If you have attended a number of industry panels at the major anime conventions in the last few years you will remember an insistence on there not being a manga bubble. The rapid growth of the U.S. manga industry was the natural pace of a maturing market and that while there might be a slowing of growth there would not be a crash. And here in 2010 we see the end of Go! Comi and CMX, layoffs at VIZ, and uncertain futures for Del Rey, Tokyo-Pop, and Aurora. It seems there has been a manga crash after all.
Over the last few years there have been major changes in both the anime and manga industries of the U.S. While the anime industry was (is) unstable, the manga industry had been on a steep incline with more and more companies entering the market and a huge library of titles gracing shelves. But maybe manga was just playing catch up to its older brother.
The manga market that went from a niche to a sensation that everyone in publishing could not ignore. At first it seems like manga could do no wrong. Manga was cheap, authentic, innovative, diverse, and easy to get in bookstores. It reached out to women who had been previously thought to be a market American comics could not penetrate. Everyone wanted a piece of the action and soon the market was filled with dozens of manga publishers trying to join the revolution. While companies came and went it seemed to be able to handle it all and still grow. But when a global recession hit, it exacerbate some already growing problems. There were too many publishers putting out too many titles for a fan-base that was growing slower than the growth of the books being released. While manga fans would love to buy everything that interests them they only have a limited supply of time and money. Scanlation (and officially translated manga) aggregator sites started taking off in the last couple of years as well.
There are a few things that still remain facts that should be mentioned. Interest in graphic novels, especially for young adults and reluctant readers, is way up. In fact, the children’s and young adult market is doing really well overall even with the economic downturn. However, publishing as a whole isn’t. And as soon as that happens it is no surprise that certain things that aren’t pulling in what you were hoping for (might not even be in the red) are being scrutinized greatly. This is especially true for CMX or Del Rey whose parent companies are larger publishing houses. Bookstore penetration and placement has also been becoming more tricky as shelves swell with the influx of manga and series geared for children are shelved along side the more mature titles.
I find it very interesting that the anime and manga boom have almost gone through the same cycle of growth and contraction. This is both odd because they are different types of industries and worrying considering the state of the anime industry. When times were good the majority of people in both markets said that they did not worry about fan-translations online. We were told that they saw them as tools to gauge popularity. But as fortunes turned sour the more people turned on fan-translations and soon they were blamed as the number one problem facing the industry. Before the crash the manga companies claimed that unlike anime they did not have to worry because they had a physical medium that everyone wanted more than scanlations. But with the growth of aggregator sites and the decline of the publishing industry the tune has changed.
These employees that are being shown the door and good companies that are shuttering their windows is a hard and humbling reality. There are a ton of cancellations to lament (Swan, you don’t deserve this fate) and inevitable slow downs to come. However much I am saddened, I also feel somewhat hopeful. I see a bloated market, a market that overestimated itself, that is starting to normalize and get back to where I think manga was always supposed to be rather than a bleak future. I can’t agree with more or emphasize enough that as a fan the problem I want to have is not being able to buy everything I want to, but I shouldn’t be unaware of a publisher’s catalog of releases. The trend is over, and it was a trend, but perhaps now it will be come clearer just how big the manga audience actually is. The sooner the manga industry accepts that it is a niche market that can push a few certain titles into the mainstream, the stronger and more solid it will become.
Hindsight is 20/20. Now that everything is falling apart it is easy to see what were sleeping tigers and what strengths were no more than paper. As much doom and gloom as we have mentioned in this article I don’t think that manga industry is down for the count. VIZ and Yen Press still have titles that consistently dominate the graphic novel sales in the U.S. We still see all the major manga companies announcing licenses. Small publishers like Vertical and Fanfare still publish niche series. There are still several small yaoi publishers as well. I expect to see a slow down in general across the board and I think one or two major companies might still have to leave the market. But this is a natural part of the ebb and flow of the business especially considering the harsh economic times.
Whatever is in the future for the American manga industry, I do believe it has a future. There are a lot of priorities that have to be decided by both the publishers and the fans but what I hope to see the most is an emphasis on quality over quantity. I don’t mean necessarily high-end works only coming out, but rather the books they decide to produce will have a level of quality about their production and release overall. Manga has had a presence in the U.S. for a while now, it has changed a lot, and it will continue to evolve in the coming years. Once again though I find myself believing downsizing is okay and will solidify the foundation of the companies that will continue to distribute manga to U.S. fans.