Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Monstrous eBook Japan

This Friday, May 28th, 2010 is the day the Apple starts selling the iPad in Japan.

It's easy for Americans to forget that there is still a big world beyond our borders. No, Europe didn't get swallowed up by a volcano in Iceland. And while the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) just released some astounding sales figures for January and February ebook sales, the Japanese market helps provide some perspective. US trade wholesale ebook sales for the first two months of 2010 totaled $60.8 million, roughly matching sales for the entire first half of 2009. Extrapolated to a full year, this would be over $360 million, which doesn't even begin to account for any bump caused by the iPad, which launched after the reporting period.

Over in Japan, they're also expecting big things from the iPad (the iPhone has been a huge hit in Japan, capturing 72% of the Japanese Smartphone market.) But the Japanese ebook market is already huge. In 2009 ebook sales in Japan totaled $600 million, more than triple the US sales, and without any Kindles! These numbers are from this morning's presentation at IDPF's DigitalBook2010 conference by Daihei Shiohama, Head of Corporate Strategy at Voyager Japan Inc.

According to Shiohama, 80% of that $600 million is sales on mobile platforms, i.e. phones. The most avid consumers are women aged 20-30, and the most popular ebook content is manga. In Japan, everyone has a mobile phone capable of delivering rich content, and people spend on lot of time commuting on crowded trains. eBooks on phones are very practical.

I had a chance to speak to Shiohama and Voyager President Masaaki Hagino, who demoed Voyager's iPad ebook reader applications for me. The T-Time App and DotBook store make use of a format (dotBook) which is specialized for Japanese books, which not only use four different scripts (Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana and Romanji) but are often rendered top to bottom and right to left. Voyager has been active in the ePub standards process because the current ePub standard doesn't quite support everything these books need- yet. For example, a manga will have an irregular layout and flow of frames within pages that are arranged opposite to a typical English language book. On the iPad, the navigation of such a book using the T-Time App is simple and natural.

It's interesting that Voyager is so eager to have an international standard to work with, given that it owns and controls a format that already works. Shiohama explained that Japanese ebooks have been like the iguanas that evolved separately on the Galapagos islands. The market and technology for the ebooks produced by Voyager will be much larger and more efficient if it can use the same technology and standards used by the rest of the world.

I should note that the iguanas I saw last year in the Yucatan were smaller and probably lazier than Galapagos iguanas, but that's a lizard of a completely different color.
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  1. Eric, The Japanese ebook numbers are remarkable and their urge towards worldwide standards is to be encouraged. I blogged about my astonishment at the Japanese ebook numbers here