A confusing maze of e-book stores, a difficulty in rendering text and high costs of purchase are dissuading Japanese customers from buying into e-books.
The chaotic melee now taking place in Japan, as publishing makes room for e-books at last, has been compared to a Wild West Klondike-like rush. Some, however, prefer to liken it to a Noh play.
In the stillness of Noh dramas, heroes are infamous for dashing on stage swearing to take action only to remain rooted for hours until another hero arrives declaring likewise. Little progress is made but there is often a tragic ending. Japanese publishers might be wondering if a similar tragic end awaits for themselves as the more dynamic Amazon and Apple wait in the wings for their moment.
Because without agreements between the major players in Japan, it is hard to see how they will successfully fend off the wolves from outside, according to Robin Birtle, c.e.o. of digital publishers Sakkam Press. He said: "The big problem is one of interoperability between bookstores. There is an attempt ongoing at the moment by Rakuten [a web-based retailer], Panasonic, Sony and bookstore Kinokuniya to develop this. But it is difficult to see such an initiative being broadly adopted."
While the e-book business for Japan's mobile phones is booming, there is a dearth of books for other platforms. However, it is the difficulty of finding, downloading and paying for digital books that is really holding back any demand.
There are at least a dozen e-book apps and most publishers have their own e-book store. Most stores require the user to install software from a separate company if they are to read the material on a computer, so the user has to be familiar with different formats.
It is so difficult to own an e-book in Japan that many prefer to scan their paper libraries, convert them to PDFs and then read them on their iPads. Such obstacles have stunted demand to such an extent that Sony and Panasonic recently halted production of their electronic readers. Birtle said there will no consolidation of the market in the near future.
Kindle and iBook apps would make things easier but because they don't properly support the vertical text that most Japanese readers prefer, only western books are available. However, Amazon, Apple and Google are working on a resolution.
Digital publishing consultant Nobuyuki Hayashi said there are so many different voices in digital because of these difficulties rendering typical vertical text Japanese books. He said: "They made such a big noise that ‘print publishing is dying', and if the publishers want to survive, they have to go digital a.s.a.p. Most Japanese publishers don't understand technology, so they believed their claim."
Cost is also a deterrent to most buyers, with e-book prices currently between 70% and 80% of the print price. Others note that securing a rights deal with an e-bookstore is costly and time consuming.
Apple is only just getting established after the Japanese release of the iPad in May 2010, but its coming has been likened to that of the 19th-century American "Black Ships" that finally opened Japan to trading with the West.
Hayashi said: "People outside believe Japan is a very hi-tech country, but it is not. Many Japanese companies use PCs but are stuck with old technology. But the iPad changed the perception of many older presidents and executives, most of whom can't even type because they have their secretary do it."
However, Birtle said there are some limitations in the iPad's handling of Japanese text. He added that many publishers are unhappy about Apple's recent price cut for downloads through its Japanese App Store. "They no longer trust Apple," says Hayashi.
But at least Japan's publishing black ships are now in, and we can expect more lively jolts delivered to the world's biggest—at 2 trillion yen—yet seemingly paralysed book trade.