By Kung Chan and Zhijiang Zhao
In the internet era, China’s book publishing industry is facing significant challenges. Practitioners in the field complained that paper book publishing losing its prospects in the face of online gaming, short videos, and the e-commerce economy.
The decline of the book publishing industry has also led to the deterioration of physical bookstores, causing a wave of store closures. According to a survey report released by the China Book and Periodical Distribution Industry Association in December 2022, among the 994 physical bookstores surveyed nationwide, 9.56% had no income, and 32.09% had income below RMB 100,000 in the first half of 2022. Yet, the development of bookstores in Japan differs from that in China. Although the Japanese are also increasingly dependent on smartphones, and their domestic publishing industry has faced operational difficulties, the industry has not yet reached a desperate state in Japan.
Jinbocho district in Tokyo boasts the largest book town in Japan, even in the world. About one-third of the bookstores in this area deal with antiquarian books, making it the center of book pilgrimage for many enthusiasts of old and rare books. Within this area, there are over 200 diverse bookstores. One of them is the Nanyodo Bookstore, a small sanctuary for architectural art books, with an exterior resembling a cement box. At Ohya Shobo Bookstore, readers may encounter Japanese antique books and maps from distant eras. The Uchiyama Shoten has also stood in Jinbocho for a century and continues to sell books related to Chinese culture.
It is not easy for a district specializing in books, yet possessing strong reading culture with a substantial population of book enthusiasts, this supports the survival of Jinbocho. According to observations by ANBOUND’s researchers, the readers in Jinbocho’s bookstores include both Japanese and foreigners, covering a wide range of age groups. It is known that many scholars from abroad specifically visit there to find books and conduct research. The reputation of this book district has spread far and wide, reaching people from all over the world.
This provides food for thought for countries like China. If a country’s book publishing industry were to focus solely on a small portion of the population, it would indeed face a dead end when confronted with strong competition from the internet. However, it should be noted that the virtual nature of the internet can help expand the market space. With this possibility, bookstores can use the internet to enhance their reputation, even achieving world-renowned status. Once their reputation spreads, the expanded market space will attract people internationally. Currently, bookstores and the book publishing industry in China mainly target cities with many universities, such as Beijing and Shanghai. However, even markets there are gradually shrinking at a fast pace. This is because young people, including those in universities, rely on the internet and smartphones for information. In such a situation, the market space for bookstores has also suffered significant contraction. In Japan, however, it is a different story. Places like Jinbocho do not just cater to Tokyo; they serve all of Japan and even the world. Therefore, it is not without reason that such a place exists in the precious and limited space of Tokyo. The expansion of market space allows bookstores to thrive.
In China, the challenges faced by bookstores are daunting, and the situation for the book industry is even more precarious, let alone creating a book district. For instance, the once highly esteemed Yanjiyou bookstore which had a valuation of over RMB 100 million and more than sixty stores nationwide, is now struggling with closures and unpaid wages. Another example is Benlai Bookstore, once known to be the “most beautiful bookstore in Shenzhen”, has also vanished. If chain-operated popular bookstores are experiencing such hardships, one can only imagine the plight of the independent bookstores scattered in the corners of cities. Many of these bookstores have resorted to innovative strategies, such as hosting diverse activities or combining bookstores with cafes, in an attempt to attract customers. However, despite their efforts, the operation remains exceptionally challenging. The main reasons behind this struggle lie in the small reader base and the gradual shrinking of the market, worsened by fierce competition from the internet. In such a trying landscape, the bookstore industry in China is grappling to create an environment that fosters survival and growth. The changing dynamics of the publishing world call for creative solutions and a renewed approach to adapt to the evolving preferences and habits of readers in the digital age.
Furthermore, the book industry in China is still operating according to traditional commercial practices. Whether a bookstore thrives and stands out with its unique features largely depends on the capabilities of the store’s owner. However, the situation is different in Japan, where local authorities do not leave bookstore operators to run their businesses independently. Instead, they consider bookstores as part of public infrastructure. Viewing bookstores as a part of public infrastructure changes the perspective significantly. This makes bookstores a concern for the entire city, just like water, heating, electricity, and other essential services for urban life. During the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Japanese government swiftly established guidelines after issuing emergency declarations. Bookstores were categorized as necessary facilities for maintaining social life and were allowed to remain open, with the condition of implementing appropriate measures to prevent infection. This approach indicates a notable difference in how city management authorities view and support bookstores. Consequently, defining the role of bookstores becomes a topic of discussion from the perspective of the city, and it is worth considering as part of urban public policy.
Whether bookstores are considered a city’s public infrastructure or not is an important question. Once this issue is defined clearly and reaches a consensus, it may pave the way for a renaissance in the book publishing industry and bookstores. Chinese bookstores would not appear as gloomy and bleak as they do now. There is room for discussion in this regard, and within this discussion lies the potential for development and possibilities. From the example of Tokyo’s Jinbocho, such possibilities do exist.
Final analysis conclusion:
China’s book publishing industry, which caters to only a small portion of the population, is currently facing a dire situation under the impact of the internet. However, in the densely populated city of Tokyo, Japan, book publishing and bookstores are thriving, catering to readers not only across Japan but also worldwide. There is another crucial question that needs a swift and clear definition, which is whether bookstores can be considered as part of a city’s public infrastructure.
Kung Chan and Zhijiang Zhao are researchers at ANBOUND