JManga launched last August as a digital manga site that would be an online subscription portal to the work of 39 different Japanese publishers. Initial reviews were mixed—in general, readers were enthusiastic about the selection of manga on the site, which included some quirky niche titles, but less pleased about the prices ($8.99 for most volumes) and the requirement that the user sign up for a monthly subscription in order to buy manga.
From the time of its launch, however, JManga distinguished itself by its outreach to readers, through its Facebook and Twitter accounts, and its willingness to accept reader feedback. In October, JManga dropped the price on most volumes of manga to $4.99, and as indicated in the interview below, that is now the standard price of a volume of manga on the site. When they reduced the price, JManga took the additional step of refunding points to users who had bought the manga at the original price, which created considerable goodwill.
As for the subscription model, JManga business manager Robert Newman says that this is how it's done in Japan, but that JManga will offer an alternative in the near future. PW Comics World talked to Newman about the progress that JManga has made so far, and what changes are expected in the near future.
PW Comics World: About how many volumes of manga do you have on the site right now?
Robert Newman: 292 (as of May 31)
PWCW: How many are first volumes, versus later volumes of a series?
RN: First volumes: 170
Later volumes: 122
PWCW: How many volumes would you like to have online by your one-year anniversary?
RN: We hope to have 1,000 volumes on the site by our one-year anniversary.
PWCW: How do you choose the manga to put online? Is it a question of popularity in Japan, similarity to other successful manga in English, availability of digital files, or something else?
RN: All of the above and more. We have noticed that many of the titles that do well in Japan also do well abroad, but popularity in Japan is not always a 100% safe bet. Additionally, we look into what other titles an artist has released and whether or not the title has been adapted into an anime, drama/movie, and/or game, and keeping an ear wide open to what the manga fans around the globe would like to read.
PWCW: What type of a library are you trying to build on the site? Will it mostly be classic manga that has been around for a while, or are you looking at current titles as well?
RN: One of the goals of JManga is to show the vast depths of manga. There is a manga out there for virtually anything you can think of and we think that is a very important merit to manga. We hope to build a library that expresses this by releasing all types of manga from the classics to the latest, and from genres across the board.
PWCW: What type of manga is most popular with the readers? Can you tell us what your best-selling titles are?
RN: If you take a look at the top page of http://www.jmanga.com/ you can see our weekly best selling titles. So far we have seen a fairly well balanced mix in genres with the titles never before released in English generally in the lead. Most of these titles are part of our 'JManga Select' series http://www.jmanga.com/features/jmanga-select-100-manga-061-100
PWCW: What about the familiarity of the audience with a given title: Do you find that books that have been available in English in the past are more popular than Japanese-only titles? What about books by creators whose other works are available in English (such as Takao Saito)?
RN: There are many well seasoned manga readers in the current JManga audience. For readers such as these I think the titles that have never been released before are more alluring. As for Saito Takao-sensei, he is a living manga legend, and with the number of his works available on JManga for the the first time in English < http://www.jmanga.com/list/author/takao-saito > Saito Takao-sensei fans have definitely found our site a comfortable place to be.
PWCW: Who is responsible for translating and editing the manga on your site?
RN: We use a number of vendors for translation and editing ranging from translation firms to freelancers mainly based in Japan and America.
PWCW: Recently, JManga announced that it would expand its availability from North America to worldwide. Why did you choose to do that, and what has been the result? Can you give any geographical breakdown of your readers--perhaps continent by continent?
RN: The goal of JManga from the very beginning has been to promote manga and manga culture to as wide an audience as possible. Our system was developed with going global in mind and since opening access world-wide we have received strong support around the globe from North America to Europe South America and beyond.
PWCW: Recently you added Nihongo Corner, with untranslated manga. What led you to believe there was a demand for this?
RN: There is a large population of Japanese people living in various countries around the globe, as well as a growing number of people studying the Japanese language. The initial role of the Nihongo Corner is to provide manga for these people. We also hope to use this corner as a place for readers to find out about more manga that is out there and vote for which titles they would like to have localized into English.
PWCW: Do you think Japanese readers are accessing the site, to read manga in English or Japanese? If so, how does this affect the marketing plans of publishers who are already putting manga online in Japan?
RN: The majority of our fans come to JManga to read manga in English, though the capability to switch between English and Japanese has been very well received.
PWCW: Why did you choose to go with a subscription model for the site, rather than allowing readers to buy manga a la carte?
RN: The subscription model that we started off with is based on the staple model of digital manga for cellphones in Japan. For us the model has the benefit of making it easier for people around the globe to buy manga using a universal JManga currency. The monthly subscription also ties into some of future service plans.
PWCW: Would you consider a different model in the future?
RN: Yes! In fact we are about to offer a new plan which would allow readers to purchase points as need in a pay-as-you-go type plan. The monthly subscription plan would also stay in place and would come with extra bonuses.
PWCW: Last fall, you reduced the prices of many of your volumes from 899 points to 499 or 599. That reduction is still in effect. Do you plan to make it permanent?
RN: The price of volumes on JManga varies from title to title, but for the most part I think we will try to stay around 499 per volume.
PWCW: JManga has a lot of special sales and promotions. Do you find they give a sales bump to specific properties, or are your readers not price-sensitive?
RN: Our sales and promotions have definitely proven fruitful. I think some of our users are already set on purchasing titles from the get go and some may be on the fence. For the latter, these sales and promotions can help ease the decision making process. For the prior, it’s kind of a way for us to say thanks!
PWCW: How do you choose which properties to feature in those special sales?
RN: We try to mix it up a bit. Sometimes the features are based on genre or theme (like or current feature on foodie manga). Sometimes we base them on a title's or artist's existing popularity, whereas for others JManga Staff may choose less well-known titles that we feel deserve there time to shine.
PWCW: Who prepares the interviews and other feature material? Do you have a special staff for that?
RN: We do the majority in-house, but also do collaborations. For example, we collaborated with students from Aoyama Gakuin University’s A-Studio on our Akihabara street interview feature.
PWCW: When will JManga be available for mobile devices?
RN: We are currently working on mobile apps for both iOS and Android devices and hope to have them out in the next coming months.
PWCW: When this happens, will readers be able to download manga, as opposed to reading in a streaming format (and thus having to have internet access)?
RN: I am not able to disclose details at this time, but I can say that we are designing our apps with the readers usability as top priority.
PWCW: One way in which JManga has distinguished itself is outreach to the readers, via Twitter, Facebook, and special events such as your translation contest. Why was this important to you?
RN: Reaching out to manga readers and fans has been an integral part of our corporate vision since it's conception. We feel that it is important for readers to know that we and the manga we provide exist for them and that their voices count! Another reason for this approach is to try to lessen the gap between what’s happening in Japan and in the lives of manga fans worldwide.
PWCW: Speaking of the translation contest, are you looking to expand your pool of translators to include fans who have not had professional experience?
RN: One of the most interesting facts about international manga culture is that there are fans out there with enough love for manga that they are willing to translate it without virtually no tangible benefit to themselves. We think it is important to show support for that love and I think that it is important to provide a legal environment to nurture it in.
PWCW: What changes are coming next to JManga?
RN: You can expect some enhancements to our subscription model, apps to allow you to read your favorite JManga titles on the device of your choice, some new services, and a lot more manga!! Keep an eye and ear out for some big announcements at Anime Expo, San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic-Con!