The Murakami Offensive: Is This How Bookstores Beat Amazon?

In a bid to outmaneuver Amazon, Kinokuniya, Japan’s largest bookstore chain, recently bought 90% of the first print run of Haruki Murakami’s new book Novelist as a Vocation, a collection of essays the author wrote for Monkey, a Japanese literary magazine. The book arrives in stores on September 10.

Kinokuniya’s plan is to corner the market against “the everything store,” which will be left with only 5,000 copies of the collection.

“The reality of the industry today is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for brick-and-mortar bookstores to purchase copies of high-profile new books,” a Kinokuniya spokesperson told The Asahi Shimbun. “To rival online book retailers, bookstores across the country now need to join hands in efforts to reinvigorate the conventional book distribution market.”

Kinokuniya’s attempt to move buyers toward physical bookstores may also stem from the recent uptick in e-book sales in Japan, a country where digital reading was initially slow to take. As of this year, however, Japan sits at the top of all countries in per capita e-book sales, at $86.50, according to Good Reader. Likely as a result of increased demand, Japan will apply an 8% consumption tax to all Kindle e-books beginning in October.

Kinokuniya’s strategy means that it must purchase 90,000 (out of 100,000) copies of the collection’s initial print run directly from Switch, its publisher. According to Publishing Perspectives, the plan is part of a long-term strategy on the part of Kinokuniya to regain ground against Amazon. “Our goal is complete fulfillment to the bookstores and improvement of margin (terms of sales).” Kinokuniya board member, Hitoshi Fujimoto, explained. “This is not an experiment but our new business with certain calculated risk.”

But is it working? In the early days of the pre-sale — last week to be exact — the book rose to fifth place on Amazon Japan’s bestseller list, according to the Guardian. As of today, however, the book has fallen precipitously, to 30th place.

Still, it’s difficult to know at present whether this decline is due to a supply shortage, or if the book has failed to retain audience interest. The second option is unlikely, though. A previous Murakami collection, Mr. Murakami’s Place, published in July, still sits in 100th place on the Amazon list. The book brings together the author’s nearly 4,000 responses to fan questions submitted over a two-week period this January.

Yet if Murakami has had little difficulty offering his opinion to his fans, he has kept curiously silent about Kinokuniya’s aggressive strategy (though he did post a link to the news on his Facebook page). Nor is it clear whether Murakami himself would stand to gain from the book’s removal from Amazon’s warehouses.

If the move works, if Kinokuniya sees some significant increase in profit, or if the results are promising enough to inspire other physical bookstores to follow suit, it’s still unclear how the approach could work in larger countries with a longer lists of bestselling literary authors. Murakami’s presence in the Japanese book market is personably monolithic — he is a beloved one-man literary institution.

On the other hand, if the Kinokuniya tactic is successful, might it be possible for American bookstores to modify it by purchasing large portions of print runs by authors who are viable in select regions?

And how is Murakami faring in the US? Last month Knopf published the author’s first two novels — Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 — in a double collection with the title Wind/Pinball. According to Amazon, the book is currently in second place among all works of magical realist literature.