Why Publishing Is So Japanese


While I lived in Japan for a year after graduating from college, I did something that offended my distant relatives. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I recall lying on my futon in an adjoining tatami room and hearing my grandmother explain my behavior to the relatives. "She’s gaijin," she was telling them in Japanese. "She really doesn’t know."

Well, for those who missed the "Shogun" miniseries, being called a gaijin is not a good thing. It literally means "outside person" or foreigner. Basically some fool who doesn’t know better. But to plead my case, I have to tell you that the "rules" in Japan are unspoken. They are definitely there, but no one really articulates them, so you have to step in a minefield to discover what’s really going on and perhaps lose an arm and leg in the process.

I often see parallels between the American publishing world and the Japanese world, both relationship-driven universes. There are certain rules and truths that outsiders don’t know. And yes, as writers, we think that we are insiders because we look the part, our names are part of the system, we can speak the language, we even act like we know. But oftentimes we don’t.

We author bloggers try to posit ourselves as experts, presenting our loyal readers with anecdotal evidence about the "truths" of publishing. But most of us don’t know. Publishing is a more complicated animal, an amoeba that takes different shapes and forms, constantly changing and yet utterly constant at the same time.

I recall reading that Laura Lippman once stated that she was concerned about publishing advice being spread by the web. Not wanting to rely on my faulty memory, I e-mailed her recently and she elaborated in her reply: "My primary worry is that so much info on the Internet is packaged as ‘the’ way, as opposed to one way. There is no single way."

"Good people get dropped," she went on to say. "It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Good books don’t get the attention they deserve. But there are no simple solutions to these problems and I worry that certain approaches achieve Holy Grail status."

Basically, she expressed, those working at mainstream publishing houses do know a lot more than we authors give them credit for. I think there’s something to Laura’s words of wisdom. Yes, our own personal experience may seem like "the truth," but it’s not the whole truth. It might be an aberration, in fact.

If you want more of a big-picture reality of the publishing industry, I would point you to down under, specifically the Australian Publishers Association, who sponsors a fellowship program for writers and publishers from Australia to spend time in U.S. publishing houses and literary agencies.

I think it was Sarah Weinman’s website that turned me on to these reports a while back and I found them illuminating. I recently returned to see that a 2003-2004 report had been added, filed by Rowena Lennox. They are long, more than 70 pages, and more geared towards Australian and personal interests. They are also dated; one report is from 1999 and the second, 2001.

You’ll find superfluous information here about apartment-hunting in Manhattan and AOL hookups (yes, they are dated), but they are also fascinating.

The beauty of these reports are that they are filed by gaijin, new to this country and the New York business scene. Nothing is taken for granted in these reports–the configuration of American chain bookstores, the unique nature of New York publishing houses, the personalities of New York newspapers.

There’s detailed descriptions about the various departments in publishing houses, covers, Internet publicity, and bookstores, along with some corresponding numbers.

Again, with the time lag, there are changes, I’m sure. For instance, the situation of the mass-market book seems different in 2006 than two years earlier. Costco and other big-box stores play a larger role than ever before. Yet the general rigmarole involved in buying and producing a book has most likely stayed constant. What is also apparent is the dedication of editors and other publishing professionals in producing the best book possible.

As I scan these reports, it occurs to me that we writers don’t really have to understand all the details of the industry. We authors really see only a small slice of the larger pie and perhaps we need to do more of what we do best–write. Of course, we still have to have an eye on self-promotion because while the publishers have hundreds of books to shepherd, we just have ours. I just hope that Murderati readers realize what we are offering here on this blog is merely suggestive, not prescriptive.

The irony of it all is that sometimes it does take a gaijin to explain the system.

HOT SUMMER READ: Christine Bell of Mystery and Imagination Bookshop turned me on to Richard K. Morgan’s ALTERED CARBON and it’s been my beach reading for the past couple of days. Morgan’s debut features Takeshi Kovacs, an Envoy from Harlan’s World, a Japanese-East European planet–what would have happened if my ancestors and Harley Jane Kozak’s got together. Most of this futuristic noirish novel takes place in Bay City, formerly San Francisco. It’s got gore, sex, and violence and it’s also incredibly inventive and well-written. A definite page-turner. Brett Battles, I would definitely recommend this for you.

TOFU FOR THE SOUL: All you Angelenos, come out this weekend for this and this.


White person. Literally. Haku is one way to read the character shiro, the more popular way to say "white." "Jin" is another way to read the character hito, the more popular way to say "person."

15 thoughts on “Why Publishing Is So Japanese

  1. Pari

    Oh, Naomi,There’s so much here.

    I think you–and Laura–are right about the information on the internet and how many of us have such a myopic perspective.

    Our world is rarefied, yes, but it’s also part of a bigger business picture. I don’t think there are big demons out there in the publishing industry who are waiting for the demise of the book. I think they are business people working with many older models — and some unpleasant new ones.

    Alot of the PR advice I write for Murderati originally was for any small businessperson . . . authors didn’t use to think of themselves as such — and many still don’t.

    Is Gai jin like Gwei lo (foreign devil in Cantonese)?

    Oh, and I am sooooo envious of anyone who can go to a tofu festival, period. Every time I think of the fresh tofu — it tasted of almonds and bliss — that I could get in Hong Kong, my mouth waters and a tear comes to my dry New Mexican eyes.

  2. JT Ellison

    Naomi, I call this phenomenon Authorus ExpertitisI am so very careful with what I say on this blog and KillerYear’s blog. I am not by any means an expert, just a newbie who is experiencing all of this for the first time. It is so easy for writers in my position to fall into the trap of everything that’s said is gospel. We are so desperate for insider information, when we get a nugget, we act on it. Granted, this can be a good thing, but it’s important to remember that everyone’s experience is different. This is a fantastic post. Thanks for taking the time to share!

  3. Naomi


    I think all that p.r. advice is very helpful, especially since most of us can’t afford an outside publicist. I remember talking to a small businesswoman who was related to an entrepreneur I was featuring in a biography. I asked her what was the biggest change she had seen in business throughout the decades, and she quipped, “Marketing.”

    I just wanted to caution Murderati readers not to assimilate any kind of Internet advice without a skeptical eye. What works for one author may not work for another. Information from one source may be incorrect. I think Laura was concerned that one nugget of misinformation spreads from one blog to another blog and finally is viewed and referred to as the truth.

    I don’t blame us. This is a strange business, and it would be nice if someone sat us down at the beginning of this publishing journey and just went over each publishing decision step by step. But there’s no time or money for that. And let’s face it–we’re a pretty crazy bunch. Who knows what we’d do with all the information.

    So we go on with this dysfunctional dance. I hope we here at Murderati can continue to entertain and illuminate as much as we can. But please–challenge, question, and contradict us as much as you see fit.

    And gaijin vs. gwei lo–gwei lo uses the character for demon, “oni” in Japanese, while gaijin incorporates the character for outside. So gaijin is not as loaded an expression.

    J.T.–Author Expertitis, I love it!

  4. Beatrice Brooks

    While I agree that authors don’t *have to* know all the details of the pub biz, I also think that authors know more than publishers give them credit for. I remember when I mentioned some problem to the owner of a major pub house [my pub house at the time] and he said I should “stick to my little hobby” and let the experts take care of it.

    As for “giving advice” on our blogs, I liken it to critique groups. Every critique comment isn’t gospel, and every blog comment has to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

    But isn’t that true of life in general? TV ads, the media and, especially, politics are good examples.

    “I saw it on TV, so it must be true.” Argh.


  5. Elaine

    So well done, Namomi! Posts like this (and many of Pari’s on ‘inside the biz’) are timely and valuable to new and established writers alike. It is such a joy to be a part of Murderati where experience and advice is so generously offered.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Naomi, I so enjoy your posts comparing cultures (and the vocabulary words!!). My very gaijin brother worked as a salaryman in Kyoto for two years (very hard for him, not the least because he’s 6’5″ and stood out like a – well, you can imagine!) and his ex-girlfriend, half-Japanese, is still a sister to me. You are helping me understand so much. Just – fascinating.


  7. Naomi


    Yes, I’m amazed about how many Americans these days have international experiences; a number on the West Coast have traveled to Asia. Chinese and Japanese aesthetics have always appealed to Americans, even from the colonial period. It’s been interesting for me to see Japanese influences in architecture created by Frank Lloyd Wright and more locally, the Greene and Greene brothers.

    And 6’5″–yeah, he would stand out, but Japanese youth are getting taller and taller. I, on the other hand, loved Japan from a height perspective. I mean, where else could I buy close off the rack without making alterations!


    It is scary how people take news items as God’s truth. I remember this guy who liked to debunk the news by planting all these fake stories. He got away with his falsehoods more times than not.


    I’ve been so impressed with your ON THE BUBBLE interviews and can’t wait to read this Saturday’s. I have a feeling that it’s going to be one of your best. But as J.T. says, our lips are sealed.

  8. Rob Gregory Browne

    I think Lippman’s concern about things being packaged as “the” way applies not only to publishing, but to writing itself.

    There are so many “experts” out there telling us how to write (and, yes, I’m guilty of it, too), when the truth is — as William Goldman says — nobody really knows anything.

    Yes, we all have theories and methods that may work for us, but they don’t and can’t work for everyone.

    The scariest thing of all is that just about anyone can CLAIM to be an expert and people will listen to him/her. We’re all so anxious to find the magic key that we ignore the obvious truth: there is no key. We have to PICK those locks and the only way to do that is to get our hands dirty.

    As for the publishing world, I’m blissfully ignorant about it. But I’m learning the hard way, taught by the best teacher of all: experience.

  9. Elaine

    Asian aesthetics and artistry have been a *precious* and sought-after design-especially furnishings and objects d’ art as far back as the seventeenth century throughout the U.K., Europe, and then of course, later, the U.S. And still today, decorating with Japanese and Chinese antiques are considered to be the height of sophistication. Truth be told, they’re my favorites as well. As a recovering antiques dealer, I was lucky to have managed to snare some great pieces and can’t imagine living without them. The serene design of Japanese furniture is without peer.

    Oh, sorry – got carried away there. Uh,yeah-Saturday! Definitely don’t miss this stellar figure in our world of mystery/suspense/thrillers/crime, yada, yada. She knows EVERYTHING that’s going on. How’s that for a teaser?

  10. Naomi

    It’s just so exciting to witness the birth of Rob Gregory Browne’s upcoming novel, KISS HER GOODBYE. I suspect that it’s going to be one fantastic launch. (The question is, what are you going to do differently for No. 2?)

    And Evil E–how about a Molly mystery with a tansu? Japanese block print? That would be cool.

  11. Elaine

    Naomi! Have you been channeling me? How did you know that Japanese antiques will be center stage in Molly #5? A lost and mysterious Katana will (and a few tansu’s)will keep Molly hopping. But first I gotta finish #4 (almost there!).

  12. Naomi

    How much will I have to pay to have a mystery writer named Naomi traipsing around in your mystery #5? Or better yet, a Japanese American gardener named Mas! 🙂

  13. Rob Gregory Browne

    LOL, Naomi. You’re assuming that I’m actually going to FINISH the second one. I’m in a slow period right now and feeling the heat of an approaching deadline.

    That’s one thing that’s certainly different about book 2. 🙂

    Thanks for the nice plug, by the way…


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