Welcome to Anime by the Numbers, a new column dedicated to a metrics-driven approach to exploring the world of anime and manga. My name is Miles Atherton, and for the maiden voyage of this column, I wanted to dig deeper into a recent iteration of the column that made me a religious ComicsBeat reader in the first place nearly a decade ago: Titling at Windmills — specifically Brian Hibbs’ annual analysis of comic sales employing data from Nielsen Bookscan.

While my own experience is more focused on the anime side of the industry, manga is still core, and impossible to ignore if one hopes to understand the ecosystem. After all, while Americans like myself simply do not read at the rate as the rest of the world — something validated by our bottom-ranked consumption of manga relative to anime viewership among G7 nations — the people who do read manga are the taste-makers of the anime world, the cutting-edge fans. 

So it happed that when I was trawling Brian’s article and trying to compare numbers to the previous years I noticed something that warmed my Straw Hat heart. While manga sales overall have been in steep decline, in 2023, One Piece tacked the opposite direction, growing 27% in unit sales over the year prior, nearly mirroring the percentage drop in unit sales of manga overall.

Before we dig into why One Piece bucked the trend, we first need to understand why the US manga market has fallen so precipitously. Losing 26% of volume sales over the course of a single year is a massive change, but it can be best understood as is a reversion to the mean.

YearUS Manga Sales, by Volumes Sold 2017 5.9M 2018 6.1M 2019 7.5M 2020 10.8M 2021 27.7M 2022 29.6M 2023 21.8M
Source: Bookscan

Like so many other hobbies, manga spiked during the pandemic lockdowns brought upon by COVID-19. And in hindsight, it’s easy to understand why: Japanese pop media was ripe for global domination. The sorts of entertainment with the most to gain during the pandemic usually were either a nostalgic favorite to provide a sense of comfort, a hobby best experienced alone, or a tactile experience to combat the fatigue many felt from living both their work and personal lives predominantly through screens. Manga was all three.

A generation of millennials had grown up with Pokémon, Dragon Ball, and Naruto and were eager to find new manga that captured the way they had felt as kids. Relatively new franchises like Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, hot off of its widely-celebrated freshman anime season and Jujutsu Kaisen, which was building up to its first episode in late 2020, became overnight sensations largely from word-of-mouth, welcoming in the biggest new generation of manga and anime fans the US has ever seen. 

This growth was not exclusive to manga. After announcing 3 million paying subscribers in June of 2020, anime-dedicated streaming service Crunchyroll announced it had reached 5 million just a year and change later in August of 2021, significantly outpacing the rate of growth of other streaming services like Disney+ and Netflix during boom periods of their own. 

But unlike so many other pandemic-era interests, anime and manga stayed relevant after the lockdowns ended. Revenue for manga went down, but not as much as other categories of books, and digital readership continued to grow. Anime engagement did decrease with more competition from every other interest and hobby that had been put on ice due to COVID. But because its primary means of monetization in the US is via monthly recurring subscriptions to companies like Netflix, Crunchyroll, and HIDIVE, that engagement dip had little to no impact on income. Fans had to pay the same amount whether they watched one anime a month or one hundred, and increasingly did not want to stop engaging with the hobby overall. Crunchyroll’s numbers reflect this: the Sony-owned streamer announced it had passed 13 million subscribers at the start of the year. 

This is all to say, that while losing 26% of volume sales in the course of a single year is a massive change, manga is still doing well in the US overall. Manga sales are still double that of 2020, and three times as much as any pre-pandemic year since the bubble popped in the late 00s.

But why was One Piece immune to this industry-wide trend? The first place to look is self-evident in the data — specifically, the trends across all the two other biggest manga markets in the world: Japan and France.

One Piece Estimated Volume SalesJapan US France 2020 7.7M 531.4K 2.2M 2021 7.0M 1.1M 5.6M 2022 10.4M 1.5M 6.7M 2023 7.2M 1.9M 5.6M
Sources: Bookscan, LivresHebdo, GFK, Glenat Manga, and Oricon

Estimated One Piece volume sales in Japan, the United States, and France, 2020 – 2023

Why was 2022 the peak year for France and Japan and yet the US waited until last year? For this, we must spoil an element of the series that’s been unavoidable if you’ve been within three degrees of separation from a One Piece fan: Luffy went “Gear 5”.

If the fan reaction is any standard, Gear 5 is the “Super Saiyan” of One Piece, the power-up that immediately became one of the franchise’s most iconic elements. And you can see massive spikes in interest, to an extent before unseen in One Piece’s quarter-century history, across every metric imaginable. One of those metrics is, unsurprisingly, manga sales.

The volume where Gear 5 first appears, One Piece 103, released in Japan in August 2022 and France in December of the same year. Subsequently, we see significant spikes in sales for One Piece, both largely attributable to this flagship event.

However, the US release from Viz Media came out midway through 2023, meaning that the must-get tome would be included in a different year’s books. Indeed, Volume 103 was the best-selling One Piece release for the year, selling 71,000 copies. That does help explain why One Piece sales in the US are going in the opposite direction of the overall manga market, but there’s one more important piece to this story. 

As an aside, using 2020 as the starting point is helpful here for providing misleading context for the Japanese data in particular. In the last few years, the transition from physical to digital manga in the country has been severe, accounting for more than 2/3 of all revenue as of 2022. Unlike in France or the US, where the first few volumes of One Piece continue to be amongst the best-sellers of the franchise, in 2023, 68% of all One Piece units sold in Japan were concentrated in the series’ newly-released volumes. The typical person collecting the manga has been doing so for quite some time, and new fans are more than likely consuming the series either digitally or buying the earlier volumes second-hand. 

Netflix’s live action adaptation of One Piece was the second major driver for the manga’s increased attention, but again, we’ll need to bring in some figures from other countries to provide the proper context here.

One Piece live action was the second most-watched show on all of Netflix in 2023 using the platform’s misleadingly named “views” metric, which is calculated by how many hours were watched divided by the total hours of content available. As a result, One Piece was the most-watched anime title on Netflix in 2023 by total hours viewed, growing 101% between the first six months of the year and the latter half. In my analysis of the Netflix data for Anime News Network, I argue that this is largely stemming from new interest in the franchise that came in from the massive success of the live action. 

This data exposes a significant complication, however. If the live action were so important to manga sales growth, then why is this growth exclusive to the US? One Piece sales fell in France at a similar rate to the rest of the manga industry, as far as my estimations suggest. Not only that, but looking at Netflix’s Top 10 lists from last August, One Piece’s live action debut was a top ten title in 93 countries, and the #1 TV show of any kind across most of Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Conspicuously, the live action never hit the top spot in the US over its 8 weeks in the charts, and stopped ranking in the top 10 entirely before it had vacated the #1 spot in India and Hong Kong. So why would the live action adaptation have a bigger impact in the US than elsewhere?

It’s simply a matter of market penetration.

One Piece has historically not been as popular here in the States as it has elsewhere. Owing to its much-ridiculed first impression to American audiences via a heavily-edited 4kids dub, a slow release of the manga for its first decade of availability, and its irregular linear television distribution, it’s not really a surprise that the title has never claimed the title of “best-selling manga of the year” in its 26 years, something the franchise has done multiple times in nearly every other country where such records are kept.

One Piece’s Est. Share of all Manga Volumes Sold by Country, 2023Japan US France 2023 Share of Volumes 2.0% 8.1% 14.1%
Sources: Bookscan, LivresHebdo, GFK, Glenat Manga, and Oricon

As both Japan and France’s best-selling series in history, it’s not strange to see it take up such a large share of the overall manga market. At first glance, 2% may not look as impressive for Japan in comparison, but Japan’s manga market is much more mature and varied, with an order of magnitude more annual releases than in any other country. For Japan, 2% is massive, and only contested by a few other titles. 

In France, One Piece is the clear sales winner. One Piece took up 10% of France’s Top 50 Best-Selling Books of 2023, and was the only manga to do so. This all may make it look like the French market is close in size to that in Japan, but One Piece’s popularity in its home country is still uncontested. Volumes 1-3 of the series outsell all but the most recent editions in France, indicating there is still growth in new readers not seen in the Japanese data, but the double-digit share of the French manga market is not new to One Piece.

From 2022 to 2023, One Piece’s share of the total manga market in terms of volumes sold doubled in the United States, from a historic high of 1.8% to 3.2%. Gear 5 may have been an important element to the increase in sales, but on a per-volume perspective, a staggering 64% of One Piece’s 2023 US sales can be found in the four box sets, products aimed at new fans trying to quickly build up their collections.

While interest in One Piece, as gauged by broad metrics like Google search volume or Wikipedia pageviews, spiked in all three countries timed with the release of the chapter where Luffy first uses his new power, it was truly a spike in France and Japan, settling back down afterwards. However, US interest never diminished. Gear 5 created a “new normal” for One Piece, and then the Netflix series created a new wave of fans to add on top of that. 

Americans were simply not as willing to try out One Piece before, but the (well-deserved) hype in the fandom around Luffy’s latest power-up and the introduction to the lovable crew of characters via the Netflix live action adaptation both contributed to the US finally beginning to embrace One Piece at rates closer to the rest of the Western world. Based on early indicators for 2024’s manga sales, I don’t necessarily expect this increase to continue in the States, but I am excited to see what this new normal means for One Piece’s worldwide recognition. 

Miles Thomas Atherton is the CEO and founder of White Box Entertainment, a consulting firm focused on the promotion of anime in the English-speaking world. He is also an advisor for Anime Trending and a consultant for Henshin. Previously, he served as the Chief Marketing Officer of Anime Ltd. and a marketing director at Crunchyroll.