What books sell?

Or perhaps more to the point, what books are given the chance to sell? The other day I was in a local chain bookstore and took the following photo of the “World history” shelf ostensibly dedicated to China (and thus also Japan). I wanted to look in more detail at the books that are given shelf space in places like Borders and Barnes and Noble.

As you can see, the following books appear:

  • Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Harper Perennial)
  • Milton Meyer, Japan: A Concise History (Littlefield Adams)
  • Manabu Miyazaki, Toppamono: Outlaw, Radical, Suspect, My Life in Japan’s Underworld (Kotan Publishing)
  • W. Scott Morton, J. Kenneth Olenik, and Charlton Lewis, Japan: Its History and Culture (McGraw Hill)
  • Thomas Cleary, Soul of the Samurai (Tuttle Publishing)
  • Liza Dalby, Geisha (University of California Press)
  • Marius Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan (Belknap Press)
  • [Book that is impossible to make out but that was clearly published by Osprey, which means it must be one of those books on the samurai or on famous battles of Japan]
  • Mark Ravina, The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori (John Wiley and Sons)
  • Edwin Reischauer and Marius Jansen, The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity (Belknap Press)
  • George Sansom, A History of Japan, vol. 2-3 (Stanford University Press)
  • R. H. P. Mason and J. G. Caiger, A History of Japan (Tuttle Publishing)
  • Paul Varley, Japanese Culture (University of Hawaii Press)

So, judging from this shelf, the types of writing about Japan that bookstores are willing to try to sell are:

  1. books about geisha
  2. books about samurai
  3. books about yakuza
  4. books about Emperor Hirohito
  5. textbooks and general histories

It is also interesting to note that only one of these books is by a woman author (Dalby’s popular geisha book); only one is by a Japanese author (the new translation of Miyazaki’s popular autobiography); and only two of these books are published by academic publishers (the Varley textbook, which I use but which my students sometimes complain about [not a reflection of the book so much as of the students, alas], and the Sansom books, out of which Stanford UP must have gotten an incredible profit over the years). I guess the two Belknap texts, one by Jansen and one by Reischauer (updated by Jansen), should also be included, as Belknap is an imprint of Harvard UP.

There are some fine books here, to be sure, but I can’t help but notice how many of these books are by scholars who are either no longer alive or who have long been retired. The youngest scholar represented here is Mark Ravina, associate professor of history at Emory University, whose previous book, Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, probably cannot be found on the shelves of ANY chain bookstores, much like most serious scholarship on Japan. Mark is a great historian and absolutely deserves to have his most recent book sold to the general public, but I wonder why many other books that would probably be equally popular are not also found here or on similar shelves? The serendipitous tie-in with Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai is of course the answer.

I know that as an intellectual I’m not supposed to care about popular perception of my field, my profession, or for that matter my research, but I do. In practical terms, the extra income would really help in a profession that pays poorly in the early years. Plus, it would be nice to know that in addition to the 100 or so students whom I encounter in the classroom each year, someone other than my fellow Japanese historians was benefiting from my attempts to write interesting and innovative histories.


  1. Morgan:
    You’ve got to write a guide about buying fine Japanese/Chinese antiques…that will
    put you in the antique section…so when the engineer/business/pre-med/etc majors go on and make the big
    bucks they’ll know what to buy for their gated-community houses.

  2. Analysis based on a premise not proven–that the books were chosen because of subject matter–other criteria might have been 1) authors who have sold (Jansen, Sansom–oldies but goodies)or 2) publishers with power/influence with distributors or retailers or 3) something else. Retailing, unfortunately isn’t about ideas–it’s the money!

  3. Yes, I agree in most instances, though sometimes bookstores are willing to stock books, such as the ubiquitous “samurai history” books put out by Osprey, straight off the press because of the expectation that that content will be popular.

    Likewise, as your three criteria indicate, I’m not sure the relationship between content, saleability, and profitability is particularly straightforward or linear. Some books get contracts with influential distributors precisely because of their content, while others which might very well prove to be quite popular are not marketed at a popular readership because the “oldies but goodies” are a safer bet. I suspect a wide variety of books could be given shelf space without much loss of profit – I know that really independent bookstores sometimes do a great job of marketing complex scholarly and journalistic books that don’t get the same kind of shelf space in Borders but that end up selling well in those particular contexts.

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