Yen Plus magazine goes online

Yen Plus magazine launched two years ago at San Diego Comic-Con, and at this year's SDCC, Yen Press relaunched it as a web-only publication.

Subscriptions to the magazine will be priced at $2.99 per month, compared to $8.99 per issue for the print version, and Yen is offering a free trial through September 6, so I thought I'd go in and kick the tires a bit. What I found was a mixed bag: The interface is clean and smooth, and I was delighted to find a short comic by the talented Madeleine Rosca (creator of Hollow Fields), but just as with the print version, I was left wondering who exactly they are editing this magazine for: The signup restricts it to readers over 17, but most of the series (Nightschool, Maximum Ride, and especially Rosca's Haunted House Call) are more appealing to younger teens, while Jack Frost and Gossip Girl are clearly pitched at older readers—and may make the magazine off limits to younger teens, at least if their parents get a glimpse of the full content.

There are no Japanese manga in this issue, although the Yen folks promise that Yotsuba&! will join the lineup in future issues. One reason for this may be that the Japanese publisher Square Enix has set up its own online manga site (apparently in partnership with Yen Press) and their titles include Black Butler and Soul Eater, two former Yen Plus series. I hope Square Enix is giving Yen a good cut of the take from that website, because Black Butler is one of their most popular series.

Signing up at the Yen Plus site was straightforward, although I was put off by the amount of information required—I shouldn't have to reveal my full name and mailing address to sign up for a website. As with most websites, the signup process also includes consenting to a lengthy set of terms and conditions. I know that no one reads these things, but it is a legal document and there are two things Yen Press/Hachette should be doing to make it more consumer-friendly: Allow the user to print out a copy, and provide a live hyperlink to the privacy policy, which is mentioned almost as an afterthought. (Here it is. You're welcome.)

PayPal is the only method of payment accepted, and the subscription fee is $2.99 per month, which is automatically deducted from your account every 30 days. That's not as consumer-friendly as the model used by Digital Manga and Netcomics, where you buy points or chapters in advance, and when you have used up your allotment, you are prompted to purchase more. That makes each purchase a deliberate choice rather than a passive transaction. Still, we're all over 17 here so no one should get bored, forget to cancel, and end up paying $2.99 a month for the rest of their life, because grownups don't do that. Right?

Somewhat more bothersome is what you get for your money: The $2.99 doesn't buy access to every issue, just the two most recent issues every month. A year's worth of the online publication is $35.88. Under the old model, a subscription was $49.95, but you got to keep your old issues—which is an important thing when you are reading long story arcs. On the other hand, you don't have to put up with stacks of old magazines; as always, digital is a two-edged sword.

On to the magazine! The interface is clean and uncluttered, with a browser in the center of the screen and an index to the stories on the right. There are some menus and icons for different things but thankfully they are pushed to the edges, putting the magazine front and center. The magazine displays at half size in this format, so it's a bit small to read comfortably. The Pop-Out Viewer opens up a new window with nothing but the comic and a few navigational icons; it's larger, easier to read, and fits nicely into the browser on my 18" screen. A full-size display option is also available, but it's too big for my computer. What is missing, surprisingly, is a full-screen option, something that is standard on a lot of comics sites. The navigation is easy and intuitive—you turn the pages by clicking on them, for instance—and overall the reading experience was pretty good.

The selection of comics was very different from what I remember in the print magazine (which, I confess, I didn't read regularly), and the overall quality was high. In addition to Maximum Ride, which was one of the best-selling manga series in the U.S. last year, the lineup includes the first chapter of another James Patterson manga, Daniel X. Other continuing stories from the original include Svetlana Chmakova's Nightschool and the lovely Korean comic Time and Again, about a wandering exorcist. I started skipping through the Gossip Girl story but then got pulled in—yes, it's a soap opera, but it's a well done soap opera. Aron's Absurd Armada, which I believe will be online only, is a series of four-panel gag strips about comically inept pirates. This is the first time I have ever seen Korean gag strips; the art is nice, but like Japanese 4-koma, they aren't exactly thigh-slappers; they're more goofy than laugh-out-loud funny. Rosca's short story, Haunted House Call, was a real treat, cute and funny, and her art just gets better and better. As for Jack Frost... well, I'm just not a Jack Frost fan, let's put it that way, and I feel it's the odd comic out in this magazine, although the short chapter included in this issue isn't as egregiously violent or degrading to women as the chapter that appeared in the first print issue. So there's that.

It's hard to know what the lineup of the subscription version of the magazine will be, because the page that's supposed to list the series is blank. However, the official post on the Yen Press site does say that Yotsuba&! will be included in future issues.

I really like the online magazine. The interface is nice, and the comics are good. The parent in me says Maximum Ride does not belong next to Jack Frost, but I have to admit that as teenagers do tend to read up, it's probably pretty savvy marketing. Similarly, the 17+ prohibition, because it is not enforced at all, guarantees the magazine will be attractive to 13-year-olds, although only those with PayPal accounts will be able to read it.

The question, as always, is whether people will pay to read manga online, where the default price is zero. The fickleness of the market is a huge factor here, but if the question is whether Yen has created compelling enough content that readers would want to spend three bucks a month to read it, then I think they pass that test. I would prefer a more focused magazine, and Yen Plus is missing a few things, but if they bring in Yotsuba&!, that would make a very attractive package indeed.

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