How to Self-Publish in Japan

Jun 8, 2018 · 5 min read

Renna Hata is a full-time journalist at a Japanese newspaper. But on her free time, she writes. She meticulously selects diary entries and poems heavily based on her own experiences, and links them together to tell a story. She recently released her third self-published book called Moon.

While self-publishing might not seem like the ideal path to becoming best-selling author, Hata wholeheartedly recommends it to aspiring writers, saying: “Being self-published allows me to meet and talk with my readers. It makes me happy to know that the emotions I write about in my books are relatable.”

Self-publishing in Japan is considerably more common and known of than in Canada or the United States, and isn’t limited to authors or photographers. Anime enthusiasts will know about the doujinshi, which can be translated as fanzines, but the term also includes original poetry collections and magazines. Because doujinshi has been more and more associated with otaku culture, independently published art books and novels are also known as “zines”.

In North America, it is not rare for young writers to sell self-published copies of their work online, either as a digital version or print on demand. Of course, online stores exist in Japan, but paper and physical copies are certainly still in vogue, and the most popular route. For her latest book, Hata printed 200 copies and personally presented them to bookstore owners. Everything, from editing to printing and selling, must be done by the author; there is no middle man.

“The hardest part was looking at my book and asking myself ‘how much is this worth?’ Of course, there are the printing costs, but then what?”, Hata said. Authors affiliated to a publishing house have little to no involvement when it comes to marketing. Whether the book will be translated, whether it will be printed in paperback or hardcover, the reputation of the publishing house itself, all these details are calculated by somebody else. While being self-published means that authors have the authority to put whatever price they desire on their work, they are restricted to their own resources and capabilities.

In Japan, zines are surprisingly easy to find, if you know where to look. Neighborhoods like Daikanyama, already a center for up-and-rising creators, and Harajuku have become an indispensable stop for those interested in buying and selling zines.

Daikanyama alone has no less than five bookstores who dedicate entire sections to self-published books. Tsutaya’s T-Site branch currently has six copies of Moon on display, among other publications. There, zines are displayed at the center of one of two buildings, right across from the magazines. The noticeable difference: unlike novels, self-published books and magazines are usually wrapped and sealed in plastic. Only one open sample is available for browsing. The store also sells posters, a few t-shirts and mobile accessories from independent artists.

How do you promote a self-published book? Most aspiring writers can’t afford to travel across the country to sell their books. A couple of years ago, the creators of zines relied on small communities and word-of-mouth to sell and get their work recognized. Of course, in 2018, social media has come to play a significant part in acquiring new readers; the bigger the following, the more exposure. Concretely though, authors rely on face-to-face interactions. From there, word-of-mouth is still, to this day, their best bet.

Smaller bookstores can offer more opportunities than simply selling books. Some have designated spaces where they host meetups and public reading events to promote creators on the rise. “For self-published authors, it’s expensive to go on tours to meet our readers,” said Hata. That is a perk that comes with being affiliated to a publishing house. “I only attended one. There wasn’t any singing or anything, but when my shift came up, I sat down and got to meet some of my readers. It was quite nice.”

While independent authors do rely heavily on bookstores, Hata mentioned that the Tokyo Art Book Fair is where she gets the most notability. This annual event calls out to self-published authors, magazines, independent photographers to bring them all under one roof. In the fall of 2017, there were no less than three floors with dozens of booths regrouping mostly Japanese creators, but also artists from around the globe.

One of the contributors to the event is Utrecht, a small bookstore in Harajuku that first opened as a webstore back in 2002 and its first location in Daikanyama, making them one of the first to sell zines online. Their focus is mainly visual arts — photography books and graphic design studies, particularly — as well as fashion, but they also stock eclectic self-published authors, sometimes in languages other than Japanese. Utrecht also promotes various artistic events with a small table full of pamphlets right at the entrance of the store, for any visitor to pick up.

It is a well-known fact that the Japanese music and book markets are important in size. But of course, the percentage of people who actively follow zine publications or smaller artists is considerably smaller. Because of the language barrier, exclusively publishing in Japanese isn’t as lucrative unless the authors publish bilingually. “I think that if I could write in English, my writing would reach a lot more people,” Hata said, “Maybe one day.”

This short article was first written as an assignment for a university class. It was my first attempt at writing something following the outline of a feature article.


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Amateur writer. Aspiring translator. Lover of stories.