Prizefighting in Japan

By Greenfeld, Karl Taro | The Nation, May 20, 1991 | Go to article overview

Prizefighting in Japan


Greenfeld, Karl Taro, The Nation


Prizefighting in Japan

On July 16, the literary magazine Bungei Shunju will announce the winner of the 105th Akutagawa Prize, Japan's equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and Heisman Trophy all rolled into one. This prize, Japan's most prestigious literary award, is meant to announce the discovery of a major new talent in "pure literature."

When my mother, Foumiko Kometani, won the Akutagawa Prize in 1986, I was surprised by the extensive media exposure she received. At the award ceremony, the leading literati of Japan gathered in a ballroom of the Tokyo Kaikan to fete her. My mother, a small woman with graying hair cut straight across her forehead, sat with her hands folded as the cameras of fifty photographers flashed. That night she would be on the evening news. The next day a photograph of our family dining in a yakitori restaurant would be on the front pages of Japanese newspapers. but the adultation bestowed upon the Akutagawa Prize winner is fleeting--and is indicative of how the Japanese book business operates. Win the Akutagawa and you are royalty for a day. But when you wake up the next morning you had better get back to the grind, for in Japanese book publishing it is the quantity of what you write that counts, not the quality.

I am the son of two authors. My father, Josh Greenfeld, has published fiction and nonfiction books in the United States. My mother has published fiction and nonfiction books in Japan. I have seen the differences between the American and Japanese book businesses first-hand. I remember my mother recounting that Shinchosha, one of the most prestigious publishers in a nation where prestige is almost everything, would be publishing her prizewinning novella Passover. When my father asked how much money she would receive, my mother explained that in Japan an author does not ask the publisher about money. My father told my mother, "That's what agents are for."

But in Japan, authors do not have agents. Authors are not paid advances. Authors often do not even sign book contracts. As opposed to the United States, where the normal royalty rate is a sliding 10 percent, 12.5 percent, 15 percent as the book attains certain levels of sales, in Japan authors earn a flat 10 percent royalty rate on copies printed. In one respect, however, the Japanese and American book businesses are similar. In both nations, writers barely eke out a living.

The Japanese publishing industry is larger than that of the United States. Nearly $6.4 billion is generated annually by the Japanese book business, compared with American publishing's $4 billion in trade sales. Japanese publishers release 39,000 titles and sell 911,310,000 units annually. Japan boasts more book outlets than the United States (this is probably because Japan does not have a sophisticated public library system). Although Japan has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, it is even more difficult for a literary writer to earn a living in Japan than in the United States.

In Japanese publishing there is a strict division implicitly understood and observed by publishers, writers, editors and critics between so-called pure literature (junbungaku) and entertainment writing (taishubungaku). The highly touted, fashionable new category of fuikkushon--fiction--is, in terms of the realities of book publishing, an appendage of the pure literature category.) As almost all pure literature is doomed to midlist status, it is exceedingly rare for a literary author to subsist on income from writing books. Most authors also write magazine articles and newspaper columns or, if they are lucky, serialize their fiction. Even best-selling writers can't cash in through film rights. Filmmakers believe they are doing the writer a favor by adapting his or her book and therefore pay peanuts for the rights.

There are no up-front fees for paperback rights. Instead, the author agrees to the same royalty rate as for hardcovers. …

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