In the wake of an alliance of Japanese and U.S. manga publishers determined to put a stop to illegal scanlations, publishers are trying to figure out how to reach the ever-growing number of fans who consume manga in digital formats before the manga pirates do it for them. Crunchyroll, an online aggregator of Japanese anime, Korean soap operas and Hong Kong action flicks, is currently developing a manga app for its site; while Yen Press, the Hachette Book Group’s manga and graphic novel unit, has relaunched Yen Plus, formerly a monthly print magazine that previewed their manga releases, into a for-pay online magazine offering the same content for $2.99 a month.

In addition Viz Media, DMP, Netcomics and SquareEnix North America are also either experimenting with online access or in the process of developing sites where fans can read chapters of their favorite manga. However, since the introduction of Apple’s iPad, and the proven power of the iPhone, the downloadable app has become a key focus for reaching digital consumers.

Having sailed through its infancy, the U.S. manga market is showing some growing pains along the path to maturity. No longer an underground fad traded over bittorrent, where it found a home via fans who posted scanlations—scanned art and amateur translations posted online for free—manga claimed a significant share of the U.S. graphic novels market representing close to 50% of all graphic novels sales over the past 6 years. However, in order for this sector to maintain its share of the U.S. graphic novel market, the black market economy surrounding scanlations had to be challenged. Since its inception in June, an alliance of anti-scanlation manga publishers in Japan and the U.S. appear to have stopped the posting of illegal manga scanlations on OneManga, one of the largest aggregator sites of digitally pirated manga in the world. However, MangaFox, another large scale aggregator of illegal scans, continues to host scanlations of unlicensed and some licensed manga titles. Both sites continue to maintain forums where visitors and fans can discuss their favorite series.

“Everyone wants to get online,” says Crunchyroll’s Kun Gao of Crunchyroll, which is currently developing a downloadable app for digitized manga which it plans to license out to manga publishers in the U.S. “This is about having existing parties in each local market leverage their brand to their users using our platform,” says Gao.

The Crunchyroll website has both free content and paid subscriptions and attracts over six million viewers per month. It’s worth noting that Crunchyroll’s founders are all computer science engineers. “We bring the technology,” Gao says. “That’s our core value and strength.” However, while Crunchyroll has succeeded in growing its viewership and attracting private investors, generating revenue by way of digital distribution for manga is still unproven.

“It’s still very early to say,” Kurt Hassler, publishing director at Yen Press, a member of the anti-scanlation alliance, referring to effort to offer legal digital access to manga content. Hassler recognizes the potential in digitizing manga for consumers, but the methodology and business models needed to support it is still to be determined. “I can’t say that one model stands out, there may be multiple ways to go,” he said.

Yen Press recently moved their manga anthology magazine, Yen Plus, online where fans can read chapters from their favorite manga. The content on the Yen Plus website is currently free, and will transition to a paid subscription model next month.

For Gao and Crunchyroll, what differentiates their forthcoming manga app and their entry point into offering digital access to manga content is their partner, Bitway, a Japanese digital distribution company focused on manga that has relationships with many of Japan’s key publishers. Gao says that licensees of the Crunchyroll manga app have the option of having Bitway negotiate the rights to a digital license for the desired manga. Since manga licenses are unbundled, publishers in the U.S. who have rights to the printed material have to conduct additional negotiations for the digital rights to the same material. Enlist the help of Bitway, Gao explains, and a Bitway representative does the negotiation instead.

“It’s completely up to publishers whether or not they use [Bitway services],” says Gao, “but we have a good business proposition for them to enable their digital solutions.” The Crunchyroll partnership with Bitway also means that anyone with enough capital to start up a digital manga distribution company can acquire digital distribution rights to manga whose print license belongs to a traditional book publisher.

“We’re open to working with new businesses as well as existing businesses,” Gao explains. “If new partners want to come on board, they can launch their own portal using our platform and Bitway’s content. There’s a great solution here for everyone.”

The Crunchyroll manga app is already in development and Gao predicts that they will have something ready by the end of 2010. “The manga audience really likes their content and once they’re involved, they want to get more involved. They’re likely to buy every day or every week. They’ll buy frequently. We want to build a platform that will enable that consumption.”

Nevertheless, Hassler points to similar apps like those from Comixology, a comics news and resource site and app developer, which are already available and which cater to American comics as well as manga. “American publishers have gone [the digital] route, but I don’t have any knowledge of what kind of revenue it’s creating,” Hassler says. “Everyone’s still exploring right now. It’s difficult to say whether it’s a good idea.”