The news last week that Viz Media had laid off as many as 60 employees, about 40 percent of the company's total staff, took many observers by surprise but did not lead to doomsday predictions among industry watchers.
Viz spokesperson Jane Lui reiterated this week that the company has no plans to cancel any series or product lines, and they expect to maintain their current manga, anime, and movie release schedules and attend San Diego Comic-Con, as previously planned. While Viz has not confirmed the names of those who have been laid off, the comics news and culture blog, The Beat, reports that v-p of sales Gonzalo Ferreyra and senior director of publicity Evelyn Dubocq are no longer with the company.
The San Francicso-based company is jointly owned by three Japanese companies, the publishers Shueisha and Shogakukan and their licensing division, Shogakukan-Shueisha Productions. With consistent best-sellers like Naruto, One Piece, and Vampire Knight, Viz dominates the manga market in terms of volumes released and market share.
But the pie Viz has such a large slice of is shrinking. Manga sales dropped in 2009 for the second year in a row, Milton Greipp reported in his ICv2 White Paper at C2E2 in April, for a total drop of about one-third since 2007. Greipp gave several possible reasons for the drop: Less anime is being shown on television, depriving manga of the additional boost he once termed "the Bleach effect," and teenage girls are not staying with the medium as they get older, while younger readers are turning to Twilight rather than manga for their fix.
As bookseller and commentator Matt Blind observed on his blog, Rocket Bomber, "We’re in a recession; the news isn’t that Viz reported layoffs, but that they held on for 2 years before they had to."
For former Tokyopop editor Tim Beedle, who lost his job during Tokyopop's 2008 layoffs, the news brought an unwelcome sense of déjà vu. "My heart immediately went out to the people who had lost their jobs," he said. "I was pretty shocked at how big the cuts were. I'd heard whispers from a few friends over there that something like this might be coming, but I can't help but wonder if they realized it would be this big. To know you're at the top of your industry and still experience something like that is very sobering."
Ed Chavez, the marketing director for Vertical, Inc., theorized that some of the layoffs may have been due to redundancy: "I'm just speculating, but Shojo Beat magazine is not around, so staff that could have been used for the mag—editors, production, content writers, advertising and marketing—might no longer be needed," he said.
"Personally I am not overly concerned about Viz's viability," he continued. "I think they are still going to be as strong as ever. If anything, every publisher out there needs to be concerned with finding good titles in the future, and Viz is expanding in that regard. They are picking up titles that are going to appeal to more audiences, different audiences, whether it's Signature or their kids line or Shonen Sunday. Hopefully as a leaner company they will be able to look closely at the content they already have and really value what is out there, not just release titles that Shueisha and Shogakukan say they have to release but release titles this market is demanding."
Blogger Gia Manry agreed. "I think of all the manga companies, Viz has the strongest reputation as being the most bottom-line oriented, which has been my experience as well," she said. "As such I really see this move as a sign of what Viz's forecasters think is to come—even tighter times for anime and manga licensors in North America—rather than a sign of some past or present problem within Viz itself."
While Viz has dominated the best-seller charts with titles aimed at teenagers, their more literary manga don't seem to have sold as well; none of the books in their Signature imprint was among Bookscan's top 750 sellers for 2009. Still, blogger Kate Dacey doesn't think Viz should give up on older and younger readers. "Going forward, I think Viz would be wise to focus on the imprints that serve pre-teen and adult audiences," she said. "I doubt VizKids or SigIkki will ever be as profitable as the Shonen Jump or Shojo Beat lines, but it makes good business sense to court book-buyers with disposable income—namely parents and manga fans in their twenties, thirties, and forties. I also think Viz could be doing more to promote its edgier titles in comic book stores; for many Western comic fans, Biomega, Bokurano: Ours, I'll Give It My All... Tomorrow, and 20th Century Boys could be an excellent introduction to the medium, as the artwork doesn't scream "manga" in the same way that many Shonen Jump titles do."
"I don't think Viz has made too many missteps along the way, and I don't believe any of their decisions [are responsible] for these layoffs," said Chavez. "In general, for publishing as a whole this has been a really difficult year. That alone is bound to impact on many ways. I just hope that they don't drastically change what they have been doing because they make up so much of the manga market. Something really drastic that doesn't work out could really impact the rest of the market significantly."
Manry doesn't see that happening. "I don't think Viz is fighting a losing battle," she said. "I should preface that I'm always an optimist, but I think that the industry in Japan will find its digital footing with anime and manga, which will result in North American companies being able to monetize digital more effectively, especially if we build new fans from upcoming titles like Dragon Ball Z Kai and Kekkaishi—hopefully ones who'll be willing to get their anime and manga from those legal digital sources.
"If I'm right, then the name of the game is 'waiting.' Companies who can keep lean but stay in the fandom's eye with solid releases should come out the other end."