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IIST e-Magazine (For the Japanese version of this article)

Publishing Malaise Continues to Deepen The struggle to combat piracy websites Yoshihisa Kato Chief Editor, Cultural News Section Kyodo News [Date of Issue: 30/November/2018 No.0285-1092]

Date of Issue: 30/November/2018

Publishing Malaise Continues to Deepen
The struggle to combat piracy websites

Yoshihisa Kato
Chief Editor, Cultural News Section
Kyodo News


The publishing industry continues to languish amidst sluggish book and magazine sales. Piracy websites are one factor behind poor manga sales, but there is strong opposition to blocking these sites, and the panel organized by the government has abandoned its efforts to find a solution. Caught between the severity of the damage and the constitutional right of secrecy of communication, the publishing world is really struggling.


The publishing industry is in freefall. Not only is there no sign of abatement in the long-term decline in book and magazine sales, but the manga sales that have traditionally underpinned the industry too are beginning to drop fast enough to cause serious concern amongst publishers. Piracy websites that give readers free access to manga and other publications have been identified as one cause of the slump, but there is strong opposition to blocking these sites, and the government's own panel has abandoned its efforts to find a solution. Caught between the severity of the damage and the constitutional rights of secrecy of communication and freedom of expression, the publishing world is really struggling.

Young people move away from books

The Research Institute for Publications (Tokyo) put 2017 print sales at around 1.3701 trillion yen. Of this, magazines accounted for approximately 654.8 billion, down around 10 percent on the previous year, and books approximately 715.2 billion, down around three percent. The market has in fact slumped 52 percent from the 1996 peak of 2.6564 trillion yen. With sales across the industry effectively halving over the last 20 years, it's no wonder publishers are worried.

One factor behind declining sales is the shift away from books, particularly among young people, as a result of the spread of smartphones and games. Shocking data from the National Federation of University Co-operative Associations' Fact-finding Survey on Student Life suggests that over half of students now spend zero time reading. This loss of interest in books is starkly reflected in bookstore numbers, with close to 10,000 stores disappearing over the last 20 years. And it's not only the once-ubiquitous local bookstores—albeit partly because of redevelopment, major booksellers in Tokyo are also on the decline. While more people may well be buying books from Amazon and other on-line sellers, falling bookstore numbers serve as a very tangible symbol of the shift away from books.

Comparing books and magazines, magazines are in the more serious situation. Magazines were renowned for driving the print market from the mid-1970s right through to 2016, when magazine sales fell below book sales for the first time in 41 years. Magazines' dwindling popularity reflects the ready availability of information on the Internet, as well as the penetration of new services allowing unlimited access to digital magazines. Unlike books, where best-sellers like the Harry Potter series and the manga version of Genzaburo Yoshino's How Do You Live can briefly lift the performance of the whole segment, a weekly magazine scoop seldom translates directly into increased sales. Magazine stands in convenience stores too are visibly shrinking.

Languishing manga omnibuses

The major factor behind low magazine sales is the decline in weekly manga omnibuses, which bring the latest stories from several manga series together in one volume. Boys' and girls' omnibuses did particularly poorly in 2017, reflecting growing youth disinterest in this genre. According to a survey by the Research Institute for Publications, market leader Weekly Shōnen Jump has seen its former six million-strong sales drop to around 1.8 million, while Weekly Shōnen Magazine too is now selling less than 900,000 copies. Manga omnibuses serve as catalogues, exposing readers to new series that they might then want to buy as single volumes, so an omnibus sales slump translates directly into a slump in manga volume sales. According to one magazine editor, this trend could lead to a cooldown across the whole manga market.

At the same time, the 2017 survey suggests that strong digital manga sales are managing to compensate for slow print sales, with the overall manga market not actually evincing any major change. It was in fact the first year in which sales of digital manga topped their print brethren. Readers are beginning to prefer digital manga, and a growing number of manga are being designed to digital specifications, such as vertical scrolling. Publishing majors are working hard to capture new readers by, for example, offering better free-of-charge pages using their own smartphone apps, with efforts continuing to grow the digital market as a way of combating the overall market decline.

Dealing with piracy

While the industry is looking to digital manga as a solution to its woes, ironically, Internet manga sites are also causing publishers serious headaches.

Piracy sites provide readers with free access via the Internet to manga and magazines that have been duplicated without the permission of the author or publisher. The harm caused by copyright infringements has become increasingly serious in recent years, and in February 2018, the Japan Cartoonists Association released a statement strongly critical of operators “devouring profit” despite “contributing absolutely nothing to the creative endeavor.” In April, the government took the emergency measure of asking Internet providers to voluntarily block access to the piracy websites Mangamura, Anitube, and Miomio on the grounds that these sites were causing damage in the realm of tens to hundreds of billions of yen to the publishing industry. A panel including publishing and communications industry representatives as well as legal experts was also launched with a view to taking legislative steps to back up this measure.

However, the panel immediately ran into difficulties. Fearing the collapse of the manga business, the publishing industry supported blocking as the only effective response. Others strongly opposed blocking, however, on the grounds that it obliges Internet providers to monitor user access and consequently infringes the constitutional right of secrecy of communication. This divide remains unbridged. The panel was supposed to put together an interim report, but a storm of protest greeted its proposed listing of the pros and cons, which was regarded as moving the debate decisively in the direction of legislation. It was accordingly decided not to create a report, and the panel has been put on hold indefinitely. Eyes will be on the next move by the government, which has made clear its intention to bring in blocking legislation.

The damage caused by piracy sites is certainly severe. Access to Mangamura may have been blocked, but there are numerous other copycat sites still out there. Some have been cleverly designed to look like official sites, and people may well have been using them unawares. More frequent accessing of such sites will pull down manga and manga omnibus sales and impact directly on the income of manga artists, publishing companies and bookstores. And where creators can't receive fair compensation for the work into which they have poured their time, labor and talent, the impact will extend beyond the present on to the development of future generations of manga artists, and could ultimately weaken culture itself.

At the same time, manga artists have always been staunch supporters of freedom of expression. Well-known artist Tetsuya Chiba is critical of piracy sites, but also confesses to complicated feelings about the issue. As an “expresser” who has always placed great value on freedom of expression and the right to know, he is concerned that blocking could prove to be a double-edged sword, and feels torn between his desire to protect the principle of freedom and the ugly reality that lip service alone will not resolve the problem.

Even while the debate remains deadlocked, at the end of October it emerged that the operator of a piracy site has been identified from information disclosed by an American IT company that supplied the server for the site. The plaintiffs are now considering launching a damages suit against that operator. Because piracy sites often go through offshore servers, it was previously regarded as impossible to identify site operators and demand that sites be shut down, but this development opens the possibility of solutions that will not be fraught with the same constitutional implications as blocking. Taking the less radical path of identifying and warning operators, while also growing the digital manga market by creating sites where anyone can access digital manga legally and cheaply, may be the best way of protecting manga artists and Japan's publishing culture.


(For the Japanese version of this article)


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