Viz introduced its iPad app in November 2010 with five volumes of manga. Six months later, the app features over 100 volumes, and last week, Viz broke new ground by releasing vol. 4 of Bakuman on the app before it was released in print.
The company will roll out several more titles this month, and Brian Piech, Viz's senior director of marketing, said they are readying the app to move to a new platform, although he would not say which one. Like most comics apps, the Viz app itself is free, and users can both buy and read manga within the app. Viz offers free previews of all first volumes, and the standard price for a single volume is $4.99. The app makes Viz among a very number of manga publishers—among them, DMP and Tokyopop—offering legal digital versions of licensed Japanese manga in English translation. PW Comics Week originally wrote about the Viz app in November.
Piech said the number of downloads of the app has exceeded the company's internal goals, and the conversion rate—the percentage of downloaders who actually purchased books—is higher than it is for the web, although it is difficult to compare it to other publishers' rates, because that information is not public.
In March, Viz priced the first volume of every series at 99 cents, and Piech said that in-app sales were up 250% for the month. "There's bump, bump, bump, and then March happens and it skyrockets," he said. "For the app downloads, that was on a pretty even keel, and at the end of the month that shot up. It was around the Bakuman release." Bakuman is a shonen (boys') manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, the team that created Death Note. Piech said it is the most popular manga on the app, and the first volume of the series is the best-selling single volume—beating out even Naruto, which is the best-selling manga in print.
"There is not a big difference between the best and the worst selling manga," Piech said. "Nothing is really behind."
Viz is owned by the Japanese publishers Shueisha, Shogakukan, and Shogakukan Productions, and so far, most of the manga on the app are published by Shueisha, many from its popular Japanese magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. (Viz publishes an American version of Shonen Jump that runs many of the same series.) The girls' manga currently on the app are all from the publisher Hakusensha, but the April lineup will include three manga from Shogakukan (Absolute Boyfriend, Kekkaishi, and Black Bird), as well as one Shueisha title, Blue Exorcist. This will bring the total number of series available on the app to 24.
So far, all the series in the app are from Viz's Shojo Beat, Shonen Jump, and Shonen Jump Advanced lines. Viz has a number of other imprints and brands, and Piech said the editors are trying to figure out whether to have separate apps for different lines, such as their Shonen Sunday and Viz Signature imprints. "With the very, very kids focused stuff, we are thinking that's probably a no brainer to make a kids-only environment," he said. "For the adult part of it, it would be interesting to see if by having it all together [readers] would see the breadth of our catalog or if they would prefer a closed environment."
Unlike many other publishers, who have branded apps built on platforms provided by Comixology or iVerse, Viz chose to build its own app from the ground up. "That was a big internal debate, a healthy debate, whether we just sign up," Piech said. "We wanted to put a stake in the ground. We wanted to own the whole process, and as things go digital we wanted to see what every touch point was like, from the ads to what happens when you go to iTunes to the interface of the app. We always figured if it didn't work, we would go with one of the other guys."
Part of the strategy for the app is to market it through other channels. "We have lots of products across all channels—DVDs, manga, stuff on iTunes and Hulu," Piech said. "We buy a certain amount of ads every month, and we have been devoting a lot of it to the iPad app, really trying to get it out there. March was the culmination of that, and now in spring and summer we are going to reach out to people who are reading Captain America and Thor. We want to see how much of a crossover there is."
Currently, the Viz app is available only in the U.S. and Canada. Piech didn't rule out the possibility that it would expand to other regions, although he said that is not going to happen in the near future. "Part of it is locked up in rights, and part of it is our bandwidth," he said. "I think we are learning, and this is positive for me, that getting it up on the app is just a piece of the puzzle. The other half is making sure you are able to promote it and sustain the promotional effort. We are not going to commit to a territory until we know we can do it and promote it. We want to make sure we do it properly."
Recently Viz put a survey on the app to see who is reading the manga. "The iPad is probably an older audience," he said, "and these could be titles they read ten years ago. It could be a way for them to get back into it." While he was vague about the new platform, Piech did say he saw it as a way to extend the audience even further. "It will lower the barrier, because it's a device that more people have," he said.
"We are happy with our own goals internally," Piech said. "I think the March promotion really changed our perception of what we could do. We clearly haven’t saturated the iPad audience yet. That makes me really excited."