Sunday, March 19, 2017

Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Reading Culture in Japan

Kate: Critics of contemporary culture often bemoan the decline of novel reading (they also often seem to be disgruntled academics whose tomes don’t sell). How does reading fare in Japan? Do books sell?
Eugene: Japanese bookstores sell on consignment (returns are allowed), and books are sold under a resale price maintenance (RPM) system that disallows discounting. Online retailers like Amazon compete on the convenience of "one-stop shopping," huge inventories, and free shipping.

Family reunion--yup, everybody's reading.
That makes it possible for small and niche bookstores to compete. Japan's high population density makes distribution more efficient. And I do think public transportation--along with a long literary culture and high literacy rates--is key in fostering "disposable" reading habits. If the ride might be long, grab an easy read.

(Like the habit we and our siblings had growing up of always carrying a book with us whenever
we went somewhere "just in case" we found ourselves stuck somewhere with nothing to do. The horror!)

The A6 format is truly pocked-sized, with lightweight but durable paper and flexible spines. A big bestselling novel like Daughter of the Murakami Pirates was initially released in two volumes of 474 and 499 pages at 1,728 yen ($15) each. The mass-market paperback was released in four A6 volumes of around 350 pages and 680 yen ($6) each.

I suspect as well that the doujinshi culture helps create a printing industry adept at doing economical short runs. Along with a devoted fan base willing to spend money on their hobby.

Seriously, think of the economic impact of almost completely eliminating the automobile from the teen to thirty-something budgetary balance sheet. Which just happens to overlap with the otaku demographic.

And yet, while CDs and DVDs are (at least) two to three times more expensive in Japan, books are often less expensive, manga compilations being half what you'd pay for a translation in the U.S. In other words, the "gateway drugs"--manga and light novels--are always affordable.
Kate: How about downloading books--is the idea of "Kindle" as prevalent in Japan as it appears to be in the United States?
Eugene: Amazon is pushing the Kindle platform hard in Japan. Amazon competitors like Honto have their own ebook publishing platforms. But Japan has been slow to embrace digital media. Distribution is still about pushing physical products. Tower Records went bankrupt in the U.S. It is thriving in Japan: "Globally, 39 percent of all music sales are physical CDs and vinyl, but in Japan the figure is double that."

When it comes to CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray, distributors are loath to give up their sky-high profit margins. The convenience factor is not as critical a variable given Japan's high urban population density and resale price maintenance laws that make possible a "nation of shopkeepers" (Adam Smith said it first). And Japanese seem to like collecting physical "stuff" (that's easy to store), not just information.
A manga shelf--with a little bit of Star Wars at the end.

The typical scene of a teenager's bedroom includes a bookcase with thirty volumes of his favorite manga neatly lined up in rows.

Books, on the other hand, aren't expected to deliver those fat profit margins, and they've always had competition from used bookstores. Manga marketing begins with loss-leading. I'm always getting emails from Honto pushing the latest free e-manga: give away the first volume, sell the rest. Plus, once a manga is typeset, it is relatively easy to convert to electronic format.

Shopping online is rapidly growing in popularity in Japan and so will electronic publishing. But in Japan it is a lagging indicator.
Kate: Light novels don't appear to have the same negative status as "grocery store paperbacks" do in the U.S. Is this true? Why?
Eugene: To start with, the printing quality of light novels is pretty darn high. I have a light novel I bought in 1989 for 360 yen (about $3.25). The paper has faded a bit, but the full-color wraparound dust cover and the spine are in perfect condition.

In Japan, the rift between "literature" and "stories for the masses," as Dean Wesley Smith puts it, never really developed. Sure, there are literary snobs but publishers see no point in surrendering to those pretensions. Publishers make a point of publishing and licensing just about everything that shows potential (see the comparison to commercial television production above).

Daughter manga
Along with the mass market paperback, Daughter of the Murakami Pirates was also released in a manga version. Someday there will likely be an anime and a live-action historical drama. The Moribito series recently added a high-budget (for Japanese television) live-action series to its publishing arc (light novels, manga, and anime).

The long-running Rurouni Kenshin manga series, first published in 1994, added a trilogy of live-action films in 2012-2014, adding to a catalog that includes an anime series, several anime movies, and light novels.

Even the radio drama (distributed on CD) remains a viable medium for popular culture in Japan.

Japan actually figured out how to make literacy "cool" and to hook kids on reading, from elevating calligraphy to a pop culture art form (see Barakamon), to creating the visual novel video game format that requires more reading than most novels, to publishing school textbooks that look more like manga rather than the heavy, ponderous boat anchors used in American schools.
Kate: Along the same lines, manga appears to have never had the same negative status that "comic books" has/had in the United States. When "comic books" get serious treatment in the U.S. they become "graphic novels" but manga have always been manga. Why?
Eugene: Back in the 1950s, the comic book panic briefly swept over Japan too. Writing then for the short-lived rental book market, horror manga artist Shigeru Mizuki briefly fell victim to it. Fortunately for him, as the "rental library" business dried up, so did the protests. Or everybody was too busy growing the GDP at double-digits to care.

Once his manga found a wider audience in the 1960s and made their way to television, his reputation was never in doubt, and he became one of the grand old deans of Japanese popular culture.

Every now and then, a manga artist will "go too far" (meaning WAY further than what would be acceptable in the U.S., especially for a teen audience) and get push-back from politicians and social activist types. But publishers are quick to respond and pull back just far enough to make everybody happy. It rarely turns into a sweeping indictment that sticks.

Part of this may the attitude that it doesn't matter what the kids are reading as long as they are reading.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the Japan's reading culture better than the visual novel. It's the oldest video game format in Japan. A classic visual novel like Clannad has over a million words of text in all its branches, and most contain at least in the high five figures.

Clannad clip: It may be a video but it has lots of words!
No matter what the language--
The visual novel is the "interactive novel" that American prognosticators are always promising is going to be the next big thing in e-publishing. And never is. While in Japan the visual novel has been a big thing in e-publishing for three decades.
Kate: Returning to light novels, will they ever find a home in the U.S.? To the same degree as manga?
Eugene: As mentioned previously, the success of the visual novel genre in Japan does point to profound differences in the "reading culture."

Nevertheless, I think that kids who grow up reading R.L. Stein and K. A. Applegate and Nancy Drew, the equivalent of light novel series, would read light novels if they could find titles in the genres they like.

The problem is building a critical mass of supply when current demand doesn't justify the investment by a publisher big enough to negotiate the licensing agreements. That critical mass has been achieved with manga and anime (it only took a quarter century).

With manga, the American publisher can work from the original print-ready PDFs, erase the speech bubbles and type in the English. A novel has to typeset from scratch. On current budgets, there is never enough editing (and often there is barely any).

A light novel that finds the right audience can do just as well as any other "long tail" genre novel, which is not all that great in any case. It's a market segment that needs to be husbanded in the short-to-medium term and shielded from the blockbuster mentality.

"Science fiction" as a genre is itself "long tail," making up about five percent of the publishing market. The "light novel" would be a fraction of that. These are the small numbers we're talking about.

Yen Press is co-owned by Kadokawa and Hachette, Kadokawa is the majority owner, so they have a vested interest in the long term. That bodes well for the future.

I don't think the light novel will ever be as successful as the manga, but it should be able to find a niche if given enough time to grow its audience and become self-sustaining. Along the way, a few break-through titles sure would help.

1 comment:

  1. When I was in Japan a few weeks ago, I saw a lot of bookstores ranging in size from small shops stuffed in a corner to ones the size of a small office building. It was also impossible to tell normal books from manga from light novels by the design. Not being able to read Japanese did not help. Of course, people seem more willing to dispose of books than in America. I mean I used to collect spy series from the sixties and have two shelves full of them.

    On the subway, most people seem to be on their phones all the time.

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