Manga and the Problem of Discovery

Manga as an industry has had a  lot of rough beats in the past few years. The market crash of 2007, fueled by mediocrity and the $9 trade paperback. The fall of Borders allegedly put TOKYOPOP out of business. Small publishers are relying on preorders now more than ever.  And piracy is as rampant as it has been in the past 5 years. Mangafox Manga aggregators like Manga Fox and Manga Reader are high on the list of the world’s websites (Manga Reader recently clocked in at site #720), with around 18-20% of all traffic coming from the USA.  Searching the term “manga” at Google or Bing brings up the Wikipedia article, two legitimate companies (Manga UK and Manga University) and 7  manga aggregators. Using some simple web tools, something else becomes apparent – that while search engines like Google are still the major source of hits for aggregators, the number of people accessing them from Facebook is increasing (7-9% of all incoming traffic in the past 12 months, and growing). MangaFox’s facebook page has 494,000+ likes, and cheerily states “Be sure to suggest this page to your friends!” There is more egregious behavior out there; the mere fact that MangaStream calls itself an “Arts/Humanities page” seems boldly offensive. And the sad fact is that none of these readers are paying creators while reading – but are consuming comics at a breathtaking rate. Mangahere

So manga itself – people out there get that. It’s become fairly common as the world gets smaller. Free is a great price. But manga as an industry, manga where you actually pay someone for a book? That is not so common. Onto the questions then: How to manga companies promote their existence?  How do we make paying for manga more appealing than piracy? How can we get new readers to discover manga in a way that is beneficial for the creators? I posed this question on Twitter and got an answer from Ben Applegate:

I think step one for publishers is to make an example out of a major manga aggregator and settle with the others. — Ben Applegate (@benapplegate) March 7, 2013

I agree in principle about aggregators – they’ve been making a profit by advertising for a long time, and their business model, if you can call it that, does not pay creators or license holders. Manga aggregators are the source of most of the market’s woes. But would people reading manga on aggregators today actually buy comics if their online hotspots for all things free and fun disappeared? Ben seems to think so, but I’m less convinced.

Many if not all of manga’s newest readers find it in a few ways:

  1. Randomly at a bookstore
  2. A friend convinces them to read a volume that he or she already owns
  3. Local library groups or library selection
  4. The internet

Assume you get into manga in one of the top three ways – manga is a physical product, a book that you borrow or buy. It’s an actual physical thing. But if you find manga through the internet, it’s a digital thing – and it’s free no matter what. If you were used to free (and had never considered manga a consumable, purchasable thing) paying for volumes might not come so quick. According to a recent twitter message from Vertical, they have 3,000 steady readers who purchase content. I am happily within that 3,000. But who knows how many people are reading the content Vertical has licensed on aggregators? It may be upwards of 100,000 (or more) readers a month.

So what else can we put on the table? Ben has a thought:

Other things I think pubs can do: Actually work to engage the direct market, which is woefully uninformed about manga.

— Ben Applegate (@benapplegate) March 7, 2013

While I don’t know all of what that would entail, it’s a broad suggestion that carries a lot of weight. I have a few thoughts of my own:

1. Free reading services for various chapters of books online from the publisher – a JManga7, if you would, for big titles like Naruto, Bleach, One Piece. I’m not talking “free preview” either. I’m talking 1 chapter a week, maybe older content, with easy access to current Shonen Jump. Pay X to view as many comics as you want for Y amount of time or buy the latest chapter of the series for $0.69 USD. This might help some readers who are into manga week by week, and digitally – but it gives you a platform to fight against the free. Pay artists to write digital only stories that can only be retrieved through the digital platform. Offer promotional materials and other extras that are hard to find in aggregators. Maybe have previews of a few panels that haven’t been published anywhere. In short, make it the digital platform of choice, because of availability, and because it is worth paying for. And, since I’m in a land of dreams, make it universal – all publishers on a single platform.

2. Increased access to physical copies at libraries - manga has a unique and compelling case to make in many different libraries, from school libraries to the monolithic library partnerships like CLEVNET. Manga is a popular borrowing item, but it doesn’t get a lot of time in the sun at these libraries. Publishers could work more with library representatives to create informational sessions about manga and comics for kids and parents. Increasing physical copy readership via the library increased manga purchasing in my local area (when I worked in the library business), and I suspect the same would happen on a larger scale.

3. Partner physical copies to digital ones – again, this is about building value for the paperback or hardcover book, but why not allow a person who has bought a physical copy to have a digital copy as part of their physical purchase? How many people with paperback One Piece collections are actually buying the same volumes on Viz Media’s app? I think that the benefits of a digital + print release has a lot of potential. This has a lot of different possibilities, from allowing book purchasers to be able to follow their favorite stories in multiple formats to giving multiple chapters of other similar manga to the physical copy purchaser.

Ultimately, the industry needs to add physical value to an otherwise digital world. If publishers make buying content easy and cross-platform, and make sure their customers know that they are delivering a quality product they can’t get anywhere else, the industry will do itself a great service. Aggregators aren’t helping the issue of the market,  but if 90% of manga readers are getting content online, manga publishers need to consider how to incorporate digital content, add value, and be responsive to the changes in reading habits. Until then? MangaFox will still have its thousands of fans, while manga publishers struggle to make ends meet.

Edit: After a discussion with Ed Chavez of Vertical today, I’ve edited some statements for clarification. My points still stand.


11 thoughts on “Manga and the Problem of Discovery

  1. One of the reasons people use free sites is that they can update faster than an official publisher. I mean, there is no reason why, if a fan translation group can get the later chapter of a manga translated within the same week as it is released in Japan and the translators aren’t receiving compensation for their work on most cases, an official translation couldn’t be released for a small fee on various platforms.
    Also, many manga titles are either discontinued with no intention of picking them back up again even though there is a small, faithful audience for it (looking at you, Kodansha), or they don’t have a big enough audience to justify bringing it over, or the license is in limbo and used copies are hard to find. Sites like Jmanga help somewhat, but they still release very slowly, have no intention of going to a print model, and haven’t done much with some of the titles they rescued last year. I have been waiting ages for the next Pumpkin Scissors to come out, and I don’t want to repurchase the five volumes I already have in print to show Jmanga that I am interested in continuing the story.
    Preorders are also not a good way of projecting demand. A lot of these titles have no buzz outside of the small community that wanted it translated in the first place, and most of these small publishers don’t have the budget to advertise or they can only afford to get niche titles because more popular titles that would have wide readership are too expensive to acquire, translate, or distribute. Now if people are reading already available stuff online for free, the aggregator should link the reader to where they can purchase the book and strongly encourage them to buy legitimate copies when they can. However, for out of print or unavailable stuff, either the publishers need to monitor the demand and acquire or rescue those licenses so that they can be offered legally. These sites are doing all of the market research and advertising for them if they know how to make use of it.

    • Good points to be made. And there could be a publisher supported “aggregator” where readers could get new comics. Ads and book sales might push this into break-even or profitability. But Weekly Shonen Jump is day and date, but scans of One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto still exist on aggregators. And we have to recognize that there is other stuff going on here.

      I also reject the notion that aggregators are marketing and advertising licensed properties by running concurrently with them. It seems like something much more sinister.

      • PockyCrusader says:

        Well, not all of the apps run the way the Shounen Jump one runs, either. Some companies have yet to get a good app on the market.

        I think that some people wouldn’t know about some manga on the market without having an aggregator, though. And a lot of them don’t know that they are available in print because they’re not advertised where they’d be exposed to them or they live somewhere that it’s difficult to get a hold of print copies. That’s why I think aggregator sites should also send the users to places where they can purchase legitimate copies when they can – even if they have to take that content down and replace it with a link to get a legal copy to show that they are trying to support the creator. That won’t stop people from going to another free source, but I think that it would end up creating more sales that way.

      • That’s true – Viz Media has one of the best apps available on the market.

        Aggregators aren’t in business to support manga – their primary income is from advertisements. These companies could care less about the content. They just host files and get paid. But a publisher supported system that redirected readers to paid or sponsored content would be a step in the right direction.

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  3. Ed Sizemore says:

    I hate to disagree with the very wise Ben Applegate, but I must. The Direct Market (comic book stores) knows about about manga, they just don’t care for it. Look at how often manga is showing up in the Eisner and Harvey nominations. The Direct Market for the most part is people who want to buy superhero comics. Manga doesn’t scratch that itch. (By the same token, Japanese readers know about superheros, but they don’t like it them either.) The Direct Market has shown that it likes seinen sci-fi series. Ghost in the Shell and Akira being the best examples. If more of this genre of manga was being imported then you might see the Direct Market sales figures begin to rise. Vertical, Fantagraphics, and D&Q are making inroads among the indie and art comic readers. But that’s always been a small audience so don’t expect stellar sells regardless of how well the series is praised.

    Personally, I think digital is the key. People are looking at the length of the big shoujo titles and balking at both cost and storage space. I know I am. If you are reading and collecting Bleach, One Piece and Naruto then you are looking at a 182 volumes on your shelf. Where on Earth are you going to store it all? I’m already doing buying as much manga as possible digitally. I’m seeing more collector’s making the same move.

    • Ed, your thoughts are always appreciated.

      I wonder if Ben just meant “the comic book store” when he said direct market, or if he meant the entire bookseller market. Twitter forces you to cram thoughts into 140 characters, after all.

      I also agree that digital is the next step for manga. We have to be able to move forward and accept the changes that are happening to a business model that is over 100 years old.

  4. Since you mentioned 18%-20% of the traffic coming from the U.S., I think a huge problem is what to do about countries who have no manga being sold where they live and have no idea what a physical volume would look like and as a result, they have to resort to aggregators.

    Don’t places like the Philippines have no Japanese bookstores at all? One of my blog reader from the Philippines says people in the U.S. are lucky to have places like Kinokuniya that sell physical manga volumes.

    I think the big key is Japanese companies/publishers socializing with fans and establishing a proper and open relationship with them. I wonder about what Ben is talking about with regards to the “direct market”. If you ask me, it’s not just the U.S., it’s the whole world we have to worry about as well.

    • I agree that the Japanese companies need to take a long hard look at their current operations and make changes. I’m no industry insider, but I can see that the current model isn’t sustainable.

      And yes, the whole world pirates, but the challenge is to make headway on the internet, which is transnational, and sometimes supernational. Publishers have to make inroads in a difficult environment too. Aggregation is no small task for publishers to take on.

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