The Matter of Manga in America

Protracted death spiral?

Two-parter! First I talk about the precariousness of the manga market in America as of late, and then further down I look at the demographics of buyers of manga in America. And, yes, I did write this portion after I wrote the rest of the post because I’m apparently incapable of sticking solely to one topic.

There have been a lot of sky-is-falling type write-ups/articles on the manga scene in America within the past few weeks, obviously owing to the fact that in the past month alone about six different publishers have gone under, including ones such as CMX (DC’s manga imprint) and Go! Comi. CMX probably isn’t a very good one to name since it was pretty poorly run from the get-go, and DC actually wasn’t intending to actually make any kind of announcement or press release about the shuttering of its imprint. However, it seems someone was dutifully checking release schedules and went, “WTF?!?!” because apparently someone actually cares about Zombie Fairy… and so that’s why DC announced anything at all. Oh well.

Of course, all this trouble in manga publishing in America isn’t quite new – Tokyopop had a lot of trouble about two years ago and yanked a ton of titles while laying off a bunch of people, Viz has been scaling back its workforce at breakneck speed, and one of those twenty million yaoi publishers had that conniption fit within the last year that involved copyright issues and fraud and lord knows what else. There have been other scattered publishers having issues over the past few years as well, although there hasn’t been such an intense spate of closures as we’ve had this year.

Of course, we all know the main reason for all the issues: everyone and their turtle noticed about five or six years ago that, gee, manga is a market that is growing at a pretty decent clip. And then they decided to get involved. I mean, come on – you don’t really need to know anything about manga, right? Just that a lot of girls are buying it, so get something with some cute guy on the cover. That’ll sell like crazy! And then we will be rich.

So, yes – oversaturation. The number one problem. I have seen it with my very own eyes – I first started buying manga in 2000, and the shelves at your mainstream booksellers were tiny.  There just wasn’t much out there, and bookstores didn’t really see a point in stocking much as a result. I really noticed the uptick in shelf space around the same time publishers started to not flip their releases, which was pretty exciting for me – look, ma! I’m reading backwards!

The best measure I can think of for the shelf space growth is in the fact that both the American comics and manga sections at my local Borders used to be the same size. The manga section is now about five times the size of the American comics section. This might also reflect part of the reason why Borders itself is having massive issues; I don’t for a moment think that it is entirely due to manga, but I think it may demonstrate a basic problem with market awareness Borders apparently possesses as a whole.

At the same time, we’ve seen newer publishers break in and not die. Del Rey Manga to me represents one of the best of this class from a business standpoint, because it was an imprint by a long-established company that actually made an effort – it didn’t think it could just license random stuff, and then toss it on a shelf and expect it to sell. They started off with two CLAMP titles (Tsubasa and xxxHolic), which was a smart move since CLAMP was an already popular set of manga-ka within the American audiences. They then built themselves up at a steady pace, and made several smart licensing moves. It really all boils down to the fact that Del Rey (the parent company) was actually interested in making an effort as opposed to thinking they’d found a way to make some quick cash.

I know, I know – that’s a really crazy concept!

I’m sad to see manga publishers in America go under, if only from a labor perspective – all those poor folks have lost their jobs! The fact that a lot of my sadness at it has to do explicitly with the fact that many people lose their jobs when these publishers fail admittedly makes it difficult to find a silver lining in all the slash and burn. However, I do think all the trimmings and endings are ultimately good for the American market, because theoretically this means we’ll see less crap getting marketed to us. I’d trade a MADARA for an Aoi Hana any day!

And now I’m about to say something that is going to be quite unpopular – scanlations hurt official releases. Its just a simple fact, and I don’t understand why people continue to obfuscate about it. Tell me – why is your average individual going to both to go out to the store, find the manga volume on the shelf, and then go pay for it at the register when they can just turn their computer on and download it – for free – from a scanlator? When you put it that way, it seems almost foolish to take the trouble to bother obtaining it legally. I also see the problem as increasing, because a lot of the younger fans have cut their teeth on scanlations; why the hell would they want to actually pay for any of it when they’ve become so accustomed to getting it all for nothing?

When I first started exploring the world of anime and manga, scanlations were fairly obscure; the slowness of internet connections more or less ensured that, as did the fact that peer-to-peer filesharing was in its infancy at the time. So if I wanted to read something, then I’d have to go buy it (as evidenced by the crappy Mixx editions I have of Sailor Moon). So guess what? I’m used to buying manga… so I actually will buy manga! I’ll admit that I’m not as ideologically pure as some (I’ll read scanlations of unlicensed properties), but I do buy the stuff.

Before you open your mouth to screech, remember: Manga is not a right. It is a privilege.

Naruto and Vampire Knight do sell well, but they’d sell even better if people couldn’t rip it off online. I don’t think scanlations one-handedly have killed off the manga market in America, but I don’t think they’ve helped the situation at all. And, regardless of whether its hurt or not, you’re not exactly doing the artist any favors by ripping off their work.

On a wholly other tack, I find the breakdown of demographics for the American manga market fairly interesting – its approximately 65% female. This is interesting to me since the American comics industry is overwhelmingly male-oriented. Why the difference?

I think part of it has to do with where you can find manga versus where you can find comics (I know, manga = comics, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll continue to use this as a means of differentiating). Manga is fairly easy to locate within the mainstream bookstores such as Borders or Barnes & Noble, and has a fairly decent presence as well. As such, the original driving force seems to have been an access issue – manga was just plain accessible to females in a way that comics haven’t traditionally been, as these are best found in comic book stores themselves, spaces that are traditionally male. Having gotten the evil eye before in several different comic book stores (along with unwanted male attention of the lustful variety), I can readily attest that traditionally male spaces like that aren’t exactly a welcoming environment for women and girls.

The matter of access, too, has to do with content available. The comics on sale at Borders are very limited, and so they are also limited in nature. In other words, you’re not going to find Wonder Woman on these shelves. The manga, on the other hand, from the start had a lot of titles potentially attractive to females. So then a natural gravitation toward those manga shelves as opposed to the comics shelves does occur. This isn’t to say that girls and women automatically prefer sparkly magical girls over, say, Superman, as obviously there are females who love the Superman comics. However, particularly for younger female readers, the fact that the manga in the mainstream stores actually feature women as protagonists makes them a lot more alluring than the comics carried in those same stores.

Its honestly a bit of a vicious cycle at this point – the ladies read manga because manga has ladies, and stores don’t bother to stock comics featuring ladies because the ladies won’t buy them anyway. Please keep in mind, though, that when I say “featuring ladies” I mean “featuring ladies in the role of something other than convenient plot-device/damsel in distress/fanservice”. And, yeah, a lot of those female superheroes? They all under that description.

Anyway, the fact that the buying is weighted towards females is why you’ll find four Ouran High Host Clubs for every Zatch Bell. And also why DMP’s Juné imprint is absolutely on fire while Seven Seas’ Strawberry imprint is basically dead. Actually, DMP is another excellent example of a younger manga company that has managed to flourish despite the souring of the climate for manga in America; again, the folks there actually put some effort in instead of assuming that they could make some easy money (although it seems that they got into it because they liked manga, while something like Del Rey delved into it for purely economic reasons – not to say one is a better reason, since there have been publishers who got into it out of love and totally shat the bed because they just didn’t know what they were doing at all and licensed stuff that very few people could be expected to buy).

To-morrow I’ll head over to the local comics book store because they give good trade-in credit on manga. They have a very small section of manga, but for whatever reason a good chunk of said section is devoted to BL. Here’s hoping three volumes if Vampire Knight can get translated into the final volume of Il Gatto Sul G.

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8 Responses to The Matter of Manga in America

  1. chikorita157 says:

    Although I don’t read manga, I think the problem of reading off scanlations are real. In contrast to Fansubs, the situation is different because the official license release can provide what the Fansubs don’t provide such as better picture quality, subs, dubs, etc. I always buy anime that is licensed on series I like or series I want to watch and licensed. Manga don’t get the same luxury as Anime because it’s in print. People are less likely to buy the physical copy as it provides no benefits over the illegal copy compared to licensed anime releases.

    As some say, print media is dying as publishing digital is a lot cheaper. Some publishers I think are taking advantage of this, especially since the iPad is out, which can provide colors to manga, although most of the manga are in black and white. If American Publishers took advantage of the e-book market and provide an affordable way for people to read the series they like while supporting the industry. If they go electronic, they can provide new releases a lot quicker since the time to print and publish the manga will be short. So yeah, that could be a solution to the problem, but its easier said than done as ebooks have its nasties such as DRM.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Its an interesting point you make about the perceived lack of benefits for buying manga versus reading it online – I can certainly see where people would feel that way, although I myself prefer reading things in print as opposed to online. I will be extremely disappointed if print media vanishes entirely.

      I also am glad you mentioned the matter of DRM, because it also points to another issue – that with the various e-readers, publishers can retroactively decide they don’t want certain books to be licensed for it and then remove those books from the devices! The entire market brings up a lot of questions about property rights and ethics, all things that need to be settled before we can really move forward.

      As a total nitpick, the iPad is actually a terrible e-reader.

  2. Caddy C says:

    Hear hear!

    I think it’s really sad that we’ve gotten to a phase where just saying the phrase “scanlations hurt official releases” is controversial and immediately causes people to get defensive. Numerous industry folks have said that scanlations hurt their business. I believe them. Even if you don’t or you don’t think it’s the biggest problem in the manga business, I really can’t see how anyone can justify downloading something that is legitimately available in stores. (Though I’m totally guilty of downloading unlicensed stuff too!)

    Maybe I’m just from the old guard who grew up with VHS releases and insanely expensive Japanese imports. But when I started reading manga, you were grateful for a US release of your series, and eagerly awaited its appearance at B. Dalton’s. Now B. Dalton’s doesn’t exist and people snub their noses at paying for manga. It’s a strange world sometimes.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      I, too, am guilty of downloading the unlicensed stuff, although I’ve been trying to figure out how I could, within my economic means, purchase some of the Japanese releases so I’m actually contributing to the manga-ka’s efforts. I’ll freely admit that my position in this regard is inconsistent ethically, as both downloading the licensed and unlicensed is stealing. I don’t think the fact that I write impassioned letters in support of certain unlicensed properties to American manga licensing and publishing companies really makes any difference in that.

      I do think scanlations are one of the bigger problems in the marketplace, and would argue its only second to the punch-drunkedness of the various publishers from about 2005 up until 2008, the timespan where it seemed like everyone was a drunk sailor on shore leave.

  3. 2DT says:

    It’s true scanlations are hurtful, but they’re here and not going away, wouldn’t you agree? The powers that be ought to look towards monetizing the online viewing model, in the style of Crunchyroll (The one and only Jan Suzukawa wrote something along these lines, actually:

    Also, interesting fact about DMP: The owner is Japanese and comes from an old manga family (creators or agents, can’t recall which), so I’m sure some canny skills are involved with their success. But from what I recall, he was slightly bewildered by the smash success of the June imprint. 🙂

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Actually, the success of DMP in spite of having a Japanese owner is actually somewhat worth noting, as generally speaking anime and manga-related companies in America headed by Japanese owners haven’t done well – Bandai Visual USA and Toei come to mind. I would note that I am speaking of those companies run directly by Japanese owners as opposed to being tasked out by the Japanese owners, so stuff like Kadokawa Pictures USA doesn’t quite fall in here. It all has to do with the business models necessary for success in the Japanese versus American markets, though, as opposed to content-access; the head of DMP just was better at adapting. So while it may help with things such as content access for licensing, I think the success of the company as a whole is more likely due to the successful adaptation to the American market.

      I do think there needs to be exploration of alternative, digital models of distribution. The aforementioned DMP actually has some limited involvement in that already, as you’ll see if you visit the website You can buy points on there, and then rent light novels and manga (manga I think has a 48 hr window whereas light novels have a week-long window). The publisher Net Comics uses a model that has come to be mainly based around reading online, although they offer mostly manwha as opposed to manga. And the long-gone ComicsOne also operated a mainly digitally-based format, although it seems it was head of its time (it essentially vanished in 2005).

      I suppose my only issue with Crunchyroll is that there is no way to get hard-copies of the shows it has licensed. I’d kill for a DVD set of Aoi Hana.

  4. hikitsu says:

    You are one of the few sane people I have come across regarding this so far ;-; The saturation of shitty titles bothers me to no end.

  5. Jodi says:

    I know a lot of you have hit on this issue but I got to mention it, I actually owned a stictly manga and graphic novel store in Colorado Springs, and the largest issue we had was, idiots that came in saying they had read it online. There attitude was basicly “Why should I buy it when I can read it online for free.” Viz and Tokyo Pop have done nothing for store owners about persueing the big fan-scan sites in litegation,

    On top of that google rewards these big sites who are distributing tons of illegal fan scans as the number one picks for manga, under they key word listings because they have boo koo content, (all of which is illegal and hurts the industry)

    This content is beeing consumed by rabid fan girls who will never pay for the titles they are reading. So not only is it making it impossible for small bookstores like my owne to sell manga but its making it impossible to compete even on the internet.

    I can actually see the point of not wanting to wait for a book to be translated, but how many manga titles do people forget after they have read them, did that artist and writer get paid no not at all. Because people are to busy sampling.

    Now for all of you who said digial models are the way to go how do you think thats going to effect us little guys who are selling? Easy were not going to exist, because viz and who ever isn’t goin to offer us the ability to sell digital comics.

    How do I know this, because Marvel and DC doesn’t offer us that ability either, so we the bookstore owners are going the way of the dinosaurs, in a slow and horrible death.

    Support little bookstores and comic bookstores. Don’t buy from big chains.

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