be. Japan is fast becoming a nation populated by senior citizens, whose eyes are not what they once were. Ebook readers provide the option to make text sizes bigger, an option not available in paper books. Purchasing ebooks online also affords these senior citizens the biggest luxury of all: independence and freedom from mobility limitations. Not having to trek down to the bookstore (or having to rely upon a family member to transport you) to access new titles would be a huge bonus for these people. Cheaper prices would also be a huge benefit to those living off of a pension.

Liquid State - Japan's ebook market with traditional hardcopy and ereaders

Japanese ebooks tend to dominate on mobile phones and tablets rather than ereaders – a shame, really.

So that explains why older people prefer ebooks, but why do young people prefer their novels on paper? The specific presentation of the paper book has a lot to do with it. Japanese novels are presented in light, small pocket-sized publications that are both beautiful and easily transportable. These “bunko” books are estimated to be A6 paper size, so often longer novels are published into 2 or more parts to accommodate the tiny page size. Bibliophiles will instinctively prefer the paper book to stock their bookshelves rather than a single ebook on their coffee tables. The thrill of “collecting” books also probably appeals more to younger people than older generations.

As mentioned earlier, digital manga and comic books are a major part of the Japanese ebook market. This is an area that the Western market is yet to make the most of, though it’s slowly getting there. Japan’s manga and comic book sales account for at least 72% of the market size. This is obviously a digital niche market that is currently booming amongst a younger demographic that wants their comic books on an ereader, rather than in a plastic sleeve, preserved forever for monetary value and bragging rights. Digital manga and comic books prevail because their paper counterparts are often published in thick, large anthologies that are troublesome to carry around, especially for commuters. This also accounts for the large amount of “keitai shousetsu”, or “cell phone novels” – books available on your phone. The rush-hour commuters of Japan rule the market, it seems.

Taking into account the previous figure, this means that only 28% of the ebooks available in Japan are novels or written word in general (this is in comparison to manga). You don’t need me to tell you that there is a significant difference in market shares here. Some people hold the opinion that this is because Japanese publishers are still focused on print books and are very conservative when it comes to digital content and ebook rights. Others blame a lack of dominance in the market by any of the available ereaders or ebookstores – though not through lack of trying. Business models are also yet to catch up with the ebook market, making expansion difficult for many Japanese publishers.

Whatever the reason might be, Japan and its publishers need to step up and think of a way that could radically alter the ratio of manga to ebook sales. Considering that 80% of all Japanese publishers are located in Tokyo, it couldn’t be that hard to organize a luncheon or meeting to discuss this problem. Don’t get me wrong – being known as a nation of comic book readers is nice and quirky, but it probably isn’t something worth bragging about at international publishing and book conventions. Except Comic-Con. You can always brag at Comic-Con.