Japan to embrace ebooks at last?

11/22/2011
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Sliced dead trees don’t cut it any more in America – but what about Japan?

TOKYO (majirox news) — If you believe statistics, the book trade in the U.S. is moving away from “sliced dead trees” – paper books – to ebooks, with Europe following the US lead. But in Japan, the traditional home of the rising gadget, nary a Kindle is to be seen, other than in the hands of an occasional foreigner. The odd iPad and other tablets may be spotted, but paper books still hold their own.

Christopher Belton, English-born Japan-based author of 56 titles, cites various reasons for this. While hardware platforms for ebooks exist (Apple devices and Android tablets), Japanese publishers produce individual applications to read only their titles, thanks to a lack of standardization of formats and a “not invented here” mentality. Belton also claims that the Japanese books’ small pocketable form factor, and the relatively larger size of current ebook devices may be another factor in the slow move to the electronic age by Japanese readers. Although a few of his titles have been published as ebooks, their sales are minimal; “one or two thousand yen in royalties annually,” Belton says.

Tim Burland, an independent publishing consultant in Japan, adds that although several Japanese hardware makers have produced cross-publisher readers, relatively few publishers have signed up for any one hardware platform, and the lack of a central distribution channel limits ebooks’ popularity. With no large central distribution channel such as the US Ingram or Baker & Taylor, Japanese publishers operate their own distribution channels for printed books, and no infrastructure exists for potential ebook purchasers to browse offerings from a wide variety of publishers.

“A confusion regarding e-rights also adds to the difficulty of establishing a centralized ebook marketplace, as does some ambiguity regarding pricing — by law printed books may not be discounted, but there is no ruling on ebooks as yet,” Burland says.

In the US, things are different – a single distributor, Amazon, has the lion’s share of the ebook market (58% in May this year), but has yet to come to Japan with the Kindle, though rumors abound that a Japanese version of the Kindle will hit the stores very soon. There is, however, another player in the game. Rakuten, the major non-book online reseller in Japan, has just purchased (USD315m) Kobo, a Canadian maker of ebook reader devices, and a distributor of ebooks. With a $99 touch device, incorporating advertising technology, and with support for many different formats, this acquisition could spell an end to the multilateral format wars.

Burland anticipates a two-way tug-of-war between Rakuten (Kobo) and Amazon, with Rakuten seeking to seize the Japanese ebook crown from Amazon. The open EPUB3 standard (supporting vertical tategaki formats) may well prove more attractive to Japanese publishers than the current Kindle MOBI data format, but perhaps more importantly, a native Japanese distribution channel in the shape of Rakuten may provide a more appealing outlet to publishers than the feared foreigner, and may thereby change the buying habits of the Japanese reading public.

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