The Jisui Memo: trouble cooking in the Japanese ebook market, by Robin Birtle
September 14, 2011 | 9:12 am
Jisui is the cutting up of a physical book into individual pages, scanning these pages and then converting the output into an eBook. The pages themselves are then discarded. The literal translation of jisui, ‘to prepare one’s own food’, reflects the fact that it was individuals at home, not corporations, that started this practice. Jisui quickly became a real-world viral hit. Consumers throughout Japan faced the same problem of how to accommodate their growing book collections given the extreme pressure on space in typically cramped apartments and houses. Jisui was the answer but jisui-ing a couple of books represented more time than was spent on an average meal’s preparation. Entrepreneurs soon stepped into offer services to individuals who wanted to save time and get a professional looking result. Within a year, a thriving ecosystem had sprung up and the accepted price to digitize a single book was established at 100 yen ($1.25).
In its current form, jisui undoubtedly benefits more than just these newly formed service bureaux. Many consumers are freeing up shelf space so that they can buy new books. Furthermore, each jisui-ed book represents one less item in a used bookstore. Though this is not a plus for other consumers, it ought to be welcomed by a media industry that, according to the Japan Times, ‘vilified’ the head of a used book store chain for his supposed role in the decline of new book sales.
The legality of using jisui bureaux, though, is unclear. Although, individuals have the right to make a copy of a book for their own use, engaging the services of a third party to do so is in a legal grey area. Last week, the publishing establishment, in the form of seven heavy hitting publishers and 122 famous authors, sent a memo to over a hundred jisui bureaux making it clear they expected jisui operations to be halted until author compensation had been agreed. The memo stated that the senders had not given the bureaux permission to scan their works and asked the bureaux to respond in writing to three questions; did the bureaux plan on continuing to offer their service? What method does the bureaux use to confirm that their clients’ intended use was private? Does the bureaux accept orders from corporations?
The spat over jisui is to be expected. The publishers have an interest in extracting revenue from all parts of the industry and, also, concerns about the impact of thousands of eBooks being created with neither DRM protection nor basic watermarking. The content of the Jisui Memo, though, seems rather odd. The memo is not an outright demand for the bureaux to cease and desist and the questions asked will elicit the scantest of information about any given jisui operation. One possible explanation is that users of jisui services are, in fact, the intended audience of the memo. The national press reporting on the matter certainly put consumers on notice that the legitimacy of using jisui bureaux is in doubt and may, indeed, deter consumers from using these bureaux. Sadly, the same reporting failed to question the seven publishers and 122 authors as to why Japan lags so badly in the digitization of its creative content.
The fate of jisui in Japan is in the balance. Publishers have an incredible opportunity to implement a ‘cradle-to-grave’ system for books, safe in the knowledge there is certain consumer demand for it. New books could be issued with vouchers that allow the owner to buy the equivalent eBook at a steep discount in return for the print edition. Voucher redemption could be set up to take place in physical bookstores which, like elsewhere in the World, are under perpetual threat. Jisui done well could serve both the print and eBook markets.
This problem had already been addressed in the music field. After years of “home-taping is killing music”, the music industry has been forced by technology vendors such as Apple to instead embrace copying as an additional revenue stream. Apple and Amazon’s cloud-based music on demand essentially does just that – making copying an additional feature and licensing the user, not the media.
The Japanese publishing establishment may force jisui literally back into the home but in doing so it will leave a bad taste in the mouth of consumers. That never works well as a long term strategy.
Robin Birtle is the founder of Sakkam Press Ltd (http://www.sakkampress.com) and can be contacted at robin dot birtle at sakkampress dot com.