Surviving in the manga industry

David Brothers of Comics Alliance talked to representatives of three big manga publishers about how they have weathered the difficult economy. Ed Chavez of Vertical, Michael Gombos of Dark Horse, and Marco Pavia of Tokyopop all discussed how piracy has affected their sales (the unanimous answer was that it hurts them), how they have retooled to face hard times, and what their strategy is for the future. As it happens, Erica Friedman, who runs Yuricon, specializing in yuri (female/female romance) manga, also has a post at her blog, Okazu, looking at the market from the point of view of a small niche publisher.

One thing that emerges is that large and small publishers face the problem of a market that is too small to support everything they want to publish. Says Gombos:

There might be three great titles we'd like to publish, but in some cases, we'll have to think about how much our infrastructure can support, what other titles we'd have coming out around that time, and perhaps pay a little more for the rights to the title we REALLY want out of three, and focus on that.

Dark Horse has also pruned its existing licenses, ending Reiko the Zombie Shop, its Harlequin line (now published online by Digital Manga), and many of its horror series, while putting more energy into flagship titles like Oh My Goddess and Blade of the Immortal. Friedman had to make an even tougher choice:

A publisher needs to have at least one big title to support the little titles. I had actually licensed that big title this year, all we needed to do was sign the paperwork. But when I worked out the costs of printing that book, it was going to be about $50,000 to get it all out there. Even idealistically, if I overshot my real sales estimates, I was only going to be able to make back half that...even if I sold out on every volume. The buying Yuri market for English translated titles is about 2500 people right now. And that over a lifetime of a book, not right out of the gate. A manga basically needs to sell about 4000 copies to make it worth printing now, with costs being what they are. I hadn't worked with any stability for more than 5 months at a time for the last 5 years.... I had to walk away. It broke my heart, don't think it didn't. I was wrong about the "viable" part, because - so far, anyway - the Yuri market has not proved viable for any company.

And while Tokyopop and Vertical are doing some digital distribution, and Gombos says he is thinking about it, Chavez warns that it is not a quick-and-cheap solution for manga publishers:

Manga in general is a licensing game. Most digitally distributed manga tend to not be licensed. Instead these are original properties American companies developed and published. When a localizer wants to distribute a licensed manga digitally they often need to pay for a separate license and that new contract comes with a new set of terms and higher royalties.

So while the comics do not need to be printed, there are still other costs that come into play (such as file fees, file conversion costs...) if there already is a print version. When there isn't a print version there biggest costs --licensing, royalties, translation, file fees, lettering, editing, distribution and marketing -- are still there. Printing is usually only 10% of a book's costs; the rest of the fees make up more than 50%. (And with digital royalties alone tend to go up 5 to 10%).

EXCLUSIVE: Breakneck #2

More in Comics