Manga publishers have been late to the digital media party, but that's changing fast: Today Viz Media announced its own iPad app, making it the second publisher, after Yen Press, to go digital.
Viz is basically the American arm of a Japanese company — it is co-owned by the Japanese publishers Shueisha and Shogakukan and their licensing unit Shogakukan Productions — and publishes some of the best-selling manga in the U.S., including the monster seller Naruto, so this is a significant move.
The Viz app is proprietary, as opposed to the Marvel and DC apps, which are adaptations of Comics by comiXology, and it's iPad-only — there is no iPhone version. The app is free, and Viz is offering a free download of the first volume of Death Note for a limited time.
After that, you'll pay. The initial lineup for the app is the first two volumes of Bleach, Death Note, Dragon Ball, Naruto and One Piece, priced at $4.99 each. That's a good deal compared to single-issue comics, but not so far off the original prices of the manga; list price at the Viz store is $7.95 for the first 45 volumes of Naruto (and $9.99 after that), so for early volumes you're only getting a $3 discount for buying digital. And let's face it, Viz has already covered its costs on volumes 1 and 2 of Naruto. However, the iPad app solves a significant problem for a series that runs over 45 volumes: shelf space. It's not so easy to find a random volume of One Piece in the bookstore, but it's always retrievable electronically.
Of the five launch series, only Death Note has adult appeal, so the success of the others will depend on teenagers having access to an iPad — and a credit card, since you buy the comics in-app, not through the iTunes store.
Viz Vice President Alvin Lu told Publishers Weekly Comics Week that new material would be released every week, and that company is considering shrinking the time between print and digital releases.
If I were running Viz, I would put a couple of their Viz Signature series on there as well: 20th Century Boys, Naoki Urasawa's Pluto, Fumi Yoshinaga's Ooku, or the foodie manga Oishinbo. Or maybe Takehiko Inoue's Vagabond, a sophisticated manga that is up to 31 volumes and would be less cumbersome on the iPad than in print. Despite the fact that they are very good manga with adult appeal, none of these series sells well; the iPad might be where they find their audience — after all, the average iPad user is closer to 30 than 13.