Manga market realities

Rich Johnson, who has served time as both vp of book trade sales at DC and as co-publisher of Yen Press, has an interesting analysis of the state of the manga market at The Beat. His basic point is that manga became a commodity and, for a while, quantity trumped quality:

I actually heard a representative of one the two biggest manga publishers say “Well, in March we released forty-five titles and the other publisher released forty-seven titles, and that’s why they had more market share this month.” Huh? What were the titles? In bookstore you get the big buys based on the book – not because you released fifty other titles that month.

That was true, and I remember people complaining about Tokyopop, in particular, churning out too many titles. But the market has changed a lot since 2007, and one of the changes has been reduced output. There are two pieces to this puzzle: some publishers folded, and others cut back their lines. Either way, it is somewhat healthier to have sales drop because you are making fewer manga to begin with than to have them drop because you have warehouses full of books you can't move.

Overall, I think Rich nails it, which is not surprising given his years in the industry, but I thought a few of his points, regarding piracy, female readers, and farm teams, missed the mark a bit.

Rich dismisses the idea that scanlations have caused manga sales to crater, saying,

And if by some stretch of the imagination it is solely due to piracy; why were experts in manga saying just a few years ago that scanlations didn’t really affect sales of the trades. What changed in the past few years? Are people more willing to engage in illegal downloading than they were a few years ago?

No, that's not it. The fact is, people don't have to engage in illegal downloading any more. Manga pirate sites put up scanlations and scans of licensed manga in a handy format you can read in your browser. There are at least half a dozen sites like this, which you can readily find just by Googling the title of the manga you want to read, and there are at least five iPhone apps that pick up content from these pirate sites as well. And traffic to these sites is growing. While grownups like Rich and I don't use them, teenagers, who love manga but have little spare cash and even less of a concept of intellectual property, are well aware of them. I think this is actually a huge reason why sales of shoujo manga have dropped, much more than the impact of Twilight.

That brings up a second point: Where are the girls who read all that shoujo? Rich thinks that the teens simply grew out of it, and that's probably true, but it's a simple demographic point that at the same time that was happening, more kids were becoming teens. Why didn't these kids start buying manga? It's hard to say, but based on empirical observation, I would say that they are reading it, they are just not buying it in stores. They are reading it on the web, they are trading it back and forth, and they are still treating bookstores as libraries. What's more, the teens I see most often seem to gravitate toward the older properties—Fullmetal Alchemist, Fruits Basket—so they may not need to buy them new in stores. What the manga industry needs is a new must-have manga for teens—another Naruto, so to speak.

But Rich makes me grit my teeth when he says "It can’t all be about high school girls with special powers anymore." Why not? That may not be what he reads, but that's what resonates with girls—that's what brought them in to begin with. That's one of the things they don't get from American comics (you can keep your sexy Supergirl, although the eighth-grade one is a step in the right direction).

The graphic novel market boom of the early 2000s was due in part to the fact that publishers started serving the other half of the population. For a long time there were no comics for girls; then suddenly, there were, and the girls bought them. Dismissing their tastes as Rich does (or by complaining about comics being too pink and sparkly) ignores the fact that their money is just as good as any Dark Horse fan's. Certainly, the opening of the manga market to more literary titles is a welcome development, as is the fact that many indy publishers are now embracing manga. That's the kind of book I like to read. But the comics market is much bigger than me and my tastes. Girls like to read about schoolgirls with superpowers. You can tell them that's stupid, or you can publish comics they like (keeping in mind that even genre fans can distinguish between a good comic and a bad one). One of those is a winning business strategy, and one isn't.

I agree with most of Rich's suggestions for strengthening the market, including low-priced omnibuses of books that have been around for a while—publishers might as well make some money off those classic properties. But I can't let this one go:

There needs to be an outlet for the future writers and authors who have been influenced by manga – there is no equivalent of a DC Comics or a Marvel for these people to go learn their craft.

Actually, there was for a long time: Tokyopop, which brought in young artists through their Rising Stars of Manga program, worked with them to produce new books, and also kept them busy on licensed properties like the Star Trek manga. The best of that first crop of artists has gone on to greater things: Svetlana Chmakova, Amy Reeder, Felipe Smith. Tokyopop's global manga program attracted a lot of derision at the time, and in some cases it was not well managed, but the results speak for themselves.

While the Rising Stars program is long gone, most other manga publishers are quietly producing global titles in-house. The bar is higher, but there is a de facto farm team; you start out doing your own stuff, maybe a webcomic, and when you're good enough, you get to work with real editors in a real publishing house. At the moment, the prospects are somewhat limited, and Rich is right to bring up the topic, but it's hard to see how that's going to happen. Grooming your own artists takes time and money, and publishers aren't up for a lot of that type of risk right now.

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