Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Amazon Faces Publishing Dispute in Japan Over Book Subscriptions

  • 1,700-plus titles removed from Kindle Unlimited amid talks
  • Amazon tussled with U.S. publishers over prices in 2014 Inc. is caught up in another publishing dispute, this time in Japan over its subscription-style digital book service.

The web retailer pulled more than 1,000 titles from Kodansha Ltd. over the weekend amid negotiations with Japan’s largest publisher over their contract and the books included in the service. Kobunsha Co. said 550 items were cut. As many as 180 publications from Shogakukan Inc. are no longer being offered; the company said Amazon had sought to reduce the fees it shares.

Kindle Unlimited, which debuted Aug. 3 in Japan, was the first e-book subscription offering outside of Amazon’s main English-speaking markets. Amazon charges 980 yen ($9.60) a month for customers for access about 120,000 titles; because the Seattle-based company incurs fees whenever a book is read, there’s a risk that the service may not be profitable if too many people sign up and access books. Amazon sought to renegotiate its contracts with Kodansha, Kobunsha and Shogakukan in September, and amid discussions decided to remove their titles from Kindle Unlimited.

“Due to a unilateral decision by Amazon, our top-ranked titles were no longer being distributed by the company, without any notification,” Tokyo-based Kodansha said in a statement. Natsuko Tanabe, a spokeswoman for Kobunsha, said the publisher is “asking Amazon to continue the service as defined by the current contract.” A representative for Shogakukan said that it was protesting Amazon’s moves because they “don’t properly consider readers and create anxiety for authors.”

Amazon said in a statement that, like other subscription services, “titles regularly rotate in and out of the catalog. Kindle Unlimited’s catalog is also a subset of our larger bookstore, where customers can purchase these titles for sale as usual.”

The tussle in Japan, the world’s fourth-largest publishing market, is reminiscent of Amazon’s dispute with the Hachette Book Group and Simon & Schuster two years ago. Amazon, which helped pioneer the e-book market with the introduction of the Kindle device in 2007, pulled the titles from its online store amid talks as it sought to boost volume by lowering book prices, which the booksellers had opposed. While the disagreement with Japanese publishers over Kindle Unlimited is different, it’s another example of Amazon’s aggressive tactics when it comes to negotiating contracts with publishing partners. The standoff between Amazon and U.S. publishers took months to resolve.

Kodansha, Kobunsha and Shogakukan’s digital and print titles are still available for regular purchases on Amazon’s Japan website. Consumers spent 1.01 trillion yen on books in Japan last year, according to Oricon Inc., a market research firm. That makes the country the biggest publishing market after the U.S., China and Germany, data from the International Publishers Association shows. Rakuten Inc. operates a digital-magazine subscription service in Japan, while publishers and other providers have found some success with all-you-can-read comic books.

Kodansha, which had sales of 95.5 billion yen last year, publishes books, comics and magazines. Its portfolio includes works by Haruki Murakami, as well as “Attack on Titan,” a popular manga series. Kodansha said that about a week after the all-you-can-read service debuted, 17 of its titles were suddenly removed without notice. Most were picture books of bikini-clad models, among its most popular sellers.

“We will be persistent in our ongoing discussions” with Amazon, said Tomoyuki Inui, a spokesman for Kodasha. “We will make an effort to reach an agreement that’s good for readers and authors.”

— With assistance by Takashi Amano

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