E-books in Asia: joint ventures?

Several Japanese newspapers have stories on a new trade body being set up by twenty-one Japanese publishers. The new group, provisionally named the Japan Electronic Book Publishers’ Association (Nihon Denshi-Shoseki Shuppansha Kyokai,) will start work next month. According to Hideharu Nishi’s report in today’s Asahi Shimbun, it’s an attempt to fight the threat to print publishers’ profits from e-books in Japanese.

A Japanese version of Amazon’s Kindle reader is on the horizon. Sony and Sharp are developing their own , and other e-book providers are sure to follow the big A into one of the most highly literate markets in the world.

In 2008, the Japanese e-book market was worth over 46 billion yen, over $508 million. By 2013, according to some estimates, that market could be six times bigger as e-readers become more popular. At present, about 90% of Japan’s e-book sales (excluding digital comics, an increasingly profitable area) are shared between the 21 members of the Japan Electronic Book Publishers’ Association.

Mainichi Daily News reports that the new Association developed from an e-publishers association formed a decade ago. 13 member companies, including giants Kodansha, Kobunsha and Bungeishunju, have been joined by eight other bodies including Japan Broadcast Publishing Co. The idea is to “establish a contract model for writers and online e-book stores’ and “develop legislation for the secondary use of publications in the digital media.”

For Japanese authors, the rise of the e-book is a golden opportunity. Most of their British and American counterparts sign publishing contracts which tie up rights in all current and foreseeable formats for the legal term of copyright -currently the author’s lifetime plus seventy years. Broadly speaking, Japan’s copyright law separates e-books from print,  giving authors the right to decide who can publish the electronic versions of their books.

Publishers of the print versions have no say in the matter, and face the possibility of their authors selling e-publishing rights to the highest bidder. Amazon and others could go direct to authors, cherry-picking the cream of Japan’s publishing industry and building an electronic list to make any print publisher weep and tremble.

It’s no surprise, then, that the emergent Association plan to ask Japanese writers’ groups for support. The surprise is that they haven’t already made the Japan P.E.N. Club and the Japan Writers’ Association an offer so attractive that their members can’t refuse.

The approach they’re actually taking might be less productive than they hope. They argue that books are “works jointly created by authors and editors”. They want a new form of contract giving publishers rights over e-book versions of print works, which they will then sell on to e-book service providers like Amazon.

If I were a Japanese author, I might not find that idea quite so attractive as being courted by e-publishers and deciding between competing offers. I’d also be disturbed by the assertion that my book was in fact a joint product, part-created and part-owned by my editor, and therefore by the publisher employing my editor.

In some cases, there’s an element of truth in that. Long-running series where authors change over time often have extensive input from editors and rights holders. Media franchise novelisations and comics are generally treated by all parties as pure work-for-hire, with the author of an individual spinoff work surrendering all rights and further claims. But for an original novel, comic or any other author-created concept, the idea that a publisher acquires part- ownership simply by assigning an editor to work with the author is a very dangerous one for writers. The normal industry process of preparing the work for publication becomes a kind of land-grab.

Writers already face major hurdles in getting their work to market. With a few high-profile exceptions, the creative engines that sustain every area of the entertainment business are usually at the bottom of the pile when it comes to rights, respect, and money. A publishers’ association, however gracious and well-intentioned, is first and foremost intended to protect the rights and profits of publishers.

With the biggest guns of the Japanese print market, including Shueisha and Shinchosa, on board, it’s going to be tough for Japanese authors to resist – but if I were one of them, I’d hold on to my e-book rights like grim death.

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