I used to wonder why Digital Manga only published print books, but over the past few years the company has made all sorts of inroads into the digital realm. The latest: bringing Harlequin manga to the Nook, Barnes & Noble’s e-reader. These Harlequin manga are quite a phenomenon: They are actual American Harlequin romance novels that were adapted into manga for the Japanese market. A company called Softbank has been localizing them for American readers and publishing them on Digital’s eManga site, and plans are also in the works for French, Chinese and Korean editions. There will be two versions, one optimized for black and white, the other for the color Nook; the price is $5.99. If you’re not tied to an e-reader (I have both the Nook and the Kindle apps on my iPad), you might check out the Kindle store, where the Harlequin manga are two bucks cheaper per volume. Most comics look like crap on the Kindle app because of its small size and poor resolution, but the digital files for these manga are somehow better and they look fine.
Harlequin manga are a niche within a niche. I have never compared a Harlequin romance and its manga equivalent side by side, but having read some of each, I can say that the manga versions are pretty compressed—after all, a typical Harlequin romance is about 200 pages of prose, while the manga are about 160 pages with very little text. Even given the economies that sequential art bring to the storytelling, that’s tight.
Interestingly, Dark Horse brought some of these manga over about five years ago but canceled the line after a few volumes. They were an odd fit with the rest of Dark Horse’s manga line (which I once facetiously described as “manly manga for manly men”) and an even odder fit with the comics shops that are Dark Horse’s natural ecosystem. Plus they were printed with colored ink—pink for the YA line, purple for the more “mature” titles — which is not unusual in Japan but tends to hurt American eyes.
Sometimes the difference between a success and a flop is how you market it. Digital CEO Hikaru Sasahara told me last April that the Harlequin manga are among the best sellers on the eManga site. That’s not surprising, as Digital’s specialty is yaoi (male-male romances) and as Sasahara observed on some field trips to bookstores, both genres appeal to the same demographic, women of a certain age. The pink and purple are gone, the manga are priced at $4.99 a volume on the site ($5.99 on the Nook), and most importantly, they are placed where readers can find them, on the web and now in the Nook store.
I don’t think Dark Horse necessarily did a bad job on the digital manga — they were operating according the demands of the market at the time, which included a $9.95 price point and an “authentic” feel. The pink and purple inks were authentic, but sometimes you can get too much of a good thing. Digital has built an audience of romance readers over the years with its yaoi manga, and they also have a tradition of good communication with their audience (as Dark Horse does with its male readers). So for Digital, the Harlequin manga are simply the obvious next step.