Tankōbon (lit. singly published book) refers to a book published as a self-contained volume, as opposed to a book that is published as one of a set of books or is a serialised publication similar to magazines or other periodicals. An early example of the term can be found from 1878 in the Japanese historian Kume Kunitake’s travel journal on America and Europe as part of the Japanese diplomatic Iwakura Mission between 1871-1873 (Shogakukan’s Japanese Dictionary, 2005).

The definition of the term is not, however, so clear-cut. Until recently, novels, essays and instructive or academic books were first published as tankōbon, typified by a hard cover book or irregular sized picture books. If the book becomes popular, they are republished as cheap, small-sized paperbacks known as bunkobon or shinsho. Bunkobon were first produced by the publisher Iwanami Shoten in 1927 and were a very popular format for reprinting novels, essays and classics including translated works. The size is approximately 105mm x 148mm and is mainly used for publishing novels and essays. Many books in the format  include colourful dust covers. Recently many new works have also been published as bunkobon. Shinsho (lit. new book) was also started by Iwanami Shoten in 1938 as a format for publishing educational, instructive or academic book series which are not reprints, but first editions. Shinsho books are approximately 105mm x 175mm.

In terms of manga publishing, the tankōbon format was popular in the 1930s. It was sold cheaply, but not in bookshops but through toy and confectionary shops (dagashiya) as well as at festival stalls. Osamu Tezuka’s early works, such as his influential Shin-Takarajima (New Treasure Island), published in 1947, were published in this format. This was the only period in which Tezuka wrote new stories for tankōbon as he started to adopt more periodical-based publishing practices, serialising his works in magazines first, then compiling and publishing them as tankōbon.

Today’s comics, or manga tankōbon (i.e., comics), started around 1965. The size varies depending on publishers and the genre of the readership demographic. In general, 115mm x 170mm for boys and girls, 128mm x182mm for adults and 148mm x210mm are used for four-framed manga strips or yonkoma manga as well as deluxe editions.

In Japan, book buying is common due to relatively cheap book prices and the limited accessibility of library collections. In general, one third of all publications in Japan are manga-based (magazines and comics). The resilience of manga tankōbon sales become more evident when compared to manga magazine sales. Previously, manga magazine sales were higher than tankōbon, as exemplified in 1995 which was the peak of manga magazine sales in Japan, when the revenue from magazine sales reached ¥ 335.7 billion compared with ¥250.7 billion in sales from tankōbon. However, since 2005, the sale of manga magazines has been below that for tankōbon, with manga magazine sales in 2009 declining to ¥191.3 billion, a drop of more than 40% since the peak of 1995. Tankōbon sales on the other hand have been relatively steady, including Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece series (totaling more than 77 volumes) which has been the highest selling manga series with more 340 million copies sold worldwide.

Since the mid-1990s, book sales in Japan have been declining, with sales trends polarized between a few immensely popular long-run megahit series such as One Piece and many minor, very less popular works. Furthermore, there is considerable uncertainty about the influence of including e-book and e-comics to the concept of tankōbon.

Mio Bryce

Further Reading

  • Brienza, Casey E. “Books, Not Comics: Publishing Fields, Globalization, and Japanese Manga in the United States.” Publishing Research Quarterly 25, no. 2, 2009: 101-117. Print.
  • Couch, Chris. “The Publication and Formats of Comics, Graphic Novels, and Tankobon.” Image [&] Narrative: Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative 1, 2000. Online. http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/narratology/chriscouch.htm
  • Gravatt, Paul. Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics. New York: Harper Design, 2004. Print.
  • Thompson, Jason. Manga: The Complete Guide. New York: Ballantine, 2007. Print.