Publishing Consultant Emma House Interviews Members Of The PublisHer Community.

Yumiko Hoshiba founded Tokyo-based publishing company Discover 21 Inc. in 1985, after graduating in cognitive psychology and a stint in magazine publishing.  She was company president until 2019, before leaving to launch start-up publishing venture Hoshiba & Company.

In 2013, Yumiko became the first and only woman to be elected to the board of the Japan Book Publishers Association (JPBA), where she is the vice-president of its international committee. A member of the IPA Executive Committee, she has also been active in promoting Japanese publishing industry in Japan and beyond its national borders.

How did a cognitive psychology graduate get into publishing?

In Japan, when I graduated from university, it was common for women to become a full-time housewife after giving birth to their first child. The publishing industry and the civil service (including teachers) were some of the only workplaces in which a woman could work for a lifetime. I entered and passed the examinations for national government officials and for the teacher recruitment. At the same time, I also succeeded in the interviews for a magazine publishing company. There were many female students who wanted to be editors in the publishing industry, especially for fashion magazines, so the competition was much, much higher than for any other companies. I was proud to have succeeded and therefore decided to join the publishing company. Additionally, I didn’t like the idea of being bound by the rules that governed the life of a civil servant; I was more attracted by the idea that I would be living a freer and more flexible life.

“I didn’t like the idea of being bound by the rules (…) I was more attracted by the idea that I would be living a freer and more flexible life.”

In 1985 what inspired you to co-found your own publishing company, and what was your initial publishing programme?

There was someone who funded me to start a publishing company, and the timing coincided with my thinking that I wanted to edit books, not magazines. I started from scratch, so I didn’t know any authors who would write for us, therefore produced so called “gift books” by translating popular books from the United States. Following on from that, based on feedback from readers, I published a lot of books on the words of love and the words that would make the readers feel good when they read them. They became huge hits.

How did you build up the company? What challenges did you face?

How I managed to build up the company;

1) We cultivated bookstores that dealt directly with us and managed to work with the top 5,000 bookstores (out of 12,000) as our customers. We created a unique customer management system for that purpose.

(2) Continuing to produce original books and attractive authors that sell well at a bookstore that makes them want to trade with us.

(3) Actively worked on branding and public relations activities such as working on the media, utilizing social media, and forming fan clubs.

The challenges I encountered:

In Japan, there are two major distributors called agents, but unlike those of other countries, they play a role of industry banking, in a sense. They have the right to decide what and how many copies to deliver to which store; and own all the data on returns and sales. There is a huge disparity for the trading conditions and the settlement terms determined not by the current sales volume of the publisher but by previous vested interests. New small publishers with no connections are basically denied the deal. Then, after a short period of direct trading with bookstores, you will finally gain a degree of credibility and are allowed to trade through them, but with the most disadvantageous conditions.

Because I felt repulsed by this unfair old system, I refused to deal with the agencies after we grew bigger and more successful, and continued with direct trading for a long time, but there were two major difficulties.

(1) Bookstores didn’t like it (Voucher work, accounting work, return work, etc. can be done in a batch if you go through the agency, but for direct trade with publishers, they need to carry out separate work, which increases costs and is more work for employees).

(2) Employees dislike the job of sales (although many students have aspiration to work for publishers, most want to become editors)

How I overcame those challenges:

We kept publishing books which sold well and gained a lot of fans. Over the course of time, there were more and more bookstores who wanted to trade with us directly. I have also made various management efforts to improve and maintain the motivation of employees.

Why have you started another new company this year, and what are your aspirations for it?

With my previous company’s investors, I made a promise to retire at 65. Even without the promise, I believe that once the company grows to a certain level, the company belongs to the employees, and I thought that young people should take over. If the founding president stays forever, young talent will not grow. I find that’s not appealing. However, since I am not old enough to retire, I wanted to start a new small publishing company by myself without worrying about getting in the way of young people.

“If the founding president stays forever, young talent will not grow.”

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

My proudest achievement is growing the company. We created a mechanism to directly trade with 5,000 major Japanese bookstores without going through distributors; and made us the number one publisher of this business style in Japan. We launched project after project which were so successful that other publishers imitated us; we discovered new authors and raised them in such a way that not only the (now famous) authors but also their readers thanked us. I have developed a company so that many students want to work for not just any publishing company, but for Discover 21.

Why did you get involved with the JBPA?

Just as Google was about to gather information about books and Amazon was about to start e-books, I entered the JBPA. Since various changes are coming to the publishing world, I thought it would be necessary to collaborate with other publishers.

I was elected to be a director a few years after joining JBPA. I was the first female director in JBPA’s more than 60-year history. This is because the JBPA’s membership is limited to the presidents of publishing companies, and of the 1,000 Japanese publishers, there were only a few female presidents. There may be a few more now.

While my company has had a stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair for more than 10 years, I was resentful at the low Japanese presence there, and at the JBPA I called on other publishers to exhibit as well, and to make their attendance more proactive. I encouraged them to sell their rights overseas and achieved some results. Because of these achievements, I was appointed as the Japanese member of the IPA’s EC

What does being a member of the IPA’s Executive Committee mean to you?

As I hear about the expansion of education, freedom to publish, and protection of intellectual property in other countries, I am reassured of the mission and the significance of publishing. I’d especially like to contribute to the efforts around the freedom to publish in the world.

And in Japan, publishing is mainly for entertainment, centered on comics, or for the means to learn skills useful at work. I would like to turn the industry around to catch up with the international trends. 

What is the environment like for businesswomen in Japan?

The law for equal employment opportunities for men and women has been enforced, and the government has set a target for the ratio of women in managerial positions. The legal system for women to continue working has improved considerably over the last 30 years. However, in 2019, Japan was ranked 121st out of 153 countries surveyed in the “Gender Gap Index” (which shows the degree of gender equality around the world) announced by the World Economic Forum (WEF) every year. The government’s goal of 30% female managers in companies by 2020 has not been achieved at all; it is less than 10%. Listed companies have fewer than 4% of women executives. In addition, the ratio of female entrepreneurs is 15%, which is also low in the world.

“The government’s goal of 30% female managers in companies by 2020 has not been achieved at all; it is less than 10%.”

The same is true for the publishing world. However, it seems that women working in the Japanese publishing industry are less interested in management and career advancement than those working in companies in other fields.

Most Japanese publishers are owned by the founder’s family, and the position of president has been assumed to be succeeded by the sons. But recently, due to the shrinking trend of the publishing industry as a whole, small and medium-sized publishers are not succeeded by sons, but by daughters. I think there will be more and more cases of daughters inheriting publishing companies. In addition, when it comes to small and medium-sized publishers, there are aspects similar to being self-employed. I feel that it is a relatively good job for women to develop their talents without having to adapt to a male dominant society.

Furthermore, the number of female authors in business and utility books is increasing. The number of female readers is also increasing. Various walls in distribution are being destroyed. I think it’s a good time for Japanese women to build their own publishing companies.

Are there any programmes or initiatives to support female publishing leaders and entrepreneurs in Japan?

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any. However, there is a voluntary group of women working in the publishing world, mainly sales staff who hold a get-together once a year. I participated only once. At that time, more than 100 people were gathering.

What do you think of the PublisHer initiative? How can it help other female publishers in Japan?

I think the network is a great attempt to support women in publishing around the world and thanks to Bodour Al Qasimi for doing this. I think that if you organize regular online meetings and Facebook groups that any woman working in the publishing world can join, I will encourage all Japanese women in that world to speak out and participate. And if you would have a real meeting or party in Frankfurt or so, some of them will be able to join and make friends in the world publishing community. That would be great.

The first step would be to spread this newsletter and post it with Google translations.


This article was prepared for and is reproduced here with kind permission.