THOSE who love the English language and the written word have always found like-minded souls to associate with, formally or informally, in cities where English-speaking expats and immigrants are located. In Japan, though, once one is outside Tokyo, such gatherings are rare.
Traditionally, the Kansai region, and particularly Kyoto, has been home to small numbers of expat writers. Gary Snyder, Alex Kerr and Donald Keene are just some of the more prominent names who are or have been based in the old capital.
Past gatherings of local expat writers were often social affairs, but many hoped for something a bit more structured, where writers outside Tokyo’s publishing world could exchange practical advice and personal anecdotes on everything from how to pitch book projects to domestic and overseas editors, publishers and agents, to navigating the ever-expanding world of self-publishing.
Enter “Writers in Kyoto,” led by John Dougill, a long-term expat, university professor and author of last year’s “Japan’s World Heritage Sites: Unique Culture, Unique Nature,” and “In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Suppression, Secrecy and Survival,” a 2012 book that film director Martin Scorsese reportedly referred to before shooting “Silence,” a film based on the Shusaku Endo story and due to be released late this year or early next year.
“Being a writer in Japan could be an isolated affair were it not for the Internet, which links us with people, publishers and readers all over the world. It means, however, that print-related people like myself have to learn a whole new box of digital tricks, which doesn’t come easy after a certain age, especially if your brain is not digitally wired,” Dougill says.
“Writers in Kyoto” was therefore formed to provide published and self-published writers a forum for discussion and mutual support (full disclosure: this writer is a member). Such forums are helpful, especially in terms of promotional efforts, book launches and information exchanges.
The state of self-publishing, e-books and dealing with publishers are subjects of particular interest, as are tips for approaching publishers and information on the international market for books. And special efforts will be made for those authors who publish works with a Kyoto theme.
The state of English-language publishing in Japan and the Kansai region has changed drastically over the past decade, even as international interest in Kyoto has meant increased numbers of tourists, exchange students and visiting scholars from English-speaking countries, as well as greater international interest in the city.
Dougill notes local magazines that promoted local writers have folded. Yohan, which distributed a wide variety of English-language books in Japan, including many by Japan-based authors, went bankrupt, and Kodansha International has closed its doors, leaving only Tuttle Publishing and Stone Bridge Press as the most prominent publishers of Japan- and Asia-related books in English.
All this was on top of fundamental changes to publishing itself that have taken place over the past couple of decades, changes that “Writers in Kyoto” wants its members to understand.
“Print publishing is no longer what it used to be. Publishers want authors to market their books themselves or are looking for ‘partnerships’ where the author brings money or guaranteed sales. Advances have pretty much disappeared, and writers are expected to provide their own illustrations, even pay for them.
“So authors increasingly are looking to things that, in the past, would not have taken up their time and energy — marketing strategies, contract conditions for e-books, self-publishing, print on demand, tweeting, social media fan bases. You can spend all your time researching those things and not writing at all,” Dougill says.
While most networking will be done via social media, Writers in Kyoto will have professional and social gatherings throughout the year. On April 19, the first of these took place with Amy Chavez, a columnist for The Japan Times who spoke on the things she wished she had known before embarking on a career as a writer.
Chavez, who has authored two books, “Japan, Funny Side Up” and “Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage: 900 Miles to Enlightenment,” said a writer has to show editors he or she is tenacious, and that staying in regular contact with publications is a must.
“The publishing industry is tumultuous and editors always come and go. So you have to constantly keep in touch,” she said.
She added more and more publications these days expect writers to not only send them words, but also photographs. Taking a photography class is an investment that can pay off for writers, especially if the editors demand really good photos to go with the words.
In the city where Lady Murasaki’s “Tale of Genji” was set, those who write in Japanese have always found inspiration. Writers in Kyoto is designed to help ensure those who come to Kyoto to write in English continue to nurture the old literary tradition by helping them with the kind of practical advice needed to get their own inspirations published.
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