The Manga Counter-Revolution

hisuiconIf 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.

hisuicon 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.

hisuicon 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.

hisuiconHindsight 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.

15 thoughts on “The Manga Counter-Revolution

  1. William Flanagan says:

    Interesting discussion. But I’d like to chime in on a few points.

    First, I have heard the rumors on the Internet and elsewhere that the companies used scanslations to determine what’s popular and what to license. I wonder if anybody can point me toward that quote, because I don’t know who said it or when. At Viz, we’d take polls and such to help determine what to license, and I’m sure some of the people participating in the polls had read scanslations, but as far as I know, nobody at Viz ever checked the sites or read the scanslations. (We had bilinguals who suggested titles to license.) Maybe people at other companies, people read the scanslations…? Anyway, if anybody has URLs that can point to the quotes, I’d sure like to see them. But my guess is the companies didn’t use scanslations even a fraction as much as is claimed on the Internet.

    In hindsight, and considering the recession, the shelves were bloated with too much manga, but even in the biggest of the boom, it was always tough to get books on the shelves. Every licensing decision included an approximation by the big-chain manga buyers as whether they would stock the book or not and in what amounts. Of course titles like Yu-Gi-Oh, Inu Yasha, and Rurouni Kenshin (during my tenure) would automatically get plenty of space, but Firefighter and Eagle: The Making of an American President would be forgotten in the fight for shelf space. So given the fact that shelf space was always at a premium, it’s understandable that the companies never thought that they were throwing too much product at the market. They (we) always thought that we were being regulated by shelf space.

    But the big thing is the recession, isn’t it? Odds are people who had money (or for the younger set, whose families had money) found they didn’t really have it to spend anymore. So the biggest rush to scanslations is really only over the past year to year and a half. It isn’t as if manga itself is dying, not with one of the scanslation aggregation sites making a list of the world’s 1000 most popular web sites. It’s just that the fans, mostly for financial reasons, have turned from print to digital. And now, when the industry most needs the lawyers to try to shut down the scanslators, money is getting tighter and tighter.

    So I guess my main point is that there seems to be no real decline in popularity of manga, just that the fans aren’t paying for it anymore. When the economy gets better, maybe the fans will be willing to pay for it again. Or they may have gotten too used to their manga for free that they’ll just find other hobbies if they’re forced to pay. (Probably somewhere in the middle.)

  2. BruceMcF says:

    Because of the different price point and because of the limited range of portable ways to read downloads, manga was more sheltered from online competition than anime.

    And I have heard the same claim about anime companies using fansubs to decide which license is marketable, and I have watched online at least one panel at a convention where the question was posed to an anime firm rep, who also denied it.

    It seems most likely to be pure myth, with someone arguing it COULD be used that way turning into someone arguing it WOULD be used that way turning to someone arguing it WAS used that way, repeated around in the echo chambers of fansub and scanlation group chat rooms and forums because it helped justify the viewing of ripped off content.

    An advantage of manga over anime is that the high frequency serials in Japan are so inexpensive that it remains an easy impulse buy at the train station on the way to or from school, and the development of phone manga provides a readily commercialized digital distribution channel.

    Add in the intrinsic differences between the manga and anime industry and there is less reason for sort term concern than in the R1 DVD industry of a reduction in variety of content to choose from.

    Indeed, if mangaka unlikely to be licensed in North America, or even the Americas, Oceania and Europe, were willing to release unlettered artwork, it would be possible to establish a regionalized legit manga viewer site where translated overlays were laid on top of the artwork by viewer applications. If royalties were on a pure revenue share, being both more current as well as having more titles in the chosen niche(s) than the big rip-off manga viewer sites would seem quite possible.

  3. reversethieves says:

    I’m currently looking for a quote but I do know that manga representatives in the past have said they have looked at what is being scanned. I’m not trying to imply that this means the manga industry is giving an unofficial thumbs up to scanlation. I am pretty sure most people in the industry feel like the time for scanlations has passed if it ever existed in the first place. But I think it is disingenuous to say that the manga companies do not look at this information at all. While I doubt that anyone would base any decision on the information alone I am sure that it is examined. Marketing people tend to be hungry for any and all data when making decisions and I can’t see them ignoring information like this. Also Ed Chavez recently mention on the ANNcast that some mid-level titles might not get licensed in the US because they are too freely fan-translated worrying people involved over them not being profitable.

    – Hisui

  4. BruceMcF says:

    It would be of interest whether anyone who had mentioned that was from a large or small manga publishing house, and whether they were still in business or had gone out of business in the recent industry shake-out.

    Also Ed Chavez recently mention on the ANNcast that some mid-level titles might not get licensed in the US because they are too freely fan-translated worrying people involved over them not being profitable.

    If they are looking at what is being scanlated to decide that something is not worthwhile because its scanlations are so popular, that is a direct contradiction of the claim that scanlations are relied upon as a positive indicator in market research. That is more “destruction of market” research.

    The problem with scanlations and fansubs as positive market research is that the relationship between the viewership at the $0 price point and the actual market for actual product for sale is so slippery.

    Something could have a proportionally small veiwership for scanlations, but if 10% of the distinct viewers were actually in the market to buy it would be a title with twice the market from scanlation viewership as a title with 50 times the viewership but only 0.1% actually in the market to buy.

  5. Steven Savage says:

    Excellent analysis, really helps make things clearer. I think Manga, as noted, is going through a change – but that’s not unusual as all kinds of publishing are in a state of change right now.

  6. Dirk Deppey says:

    William, I suspect that the insistence on the importance of scanlations might be partly due to an interview that I conducted with Dallas Middaugh four years ago:

    DEPPEY: I’d like to close out by talking a bit about scanlations, the amateur translations of raw Japanese manga produced by online groups of fans. I assume you’re familiar with them.

    MIDDAUGH: Certainly. Most if not all publishers are aware of them. To be honest, when I was at Viz back in 2001, 2002, we were following scanlations as a way of discovering new titles. [Deppey laughs.] Hey, I don’t read Japanese, and the people making scanlations were finding good manga.

    Please note that at no point in the interview does Middaugh state that manga companies were using scans to gauge popularity, only that some editors were reading them to find new titles.

  7. Dirk Deppey says:

    For what it’s worth, scanlations are almost the sole basis for my recommendations to Matt Thorn and Gary Groth for the Fantagraphics manga line. Hey, I don’t read Japanese, either.

  8. Shay Guy says:

    If publishers are looking at what’s popular on scanslation sites, why hasn’t the Kenichi manga been licensed?

    • reversethieves says:

      Well any marketing person worth their salt will look at a wide variety of factors beyond just what’s popular on scanlation sites.

      Although at times I do wonder why certain titles have not been picked up. I am sure there is some story behind it. I know that the Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple’s anime sells like gangbusters on DVD and that is usually a prime reason for a manga company to pick to the associated manga title. Therefore I assume there must be some other story going on that is keeping it from getting picked up. What that is is totally beyond me.

      -Hisui

  9. William Flanagan says:

    Thanks Dirk. I don’t think I had ever seen that interview. And that was the period when I was working at Viz and was involved in the licensing process. Wow, I had no idea.
    By the way, Dallas wasn’t in Editorial during his tenure at Viz, he was in Marketing. But any department could bring possible titles to the meetings on which titles to license, and although most came from Editorial or the Licensing department itself, Marketing did bring a large number of licensing suggestions.

  10. Sub says:

    Whenever I hear the story, true or not, about companies deciding acquisitions with fansubs/scanlations as a guide, I recall CPM’s last anime release (or close to it), The World of Narue. And forgive me for advance for taking this into anime!

    I was honestly surprised to see it on shelves. I remember the guys in my anime club were all watching it fansubbed.

    (Those guys are all now engineers and IT dudes who make good money and still pirate all of their entertainment because they don’t believe in buying anything that’s in a digital format, by the way. They’re a still a large chunk of the fandom for anime/manga: the numbers you see at those cons, the numbers in the torrents.)

    It was really popular, because a show like that– a brand new, entirely generic shonen comedy– is exactly what a lot of people downloading anime want. It doesn’t have to be memorable (as in it doesn’t have to be something viewer would EVER consider actually purchasing) but Narue did the minimum. I’m absolutely sure the show didn’t sell on DVD. I’m sure all those people who watched Narue didn’t even KNOW the show came out on DVD, nor are they going to rush to own it.

    If you guys know the anime fanbase, especially on the internet, a show’s only really famous in the core group for the duration of its run. If it’s something really big, it might remain popular for another year, but people forget very, very quickly. I think that’s the story of a lot of titles that didn’t perform to the industry’s expectations.

    Case in point being Lucky Star, which, for six months, was THE otaku thing. As the entire fanbase was diehard internet otaku who consume at light speed, they’d long since moved on by the time of the stateside DVD release and the show couldn’t hold up its own extravagant release strategy: unsold LEs were everywhere and they couldn’t even afford to dub the OVA.

    This show was a sure thing, if you’d just looked at fansub numbers and internet response. Otaku have impossibly short attention spans and an infinite thirst for material, and that doesn’t mean good things for the entire US distribution model.

    This is just an even faster and more cut-throat version of what goes on with manga scans. It’s weird that the situation has reversed, but now manga might be a little more expensive ($10 for an hour vs $30-some for six) than anime is, too.

    So yeah, if it ever happened (Maybe Geneon did, judging by all their otaku-market flops? Anyone?), picking by fansub popularity seems like it’d actually be a self-destructive move to me. If the practice even ever happened, it must have killed the businesses that went with it.

    • reversethieves says:

      This does bring up the depressing question. Does this mean that other than a handful of titles is there then that much worth picking up? I don’t want to believe that is the case. I want to believe that you can pick up more than utterly mainstream titles and some boutique titles. But where does the truth lie?

      – Hisui

  11. Mo Rocking says:

    Quick comment (I hope) about the anime/manga industry in terms of economic growth.

    The “boom” as it’s called in the economy, I’ve always regarded as a bad thing, in general. Every “boom” I’ve ever observed has been followed by a “crash.”

    I’d like to note what happened to the DOW. March 14, 2003, the Dow Jones is low at 7859.71. It then rallies to a high point, reaching 14093.08 on October 12, 2007. It began to decline, followed by a crash, starting around September 12, 2008.

    It crashed all the way down to 6626.94 by March 6, 2009. It has since then rallied back up, and currently stands, to this day, at 10450.64.

    What I’ve noticed:
    Every “boom” is followed by a “crash”
    Every “crash” is followed by a “boom”

    I predict the same thing happening to anime/manga, providing that the companies are competent, and I think they are.

    Interesting thing to note on the economy in general:
    First rally I mentioned, over the course of 1673 days, DOW gained 6233.37, or 3.726 a day.
    Second rally, the one we’re in, has gained 3823.70 in 469 days, or 8.153 a day.

    That’s right, our rate of economic development right now is higher than what many considered to be the fantastic rally I mentioned previously.

    That’s just a side note, let me get back on topic.

    My prediction: You’ll start to see major decreasing in the production and sales of manga to the point that the supply will drop below the demand. At that point, based on high demand, the production will pick up, to which we will eventually have another inevitable “crash” followed by yet another “boom”

    Assuming the trend of manga is still popular and assuming the company employees are competent and assuming people still have money to afford it and assuming piracy does not occur.

    Lots of assumptions you have to make in economics…

    This ended up being a long post despite me saying it wouldn’t be. But, whatever, enjoy. XD

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