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Japanese Electronic Publishing Left Behind
-The Impact of the Kindle and the iPad-

Akira Nagae
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

The dawn of the electronic publishing age

The new iPad data terminal was announced on January 27 (local time) by Apple, Inc. With its large scale liquid crystal touch panel, you might think of it as a large version of the iPod touch. Indeed, the iPad can also be used as a mobile computer, but its electronic reader is the function that has captured the attention of the publishing world. It may be that the iPad will fundamentally change books and reading in the same way that the iPod and iTunes did with the global music industry and the way that we listen to music.

In the US, Amazon’s Kindle electronic reader is already catching on. They say that electronic books took a bite out of traditional paper book sales during Amazon’s Christmas selling season in the US. In addition to the Kindle, there are a number of electronic Readers on the market, including the Reader by Sony, and the nook by bookstore chain Barnes & Noble. The number of electronic readers being used today has spread to a total of about 5 million units, but within the next few years, more than 10 million Kindles and iPads will be sold, and the total number of readers will probably reach around 30 million.

Just 30 million readers—if we consider that the US population is 300 million that makes just one in ten people. This is a paltry number of electronic reader¥s compared to the spread of mobile telephones, and you might conclude that electronic readerrs will not have a major presence. But we need to consider what kind of people make up the one in ten people in this projection. Those who are already using Kindle can afford it financially, and they already read a lot of books. We might say that voracious readers of books have begun to use electronic Readers, and it is fair to say that they constitute a layer that significantly influences society.

Japan stumbling out of the blocks

When you shift your focus and have a look at the publishing world in Japan, on the other hand, the difference is astounding...no, make that appalling. In Japan, 21 major publishers have formed the Japan Electronic Publishing Association (JEPA) which has only just resolved to standardize regulations and negotiate with copyright groups—lagging one or two steps behind.

As a matter of fact, Japan was early in bringing electronic readers to market. In 2004, Sony released the Librié, and Matsushita (currently Panasonic) released the ΣBOOK. Both of these were major failures, however, and were pulled from the market. The original Librié was rebranded and sold in the US as the Reader, which is giving the Kindle a run for its money. In other words, electronic reader hardware is not the root of the failure.

So why is it that electronic books didn’t take off in Japan but the Kindle is having success. The causes are not simple, but broadly we can consider two points—the number of titles (content) and pricing. Some 100 thousand titles were available with the release of the Kindle, nearly all priced at $9.95. As hardcover books go for 25 to 30 dollars in the US, these electronic titles are just half or a third of the price. And many of these readers are equipped with read aloud functions—in other words, when you buy an electronic book, an audio book comes with it. The Librié andΣBOOK, in contrast, could only read a few thousand titles and the price did not seem like a bargain compared to traditional paper books.

Protection of vested interests or the future of books and culture

But the main reason that electronic books have not taken off in Japan is most likely the attitude of the publishing industry toward continuing to protect their vested interests just as they are. It is clear that even JEPA, which I mentioned above, was conceived fundamentally to protect control of the publishing market in Japan from Amazon and Apple and secondarily with an eye toward the future of readers and the future of books. There is a saying in the Japanese publishing industry about the Industrial Trinity of Publisher—Agent (Distributor)—Bookstore, with shared interests in a collaborative relationship where they sink or swim together. But the message that a half year of iPod touch use and three months of Kindle use drives home is that this paradigm is being scrapped with priority placed instead on user friendliness.

This is not to say that electronic books are the be-all and end-all, of course—it is unlikely that all paper books will be converted into electronic books. But the fact is that electronic books bring functionality that is impossible with paper books, such as the adjustable font size and audio book reader functions. Those who were precluded from reading paper books will read electronic books, and it is possible that the very concepts of the book and of reading will be revamped. This possibility cannot be eliminated by clinging to vested interests.

Akira Nagae
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Nagae was born in Hokkaido in 1958 and graduated with an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from the Department of Letters at Hosei University. After working for an importer of western books, Professor Nagae worked as an editor and freelance writer before becoming a Professor in the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Professor Nagae’s primary works include: Reading Techniques for Delinquent Students, Circumstances of Criticism, The Lives of Eccentric Media Figures, Notebook on Living, Listening Techniques, The Current Book Scene, and Techniques Handed Down in Writing.