Friday 24 February 2012

A Yen for Drawing: John Shelley on illustrating picture books for Japan

Illus by John Shelley,
from 'The Month Brothers' (Miki House)
“Oh, so you’re an illustrator in Japan? You mean manga?”

That’s what people usually say when I mention my 21 year long career in Tokyo. Often followed by “you must love drawing big bug eyes” or some such. But in fact, perhaps surprising to some, I don’t draw manga, nor have I read much manga, although you see it everywhere in Japan. Attempting to draw like that would be very much like taking coals to Newcastle anyway, but I’d already established my illustration style before I moved to Tokyo, and illustration in Japan is an entirely distinct business from the world of comics and animation.

Cover illus by John Shelley,
 'The Month Brothers' (Miki House
Some children’s publishers do publish comic books and manga, but they are separate and often rival departments. Children’s publishers in Japan are often at great pains to develop works that are the antithesis of comics. Books that might wean readers away from low-culture comics towards slightly more sophisticated sentiments - imaginative fantasies, or graphic explorations.

Japan on the whole is a highly graphic aware society, and often delightfully escapist - images are everywhere, most children have a natural understanding of graphic imagery, whether through comics or other media. Anthropomorphised characters are used to personalise everything. Even the police departments have their own mascots.

Japan has a long heritage of children’s books, it remains today one of the strongest markets for books in the world, though like everywhere else the children’s market is suffering. Before WWII children’s literature thrived and was largely modernistic and cosmopolitan. At the forefront was the children’s magazine Kodomo no Kuni (Children’s Land)

One by one these outgoing publishers were censored, retired or imprisoned during the militarised period, but saw a strong resurgence after the War. Japan’s biggest publisher Kodansha  expanded into children’s books in the 1950’s. Fukuinkan Shoten developed from the embers of Kodomo no Kuni, reviving the trend for subscription children’s magazines that continue today. After being imprisoned by the military government for pacifism, the owners of Iwasaki Shoten revived the company after the war.

Illus by John Shelley. From Hans Andersen's
'A Story of a Mother' (Hyoronsha, 2005)
The market for picture books is strong and varied, because it appeals to several different age-groups - on the one hand younger children who have yet to be hijacked by the lure of comics, but also a great many older picture book fans, adults who collect picture books, sometimes discovering work they missed during their comic-saturated youth. Thus the range of picture books produced in Japan is very wide, from fun stories for children, to very sophisticated works produced with adults in mind that may have comparatively little appeal to children.

Japanese children’s books are often strong on fantasy, some inhabit a fairy-tale escapism described as meruhen, from the German word ‘marchen’. Western editors are sometimes at a loss to understand these books, as, compared to UK titles, they seem to be slower-paced, ‘quiet’, or lightweight, are less driven by plot, and more about space and atmosphere.

Cover illus by John Shelley of
'Hoppy's New  House'
(original magazine edition,
Fukuinkan Shoten 1996
My own experience with Japanese publishers has been enlightening and very different from the West. I found I could be experimental in advertising and other commercial work, but for children’s books I was encouraged to draw extremely ‘English’, to be a graphic ambassador of my own culture. In a market that copies Western styles I could provide authentic European illustration by an authentic hand, but in a way that is conducive with Japanese tastes.

As mentioned, a lot of mid-range Japanese publishers are family businesses with long heritages. Unlike the West, staff on the whole do not switch companies, however they’re often rotated around their company, which can be very confusing. Last year’s editor is now working in the publicity department etc. The new picture book editor may have just been re-assigned from the magazine section.

'The Elves and the Cobbler', illus by John Shelley,
Picture-book magazine (Ookina Pocket, 2007)
Some publishers (notably Fukuinkan) launch picture books in paperback first as part of a subscription-based magazine series, then later select the most popular titles for trade hardcover editions.

On the down side I personally find Japanese editors often commission me with an agenda - they have very clear ideas what they want their book to look like, and thus can be quite demanding to the point of stifling. Patience is a necessity. Some editors like to take things very slowly at planning stage, but then ask for unrealistically short final artwork deadlines.

Illus by John Shelley.
From Hans Andersen's
'The Shadow' (Hyoronsha, 2005)
How do I cope with the language you might wonder? Well, my spoken ability is fairly developed now (though it wasn’t always the case!). I don’t read and write Japanese as well though, so in the case of novels I look for the English edition! My own stories I write in English with an eye to how it will sound in Japanese, then roughly translate it. The editor (who speaks no English) gets both versions - my Japanese version for a rough idea of the text, and the finished English which is sent off to their translator for a corrected Japanese version. I have illustrated some picture books and early readers entirely in Japanese though.

Print-runs are generally conservative, as traditionally Japanese bookshops tend to buy books outright from publishers, so only take what they think they can definitely sell (I’m told this is changing now). But there are a lot of bookshops in Japan, the book trade is brisk and self-sustaining.

One thing you never see though is discounted books. One price only. Another thing you don’t come across so much is outright humour. I mean belly-laugh funny books for kids. Humour when used is mostly very gentle, readers are encouraged to dream, but not so much to laugh! But then there’s also the comic and anime industry....

Many thanks to John Shelley for
being our February Guest Blogger
at the Picture Book Den, 2012
For further insights into Japanese children’s publishing I highly recommend downloading some of the newsletters of Tokyo SCBWI.

John Shelley Illustration
Twitter: Godfox


malachy doyle said...

Fascinating, John. And congratulations on carving yourself a niche in such a different market. Adaptability is the key these days, and you're a past master at it.

Lynne Garner said...

What a great post - it's amazing to see how the markets and industry are so different from those in the west.

Paeony Lewis said...

I really enjoyed reading your interesting post and your illustrations are a delight, John. You mentioned that some publishers launch picture books as magazines first, and if they're popular enough they are published as books. I gather something similar happens with manga and that's why some series go on forever, because they're still popular with fans. Perhaps it's a little like Victorian times too, with serialised stories subsequently being bound into books.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, John. Fascinating to read. I was wondering about the launching of picture books as magazines first, too. Are you expected to do the same amount of work for a magazine pb as one in a book form? And what kind of proportion of them do become books?
Beautiful artwork -I've always loved your Hans Andersen illustrations.

Abie Longstaff said...

Really interesting post, John. I always like hearing about picture books in different countries - taste varies so widely. I grew up in Hong Kong and the anglicised picture books there had a very retro feel like you describe, but more block print style. Thanks for sharing your work with us.

Jane Clarke said...

Thanks for giving us a fascinating glimpse into a different world of publishing. And congratulations on adapting and becoming so successful in it.

Alison Boyle said...

Beautiful illustrations, particularly the one from 'A Story of a Mother'.

It's very interesting to hear about the structure of Japanese publishers - small and generally family-run. I sympathise with your tale of rotating staff. I once worked in a team creating children's books for a high-profile department store, and from one week to the next we might be dealing with someone from shoes or women's underwear. In fact they were very resourceful people and it did bring a new perspective on the notion of reaching your audience.

John Shelley said...

Thank you Malachy!

John Shelley said...

Yes it is a very different market, some find it amazing how it survives so well. Japan is a nation of highly literate book lovers, and the general esteem for graphic arts certainly helps the children's book genre.

John Shelley said...

That's right, though manga is a market to itself. Most manga stories are serialised in the weekly comics then later bound into small volumes for longer-term sales.

Magazine subscriptions for the children's market are usually whole soft-cover picture books, one released every fortnight or so. Fukuinkan's "Kodomo no Tomo" series is particularly famous. Subscriptions enable a wide distribution - most infant schools and a lot of parent groups subscribe, the magazine form of the books retail at around ¥350, or £2 - so in the absence of discounting it;s a very thrifty way to acquire new picture books at reasonable cost.
The thing I can never figure out though is - if everything is sold by subscription how do they decide which are "popular" titles worthy of reprint into hardback for retail sales? I'm told it's through customer feedback - readers are encouraged to write to publishers with their opinion of the works. But also I reckon critical editorial choice is also a big factor.

I illustrated two books for "Kodomo no Tomo", one of which went hardback for it's Korean edition (but not Japan), and the other hardback for a Japanese library edition.

John Shelley said...

The amount of work is the same, and often the pay is higher for the soft-cover edition as they print 20,000 or more copies, compared to maybe 3-5,000 initially for the hardback.
Royalties in Japan are nearly always based on a percentage of the print-run, not the retail sales, so you get paid whether the book sells or not!

I'm not sure what proportion go on to become regular books in the shops, it depends on the series and the publisher I expect.