Over the last two months, two major comics and anime shows gave North American and Japanese manga publishers an opportunity to announce new titles, and showcase some new directions in their digital publishing strategies. Some publishers made moves to expand simultaneous Japanese/English language releases and their overall digital publishing reach beyond North America, while others opted to abandon their proprietary apps in favor of distributing their titles via ePub formats or other digital storefronts like Comixology. Despite the closure of JManga ealier this year, digital continues to be a major concern. In the past, Japanese publishers were criticized for dragging their feet on digital publishing, but things are changing, and they’re changing fast—and by and large, these changes are being driven by the demand for Japanese manga content from the Western market. Here are five noteworthy trends from the last month or so.
Shonen Jump Expands To UK, Australia and More
At Anime Expo in Los Angeles, Viz Media and its Japanese parent company Shueisha announced that the English edition of digital manga magazine Weekly Shonen Jump would now be available in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa in addition to North America. This means that the latest chapters of popular (and much pirated) manga titles like One Piece and Naruto are now available in English on same day that the print edition of Weekly Shonen Jump hits the newsstands in Japan.
According to Hisashi Sasaki, head of shonen manga publishing for Shueisha, this move toward making Shonen Jump manga available both digitally and legally in more territories is something that has been in the works for quite some time. One thing that has held back Viz and Shueisha in the past was dealing with possible conflicts for these titles with licensors in other countries.
Viz Media already distributes Shonen Jump titles in the UK via Viz Media UK/Simon and Shuster, and in Australia/New Zealand via Madmen Entertainment, so these territories were relatively easy to add to the mix. However, for now, readers in these countries will only be able to subscribe to and read Weekly Shonen Jump via Apple’s iOS newsstand—it is not available on the web or on other eReader platforms, or at least not yet.
Initial response from readers in other countries has been positive, ““We’ve been hearing from readers who’ve told us, ‘Finally!’ and ‘I can’t wait to read it,’” said Eric Eberhardt, Viz Media’s senior marketing manager for digital manga. However, a few weeks into the rollout, Eberhardt also confessed that new subscriptions from these countries have not been coming in as fast as Viz Media and Shueisha would like. “It’s off to a good start, but we need it to be even better,” he said. “It took us a while to make North American fans aware of this. Now, with these new countries, we’re almost starting from scratch again.”
Hoping to boost readership in the UK, Viz will be promoting Weekly Shonen Jump at events like Hyper Japan in London, MCM Expo, and in Japanese pop culture magazines like MyM Magazine and NEO . They are also planning promotions with Madmen Entertainment to raise awareness of Weekly Shonen Jump in Australia and New Zealand.
While Viz is fielding requests from fans in other countries who also want their fix of Weekly Shonen Jump (including Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia), it’s not as simple to just flick the switch and make this digital manga magazine available in every country in the world. Besides licensing considerations, Viz and Shueisha also need to take into account what’s considered to be appropriate/inappropriate levels of violence for kids/teen readers in different countries. This is already a factor in North America where comics that were created for younger readers in Japan have been tagged for older teens (example: Case Closed by Gosho Aoyama).
The other country that won’t be reading the English edition of Weekly Shonen Jump online? Surprisingly, Japan. In Japan, digital is still a very small portion of the publishing market—roughly only 4-5% of the gross sales of books (although 80% of those sales come from manga.) Given that there’s still a relatively healthy market for magazines and graphic novels in print, when asked why WSJ wouldn’t be offered in Japan, Sasaki simply replied, “We don’t need to.”
Kodansha Abandons iPad App for Manga In ePub
Kodansha Comics announced that they would be abandoning their proprietary iPad app, and move toward making a good chunk of their titles available worldwide on ePub formats (via Apple iBookstore, Google Play, Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook).
To kick things off, they’re offering free digital samplers of 19 titles, including a preview of Vinland Saga, the much-anticipated historical Viking adventure story by Makoto Yukimura that’s slated for Fall 2013 release. Kodansha will be releasing the first volume of Vinland Saga in a hardcover print edition on the same day as the digital release.
Kodansha also announced that they would be publishing many of their upcoming titles day and date – that is, making them available as print and digital releases on the same day. This includes their ramped-up releases of this year’s breakout action/fantasy hit, Attack on Titan by Hajime Isayama. Starting in August 2013, new volumes of Attack on Titan will be released monthly until Kodansha Comics’ English editions catch up with the Japanese editions in January 2014.
Kodansha is also ramping up releases of another fan favorite, Fairy Tail by Hiro Mashima, with two new digital volumes released per month, and one new print volume per month. The one title that won't be included in Kodansha’s new digital publishing program? Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi, the classic bestseller that defined the shojo magical girl genre, for reasons that Kodansha’s reps would not divulge.
Nevertheless, this switch to ePub format is a huge development for the US subsidiary of one of Japan’s largest publishing companies, because many of these titles will be available to fans in all countries (not just North America) with many of their hottest titles available day and date, something that only a handful of other manga publishers are offering to date.
Seven Seas, Udon Offer Manga and More On Comixology
At San Diego Comic-Con, Seven Seas Manga and Udon Entertainment announced their new partnerships with digital comics distributor Comixology to offer some of their licensed Japanese manga and art book content, in addition to their original comics properties. These new partnerships will help Comixology beef up their manga offerings and allow smaller publishers like Seven Seas and Udon to enter the digital publishing market without the expense of developing and maintaining their own proprietary apps.
Coming Soon: Tezuka Digital Manga And Doraemon
One factor that keeps digital publishing of manga from ramping up faster in North America is the high anxiety from Japanese licensors about the possibility that publishing any content digitally will inevitably lead to this content being uploaded and posted on pirate sites. Getting the digital rights for titles that are already licensed for print release is not a given, and sometimes compounds the complexity of already difficult negotiations with licensors in Japan.
But that doesn’t mean that things are at a standstill. New players from Japan debuted products or made announcements at Anime Expo and Comic-Con, hoping to make inroads with Western readers by offering new and classic comics content in new ways.
Digital Manga Publishing announced that they are securing the digital rights to publish the entire catalog of manga by Osamu Tezuka, including titles that have been published in print by other North American publishers, and titles that have yet to be released in English like Rainbow Parakeet and Jungle Emperor. Few other details were offered at their panel at Anime Expo, such as release dates, prices and a list of titles, but look for more news on this front in the months to come.
Voyager Japan, a multimedia publishing company based in Tokyo, announced that they would be assisting Fujio F. Fujiko Productions in Japan with the upcoming release of classic kids manga Doraemon in English for Amazon Kindle, and possibly other ePub formats in Fall 2013. This new edition of the Doraemon comics will be in full-color, with new translations by AltJapan, a manga and game translation company headed up by Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda, authors of Yokai Attack!.
While Doraemon is one of the most popular and recognizable anime and manga characters in Japan, this robot cat from the future and his wacky gadgets are almost unknown to readers in the West. Why? Because until now, the only Doraemon comics available in English were a handful of bilingual Japanese/English comics published for the language learning market, mostly by Shogakukan.
Fujiko Productions currently plans to release all 45 volumes of Doraemon manga in English as digital-only releases at first, with possibly Spanish releases to follow in 2014. Print-on-demand publishing might follow if the digital releases sell well. While details on price and timing of the first release weren’t revealed, this announcement got many manga fans buzzing with anticipation, as this has long been one of the most requested titles.
Manga 2.5: Is America Ready For High-Def Motion Manga?
Manga 2.5 hopes to introduce manga in English to Western readers with high-definition motion comics sold via the Apple iTunes Movie Store. Manga 2.5 is a joint venture between Happinet, a “wholesaler of entertainment products” like vending machine capsule toys, video games and software and Los Angeles-based Inception Group, a “diversified media group specializing in production, acquisition, and distribution of motion pictures.”
For starters, they’re offering Karasuma Kyoko no Jikenbo (The Case Files of Karasuma Kyoko), a supernatural detective series by Ouji Hiroi and Yusuke Kozaki and Mythical Detective Loki by Sakura Kinoshita for purchase or rent via Apple’s iTune Store and Amazon Instant Video. Each clip offers a full volume of content, roughly an hour or so long, with the manga re-formatted and animated with sound effects, opening/closing credits music, and English voiceovers.
The upside to this approach is that these animated clips are easier to view on smaller format screens like iPhones compared to full-size manga pages. However, the main problem that Manga 2.5 has right out of the gate is that their titles are sold alongside feature-length, live-action and animated movies and TV shows. Some viewers purchased these clips with the expectation that they’d be like an animated movie or TV show, then post some negative reviews on iTunes as a result. Manga 2.5 has the unenviable task of trying to sell a product that’s more than a manga and less than an anime in a digital marketplace that isn’t equipped to showcase hybrid content.
Opportunities, Challenges For Manga Digital Publishing
So what’s on the horizon for digital manga publishing in North America? Trends point to greater global expansion, and possibly more publishers moving to offer their titles on content-hub sites like Comixology or via ePub digital storefronts rather than creating and maintaining their own proprietary apps.
There’s also a strong possibility that more Japanese rights holders will be reaching out directly to Western digital publishers to get their comics translated and sold via storefronts that are not solely controlled by North American publishers. For example, Ishimori Pro is continuing its relationship with Comixology, publishing classic titles by Shotaro Ishinomori like Cyborg 009 and Kamen Rider, with more to come in Fall 2013.
But will there ever be a one-stop shop for all manga titles in English for digital comics readers? Despite setbacks like the closure of JManga, there is demand, and it’s not just from readers in the U.S. and Canada. It’s up to Japan and their partners in North America and beyond to make it happen, because the rest of the world isn’t going to stand still and wait for them to figure it out.