Must read: Worldwide manga troubles

Lost in the storms of outrage over every boob shot and inker change at various superheroes comics is the real underreported story of the last six months; the decline in graphic novel sales and the concurrent decline of manga. While the former is definitely partly caused by the latter and both are undoubtedly influenced by the bankruptcy of Borders, the full causes behind both have yet to be fully analyzed.

The manga side of the equation is covered in depth, however, in a lengthy column by Jason Thompson at io9 called Why Manga Publishing Is Dying (And How It Could Get Better). Thompson is no stranger to the manga field, having authored the essential reference Manga: The Complete Guide and the manga King of RPGs for TokyoPop. So his analysis is well worth following:

If in 2007, manga was like a foreign movie star who had arrived on American shores to make it big, the last four years have been like watching that star run out of roles, run out of money, sell their house, go into rehab, and end up barely limping along in infomercials.

Thompson goes over all the recents crackups in the US market, from the fall of Tokyopop to the closure at Bandai. It’s a landscape littered with broken toys. While the reasons for the America downfall aren’t too hard to see — the aging of the original demographic and the rise of scanlations — Thompson points out that the situation is also crumbling in Japan:

But the problem isn’t just about fickle Americans — the Japanese manga market is hurting too. Sales of manga magazines, the traditional delivery medium for manga in Japan, peaked in 1995, and have been falling ever since. Graphic novel sales remained steady longer, but have also declined.


Manga is hurting the way that all print media is hurting — but in some ways it’s worse, because manga is ill-equipped to adapt to New Media. Like American comic books, manga started out as cheap entertainment for kids, but while American comics faced their dwindling readership by turning into an adult collector’s item with color, thicker paper and higher production values, manga magazines (and to a lesser extent, graphic novel collections) still use cheap ink and cheap paper to cram in as much pages-per-yen value possible.

Piracy is definitely the backhoe clearing out the grave, however: as Thompson points out, when you google manga you get seven pirate sites and NO legitimate publishers.

Other problems: hidebound publishers who insist on sticking with the magazine model when it’s as outdated in Japan as it is here, the mixed results of initiatives like jmanga and the Digital Manga Guild — a banding together of all the top publishers to present an e-manga site, and a crowdsourced translation site, respectively — as tepid failures lacking blockbuster properties.

And of course, there’s the reason baldly stated by a commenter: “Manga is expensive and we’re all broke.”

Thompson also sees some patches of bright sky ahead — doujinshi is now an area of huge innovation where new hits are emerging. The rise of gag panel strips and multimedia hybrids is also encouraging. Of course manga isn’t going to go away — it’s just that the ways we get it are going to change. And once again, a huge dinosaur of an industry that was at the top of the pack didn’t see the newer, faster predators coming up right behind them.


  1. says

    Not to mention Content, I remember a professor from Kyoto Seika University mentioning that the calibur of artists coming through their doors and in the industry is subpar to the prior gen. Doujin will make things worst imo and shorter gag comics seems to be wides spread in general. people don’t want to make the commitment to buy a $20 GN and would rather get a free page 3 times a week for free, im not a fan of this digital model personally. The Long Tail reigns supreme.

  2. monopole says

    Basically the same idiocy as the rest of the content industries. Refuse to provide the medium that the customer wants and scream like a stuck pig when scanlations eat their lunch.

    Manga is exquisitely well suited to tablets, while American Comics really work best with 10″ screens, most manga are perfectly suited to 7″ screens both LCD and eInk due to the black and white content and the smaller “tank” page format. In addition, the awkward size of “tanks” makes eBook editions even more desirable. Finally, the elimination of space constraints on stocking tanks allows otakus to always be able to start from the beginning of a series, which is far more important in manga than in American comics.

    This is on par with the foolishness of not releasing Harry Potter eBooks, when the dead tree editions were the size of cinderblocks and OCRed copies were available days after the hardcover release.

    In short, manga is better suited to digital distribution than dead tree format. Arguably this could be the golden age of manga if publishers could get their act together.

    A reasonable system like Comixology could easily clean-up in the market, particularly if they offer subscriptions. Most fans of a given series would be overjoyed to get up to date legit chapters of their favorite series automatically uploaded to their tablets.

    Given that 7″ tablets and eInk is well suited to manga it is also essential to offer an android app.

  3. Scratchie says

    Apropos of nothing, I’d like to point out that I’ve started reading two manga series in the last few years that were cancelled before the English translations were complete (out of maybe a half-dozen manga, total, that I’ve read regularly). It was probably just artsy crap that nobody else liked anyway, and I’m sure it wouldn’t make much difference to the bottom line if I were still buying those two series, but there it is. My emotional response is that the publishers aren’t even publishing the books I want to buy, so it’s hard to feel too bad about it.

  4. MBunge says

    “Refuse to provide the medium that the customer wants and scream like a stuck pig when scanlations eat their lunch.”

    Since everyone wants everything for free, there’s no medium or industry that can survive unlimted and socially-sanctioned theft.


  5. Scratchie says

    I just want to buy subsequent volumes of the series I’ve already started buying.

  6. Jake Forbes says

    @Monopole & his ilk, You’re right that manga is ideally suited to tablets and publishers would be fools to ignore it. But publishers aren’t blind to that fact — Viz, Kodansha, DMP and Yen all have apps with volumes typically priced below print retail. Could they be cheaper? In the long run they need to be. Would reader/app neutrality be better than the fragmented model? Hell yes! Someday, hopefully sooner than later, revenue from digital will afford creators to blithely disregard print, but in the meantime, there is a vast gap between what a diversity of new manga costs to create and what digital early adopters are willing to pay, so in the meantime, it’s okay to show a little bit of sympathy to those whose livelihood — not just leisure time — depends on finding solutions.

  7. Nick Jones says

    “Refuse to provide the medium that the customer wants and scream like a stuck pig when scanlations eat their lunch.”

    “Scanlations” are popular because they’re free, not because they’re digital. Once you figure out a way to get people to pay for stuff online rather than pirating it, there are a plethora of companies who will want to hear from you.

    “This is on par with the foolishness of not releasing Harry Potter eBooks, when the dead tree editions were the size of cinderblocks and OCRed copies were available days after the hardcover release.”

    Do you have even the slightest idea of how many “dead tree editions” of the Harry Potter books sold? There may have been some digital piracy, but it was utterly insignificant compared to the profits those books made in print.

    “Could they be cheaper? In the long run they need to be.”

    Unfortunately, those two factors seem to be at odds. Companies can’t lower digital prices and still make enough to stay in business, but they’d have to in order to actually get people to buy. The likely end consequence of all of this digital piracy is that the fans downloading everything for free on the ‘net will kill the very things that they enjoy by not financially supporting them.

  8. Threshold says

    “when you google manga you get seven pirate sites and NO legitimate publishers”

    Yes but that has to do more with Google having become a crappy search engine than anything else.

  9. Threshold says

    I think what Monopole meant is that people are willing to pay a fair price as long as they can download the content they pay for and not read it in some browser flash app that requires an Internet connection like today.

    It is just ridiculous that the comicpublishing industry is repeating the exact same mistakes that the musicvideo industry did just few years back.

    What is really funny is that pages can still be ripped from the comics flash apps meaning scanners can save on the scanning process too now.

    Some piracy will always be present but a productive way can definitely be achieved like it has with iTunes and music or Netflix and video.

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