ABDVol.32 No.3

"Mini-comi": The Spread and Diversity of Publishing
Ayashige Nandaro
 

Too Many Books

 A glance into any of the small bookstores that abound in Japanese towns and cities reveals an astonishing volume of publications (books, pocketbooks, paperbacks, comic books, magazines, etc.). Many of these, however, will have disappeared from the shelves within a week, and some may even be returned without ever being removed from the box in which they were delivered. And I am not speaking only of weekly or monthly magazines. Even literature and commentaries have an extremely short life on the shelf.
  Why is this cycle, which is essentially a book's lifespan, so brief?
  One reason is the proliferation of publications. In 1970, the annual number of new titles published was 18,000. By 2000 this figure had multiplied to 65,000. Similarly, the total number of magazine titles grew from 2,300 in 1970 to 4,500 in 2000. It is simply impossible for small bookstores to handle such an enormous volume of material. In the 1990s, numerous of mammoth bookstores with greater floor space were built to handle the ever-increasing number of new titles.
  Another reason is the resale price maintenance and consignment sales system, a factor that also directly contributes to the excessive volume of publications. In Japan, almost all books and magazines are distributed by book wholesalers. These companies act as middlemen between publishers and bookstores, providing information about publications and collecting sales' proceeds. Under the resale price maintenance and consignment sales system, a fixed sales price is set and maintained throughout the country regardless of how much time passes. In addition, bookstores are free to return books via the wholesalers at any time. Both publishers and bookstores are thus heavily dependent on wholesalers. In order to generate income, publishers keep producing new titles while bookstores focus more on returning than on selling books. The lifespan of books has shrunk accordingly.
  If the multitude of publications being produced daily were meeting the readers' needs, we could call Japan's publishing culture healthy. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
  Number of copies sold peaked in 1988 and have been decreasing annually ever since. Magazine sales similarly peaked in 1995 and gradually declined thereafter. The publishing industry as a whole registered minus growth in 2000 for the fourth consecutive year. In other words, a significant percent of publications are sent out into the world only to be returned and disappear without being noticed by the general public. This suggests the existence of a major gap between those who make books and those who buy and read them.

Publishing: Another Meaning of the Word

 Let us shift our gaze away from urban bookstores and focus on a different facet of publishing.
  Small booklets comprised of bound copied material can be found alongside fliers in record stores or coffee shops. These contain the author's critiques or personal impressions of music, movies, or other topics. Although free of charge, they should not be dismissed contemptuously for the writing is frequently excellent.
  Some magazines that fall into this genre are sent out to members instead of being sold or distributed from stores. Many are technical journals or magazines with articles on a specific field or on poetry and literature. They contain essays on themes that are unsuitable for commercial publishing.
  Such publications, which are produced and distributed independently by an individual, a group or a club, are referred to as "mini-comi," an abbreviation of the Japanese expression "mini communication media," a coinage from the English language used as an antonym for mass media ("mass-comi" in Japanese).
  Such publications, which are produced and distributed independently by an individual, a group or a club, are referred to as "mini-comi," an abbreviation of the Japanese expression "mini communication media," a coinage from the English language used as an antonym for mass media ("mass-comi" in Japanese).
  The topics covered by mini-comi are of keen interest to a specific community or movement or to the individual writing them and there are many forms of expression. Some are booklets of over one hundred pages while others consist of a single sheet. Some are distributed via bookstores throughout Japan while others are distributed only among friends.
  As opposed to commercial publications, all mini-comi, regardless of their form, are independent publications produced for objectives other than financial profit. In addition to the definition of "producing for publication," the English word "publish" also means to "make public announcement of, to make generally known." Publishing companies or similar agencies are indispensable in the case of the former definition, but in the latter, a single individual can present his or her opinions to the world. The mini-comi is thus a medium for publishing minority opinions that commercial publications cannot possibly cover.

Types of Mini-comi

 Mini-comi tend to be periodicals, as can be seen from the common terms "mini-comi papers" or "mini-comi magazines," but I consider even those that are only published once, like a book, to fall within this category as long as the writer or producer chooses to publish them in non-commercial form. Let me introduce my personal classification of the various mini-comi in Japan today.

1) Literary Coterie Magazines
 Periodicals produced by a club of literature lovers, haiku or tanka connoisseurs, etc. are known as "literary coterie magazines." Such magazines have been published in Japan since the mid-nineteenth century. According to one study, more than 160 were being produced in Japan in the early 1920s. During the postwar period, countless authors of literature, haiku and tanka made their debut in literary coterie magazines, receiving their first public acclaim.

2) Bulletins
 Groups of people that share common views and aims, such as political or labour organizations, citizens' movements, etc., publish bulletins to report on their activities. Around 1960, numerous bulletins appeared protesting against the U.S. Japan Security Treaty. Since the 1970s, however, people's interests have shifted from politics to lifestyle, and many small groups have been formed to promote activities related to the environment and ecology, children and education, social services for the disabled, women, family and minorities (including gender discrimination). These groups also publish their own bulletins.

3) Town Magazines
 The 1970s witnessed a movement to revive the neighbourhood and many communities began their own town magazines to provide information on their area and to help revitalize the local economy and culture.

4) Campus Magazines
 Campus magazines are published in universities. During the height of the student movement, the content was strongly influenced by popular political views critical of the university system, etc., but since the 1980s the majority have focused on how to enjoy campus life.

5) Personal Communications
 Some individuals, both famous and unknown, publish their own newsletters in order to communicate their personal perspective. The titles often use the individual's name. Like campus magazines, the focus since the 1980s has been the individual's daily life or feelings, rather than their political opinions.

6) Free Papers
 Free papers have no marked price and are distributed free of charge. They mainly consist of event announcements and introductions to stores, but they contain interesting articles as well. On par with commercial publications in the quality of content and printing techniques, these papers emerged in response to the rising number of young people who do not wish to be bothered with sales.

7) Indie Magazines
 A movement towards independent journalism has emerged in the realm of music and movie subculture in reaction to control by media giants. Indie magazines maximize the advantages of DTP production and are distributed through independent routes which also include bookstores. Producers of such magazines frequently refer to them as "indie" rather than "mini-comi" because the latter inspires images of poorer quality.

8) Self-Publishing and Private Press
 Sometimes authors publish their own books containing personal memoirs or research on topics which would be difficult to publish commercially. Many publishing companies specialize in this area. Private presses, in which bookbinders or artists produce only a limited number of copies with sophisticated bookmaking techniques, also exist in Japan, although they are not as common as in the West.

 Historically speaking, the term "mini-comi" came into use in 1960. In the 1970s, the definition encompassed categories 1, 2, 3, and 4 above and had a strong social movement orientation.
  As the impetus of students' and citizens' movements waned, however, people's interests branched out. Since the 1980s, lifestyle rather than politics has become the main focus and consequently the contents are more individualistic, as in categories 5 and 6 above. With the development of simpler printing methods described in the following section, it has become easier to make attractive printed matter. Items 7 and 8 are closely related to recent changes in printing methods.
  Numerous social mini-comi are still being produced, particularly by consumer groups whose members are predominantly housewives. The overall number has been declining, however, due to the rising interest in subculture among the younger generation who comprise a major portion of mini-comi publishers. In December 2001, the "Neighbourhood Library," which was established in 1976 to collect, sort and organize mini-comi produced by neighbourhood and citizens' movements, was forced to close due to lack of funds. Whether or not mini-comi can maintain a social perspective remains to be seen.

Printing and Sales Methods

 In the latter half of the 1980s, mini-comi printing methods became much simpler and cheaper. From the prewar period to the 1960s, these limited editions were generally mimeographed handwritten documents. This method was subsequently replaced by mimeographed typed copy and light offset printing, which facilitated mass printing and allowed the use of diverse fonts.
  It was the word processor and the copy machine, however, that precipitated revolutionary changes in mini-comi production. Today a word processor sufficient to produce a block copy can be purchased for between 50,000 and 60,000 yen, and computers capable of using DTP software are also inexpensive. Most convenience stores are equipped with copy machines capable of enlarging and reducing, printing on both sides of the paper and colour copying. At only ten yen per copy, mini-comi producers can readily use these machines to reproduce block copies. Offset printing is also much cheaper than in the past, and it is now possible to print a magazine of over one hundred pages with a full-colour cover for a comparatively low price.
  With the burgeoning number of mini-comi publications, their producers needed some means for notifying potential readers of their existence and for distributing them. In Tokyo, Mosakusha opened in 1970 with the aim of becoming a centre for collecting and selling mini-comi. Subsequently, other stores specializing in mini-comi also appeared, including Access in Jinbocho, which handles local publications from different regions of Japan, and Tacoche, which sells underground publications, CDs, videos, etc.
  In addition, the Comic Market, launched in 1975 as a venue for comics published by amateurs, attracts many groups and individuals each year. This event allows the general public to experience the pleasures of selling one's own product directly to the customer, including transforming one's comic into a book, making a beautiful magazine without previous background or training, and having strangers read one's work.

The Producers and the Readers

 Previously I mentioned that in the field of commercial publications there is a major gap between those making books and those buying and reading them. In the case of mini-comi, however, the distance between the maker and the reader is minimal.
  Many of those who read a particular mini-comi have a personal interest in the issues presented by the writer. For this reason, readers are frequently inspired to write their own mini-comi just by reading someone else's. It is a give-and-take relationship in which the reader can become the producer and the producer, the reader. It establishes a two-way form of communication within a narrow field.
  With the spread of the Internet during the late 1990s, the written word could be combined with visual images and content could be augmented by adding links to other sites of interest. The creation of media for personal transmission has been greatly simplified and two-way communication via the Internet is global in scale. Although in the case of mini-comi information is fixed to paper while on websites it is posted on a screen, the Internet is very similar in nature to the mini-comi in that it allows an individual or group to independently produce and transmit their own media.
  Thus the mini-comi is a medium by which an individual or individuals can convey to the world what they really want to say in whatever form they desire. In this sense, the sociopolitical mini-comi of the 1960s, the more recent personal mini-comi and Internet websites all share the same characteristics.
  The essential ingredients in mini-comi production are careful consideration of how to make a book that best suits the desired content and constant concern for the reader so that the publication transcends mere self-gratification. Although mini-comi is a small medium, this does not mean that a single individual must do all the work. Depending on the content, other people can be asked to take care of writing and editing, design and illustration, cooperating to create an appropriate publication.
  Division of labour in mini-comi production, however, differs in character from that in commercial publishing. Unlike the latter, in which the roles of writer, editor, etc. are clearly defined and separate, the term editing in non-profit, low budget mini-comi production refers more to having a sense of how to make a book accessible to the reader rather than professional editing skills. Mini-comi editors generally come from very different fields than those of editors in commercial publishing.
  If they are written by authors who seek more than self-gratification and edited with an instinctive flair or with the cooperation of people skilled in editing, then mini-comi will become an independent medium. Unfortunately, despite their popularity in Japan today, very few demonstrate outstanding editing sensibility. It is my hope, however, that innovative mini-comi will emerge from the younger generation, who have acquired a natural affinity for computer media. This, I believe, will add a new meaning to the concept of publishing, one that differs from the accepted norm in the commercial Japanese publishing world which is content to follow established customs and sadly neglects the reader.

(translated by Cathy Hirano)  

Ayashige Nandaro
Born in 1967. After graduation from university where he majored in Japanese history, he has worked as a publisher and edited some magazines. He is interested in and studies culture and history of books including mini-comi as small media. He has been collecting many kinds of mini-comi, while he publishes his own one.
Ayashige Nandaro
c/o The Book and The Computer, 29-3 Ichigaya-Sanaicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
162-0846, Japan, fax: (81) 3 3269 2499, URL: http://www.honco.net