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. 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.
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:
- Randomly at a bookstore
- A friend convinces them to read a volume that he or she already owns
- Local library groups or library selection
- 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.