Digital shift is killing Japan's best English books

Digital shift is killing Japan's best English books

The economics of pixels and bytes leave little room for the experts

The Vegetable Sushi BookOne of the books slated to be published by Kodansha International before it closed was "The Vegetable Sushi Book." The author is now looking for a new publisher.

Publishers typically launch dozens of new books in September, which kicks off the official beginning of the fall publishing season.

But this year, new English-language books from Japan will slow to a trickle now that two of the more popular publishers, Kodansha International and TokyoPop, have closed their doors.

The loss of these publishers begs the question: Who is left to bring us stories from Japan?

“The closure of Kodansha International is not simply the end of a company, but a new step towards a virtual sakoku (closed country), I'm afraid,” says Peter Goodman, publisher and founder of Stone Bridge Press of Berkeley, California, which has been publishing books on Japan since 1989.

Expert voices

“Without a steady flow of information coming from Japan that has been properly vetted and organized by capable editors, we are left with a lack of critical mass and a whole lot of blather from non-experts, and over time that is going to impact demand.”

TokyoPop was a manga pioneer that first decided to keep its English translations in a left-to-right format, a move that resonated with fans overseas who had been put off previously by the standard Japanese layout flowing from right to left.

    In the end, the switch to digital books, rampant Internet piracy and the bankruptcy of U.S. bookstore chain Borders did the company in, says TokyoPop founder Stu Levy.

    “Ultimately, publishing is now going through what music went through a few years ago.  Technology is disrupting the status quo -- and this first wave of mainstream e-books, tablets and mobile devices is just the start.

    In just a few years, print will become obsolete -- something I've been preaching for many years now,” Levy says.

    “While I was trying to evolve TokyoPop into a pure digital company, I couldn't make it happen fast enough.”


    Donald RichieStone Bridge Press of Berkeley, one of the few Japan-focused publishers left nowadays, is publishing a new book of essays from Donald Richie this fall.Kodansha International (KI) typically published about 30 English books on Japan every year.

    Its backlist of 400 to 500 books includes fiction and nonfiction on practically every aspect of Japan, from robotics to spirituality.

    This spring, when Kodansha decided to close KI, the management also decided to purchase a large stake in Vertical Inc., effectively outsourcing its production of English books to the New York publisher.

    The decision to close KI “left us scratching our heads,” says Barry Lancet, a senior acquisitions editor who had worked for the company for 25 years. “Japan is a unique culture that doesn’t unfold readily.

    "They say that after you’ve lived here for seven years, you start to get a handle on it. All the editors at KI lived and worked in Japan for years and years.

    "From that perspective, we could go two, three, four levels deeper” than publishers overseas.

    Levy, Goodman and others say digital books will soon make up the bulk of English-language offerings from Japan.

    “One of the problems of (publishing books on) Japan has been that except for metropolitan markets on the U.S. coasts, readers have been scattered and non-urban bookstores have remained unwilling to carry much stock,” says Goodman.

    “For books that don't need that special object quality, digital publishing makes total sense, particularly since print runs for many projects will never be large enough to sustain a print production.”

    Aggressive moves

    While the switch to digital books is happening rapidly in the United States, Levy says Japanese publishers tend to be more entrenched.

    “The most recent challenge over the past few years had been trying to get (Japanese publishers) to understand how critical it would be to move into the digital space aggressively to compete with piracy,” he says.

    “However, unfortunately, almost all of them responded with the typical ‘wait-and-see’ reaction.”

    As publishers wait and see, the decision to close or downscale becomes inevitable for some as the market for books changes in radical ways. After TokyoPop’s U.S. closure and KI’s demise, can others be far behind?

    “Publishers like us, if we want to remain in business, are going to have to totally rethink how we deliver content and where we find readers,” says Goodman of Stone Bridge.

    Meanwhile, the 40 or so employees of KI in Japan have been scattered to the wind: some were brought into the parent company, but others went back to their hometowns, retired, moved to Borneo to teach English or began looking for new work in Japan. Lancet is hawking a thriller set in Japan via his New York agent.

    Relief effort

    Levy was spending part of his summer in an editing bay in Nevada, working on a documentary he is making about the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

    He spent five weeks filming and volunteering in the disaster zone. “After all, I was shutting down TokyoPop anyways -- why not dedicate my year to this documentary?” Levy recalls thinking at the time.

    TokyoPop founder Stu LevyTokyoPop founder Stu Levy relaxes with friends after shooting his documentary in Tohoku this spring.

    “I continued my volunteer activities when filming -- there is nothing quite as personally rewarding as being able to hand a plate of hot food to a hungry victim, or make a child laugh by showing them drawings and teaching them English.  The entire experience was like being in another world.”

    So this fall, while Levy finishes his documentary, Lancet looks for a publisher for his thriller and other experienced editors look for work in Tokyo, the Japan section of your neighborhood bookstore is going to seem a little bare.