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Satellites to Transmit Works Digitally

September 28, 1998

Japan's sky is going to start raining books in fall 1998 as a new experiment in digital publishing gets underway. Books are to be transmitted via communications satellite for sale to readers in electronic form. The new channel will bypass the traditional system of physical distribution and promises tremendous savings in paper and publishing expenses. In addition, digital transmittal will reduce publishers' and book retailers' worries about large overstocks and shipping delays.

Data Sent Via Satellite to Convenience Stores
Digital books will begin their journey as electronic data sent up to a satellite by a publisher. Bookshops and convenience stores around the country will have special terminals to receive this data; for a fee, customers will be able to copy the books they want onto a disc, which they can read on a special hand-held device that displays the data in book form. Since the costs of physical printing, distribution, and storage will be eliminated, the total expenses for this new publishing medium are expected to amount to only about half of those for traditional publishing, even with the additional outlays for data transmission and satellite usage.

The data display device will be roughly the size and shape of a standard hardcover book. Opening the "book" will reveal a liquid crystal display about the size of a paperback page, and simple-to-use buttons will allow the reader to "turn" the pages. While other electronic book formats, such as CD-ROMs, are already out on the market, due to poor display quality, sales have failed to take off. But this new display device will offer crisp definition that captures even detailed graphics and extra-fine print. The target price per unit is in the range of 50,000 to 60,000 yen (370 to 444 U.S. dollars at 135 yen to the dollar).

Books Circulation In for an Overhaul
Some 40 corporate partners, including major publisher Kodansha, book retailer Maruzen, communications giant Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, and the convenience store chain Lawson are involved in the development of the digital publishing system. A consortium for the project was formed in September 1998, and the participants will perform collaborative testing of the system over the next two years. Data reception terminals will be set up in 300 convenience stores and bookshops. Publishers will convert approximately 15,000 titles into digital format, and about 30,000 data display units will be manufactured. The total cost of the experiment is expected to run to 10 billion yen (740 million dollars). The project also has the support of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which plans to cover a portion of the costs. The goal is to turn the experiment into a viable commercial operation by autumn 2000.

This new medium may fundamentally alter the way books are published and distributed. More than 60,000 new titles are coming out every year now, approximately double the number of the early 1980s. But at the retail level the book market has become saturated. Around 40% of the books distributed to retailers are being returned unsold; most of these accumulate in publishers' warehouses and eventually end up as waste matter. Electronic publishing would help avoid these problems, and it would also allow readers to get the books they want faster, eliminating the lag in deliveries to retailers in the provinces.

The emergence of digital books is likely to send repercussions throughout the current distribution system. Distribution agencies will to some extent be cut out of the picture, and books will become readily available at outlets other than bookstores. The pricing of books will also undergo substantial changes, and the used-book trade may be in jeopardy. Paper will probably retain its position as the main medium for book publishing for some time to come, but as this new technology advances, it is sure to make its impact felt both on the book business and other industries.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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