Last week the Digital Comics Association, a group of 39 Japanese manga publishers, launched the web manga portal JManga.com with plans to make a catalog of 10,000 titles available by 2013. The site serves both as a promotional vehicle for publishers and a destination site for readers looking for manga they can read and buy online.
Conceived as an industry-sponsored effort to promote manga culture and to offer an alternative to Web sites offering pirated manga, the JManga site launched with about 48 full-length volumes and about 107 previews (including that original 48) and 168 listings altogether. The site offers free access to selected works as well as an online store offering for-pay titles. The much anticipated site was previewed at the San Diego Comic-Con with five of the most prominent manga publishers in Japan on hand to announce the launch of the site.
“The goal of JManga is to promote manga and manga culture to as wide an audience as possible,” said JManga business manager Robert Newman. “JManga is for die hard manga fans just as much as it is for those completely new to manga.” The initial launch was for U.S. and Canadian users only, but Newman said there are plans to expand “in the near future.”
While other legitimate online manga sites are tied to individual publishers, JManga carries manga from a variety of different sources and serves as an entry point for readers, providing a mix of content and links to other digital manga sites. Some manga are available to read on the site, while for others, the site simply offers a catalog listing or a free preview (sometimes in Japanese). If manga is available digitally on other websites, such as Vizmanga.com, the catalog listing includes a pointer to that site, as well as links for purchase of print editions.
“We've been supplying JManga with assets for the free previews of our titles, and links to VIZManga.com for a quick and easy purchase to read the whole volume—or series, for that matter,” said Alvin Lu, senior vice president and general manager of Viz Media. As for whether the site would ever carry full-length volumes of Viz manga, Lu said, “It's something we're discussing right now.”
Manga fans on Twitter and manga blogs gave the site high marks for including quirky manga that are unlikely to be licensed in English in any other way, but many balked at the standard price of $8.99 per volume. “The selection is good but not amazing, and the pricing scheme is too high to compete with scanlations,’ said Kate Dacey on her blog, The Manga Critic. “I'm just torn about #JManga. I like their selection so far, but I'm loath to spend much money for something I don't own,” tweeted Brian Ruh; the “don’t own” comment refers to the fact that the site offers streaming manga only, with no opportunity to download books—so if the site ever goes offline, readers will lose all the books they “bought.”
That may change when JManga goes forward with plans for versions for mobile devices. “We already have a demo version iOS app that synchs with users' accounts on JManga.com, but we do not have a concrete date for its launch,” Newman said. “We are also interested in other platforms and plan on making it as convenient as possible for readers to enjoy manga whenever they want, wherever they are [on] whatever device they like.”
The Digital Comics Association includes Kodansha, which has a print publishing arm in the U.S., and Shogakukan, one of the parent companies of Viz Media, as well as a number of smaller publishers, many of whom regularly license manga in the U.S.
The site includes a number of series that were published in the U.S. by publishers that have since folded, including Tokyopop, Go Comi, and CMX. Others are new to U.S. readers, and the site includes some quirky titles that are unlikely to be licensed any other way, such as Ekiben Hibobatori, the story of a man who travels around Japan by train sampling the bento lunches available in train stations, and Anesthesiologist Hana, a medical drama. The selection also includes some manga that are currently licensed to U.S. publishers, including Kodansha USA, Yen Press, and NBM Publishing. A weekly “magazine,” JWeekly, will feature a free chapter of three different manga; this week’s includes the first chapters of Naruto, Survival: Another Story, and an all-ages adaptation of Sherlock Holmes.
“It's an impressive launch, said Lu. “Nice way to see the breadth of manga that's being published in Japan and to see all those Japanese publishers directly represented in English. This looks to be a foundation for Japanese publishers to bring attention to new or overlooked manga titles in English and other languages.”
The site has a definite Japanese feel: Many titles are left untranslated, and the manga are organized by Japanese demographic divisions: shonen (boys), shoujo (girls), seinen (young men), josei (young women), and kodomo (children). Former manga editor Jake Forbes thinks the site makes a poor first impression for general readers. “The landing page is littered with covers that are heavy in Japanese text,” he said. “At first glance, I have no way of telling that this site is actually English books that I can read. He also found the mix of American and Japanese trade dress on the covers of the books “jarring.”
Readers pay for full volumes of manga via a points system. Each point costs about a penny, and users who sign up for a monthly subscription at $10 per month get an extra 50 bonus points; in addition, JManga is currently running a promotion giving 500 additional points to readers who sign up now. A typical volume costs 899 points, or about $8.99, although there is some variation. This is high for U.S. readers; the standard price for a volume of Viz manga (which can be downloaded and read on a number of different platforms) is $4.99, the streaming-only Square Enix site charges $5.99 per volume, and Digital Manga Publishing’s eManga.com site, also streaming only, charges $4.99 or less for most books. Yen Press is the only U.S. publisher that charges $8.99 per volume for digital manga.
The site includes bonus content, such as interviews with manga creators, and Newman stressed that the JManga organizers are very interested in hearing feedback from fans. Plans for a forum are in the works, he said.
One purpose of the site is to provide an alternative for readers who are currently using bootleg manga sites. There are generally three reasons why readers use bootleg sites: The manga are not available in English, the manga are not licensed for the reader’s home country, and the manga are free. JManga addresses the first problem by providing new manga in familiar and unfamiliar genres, and as it expands to other countries, it will address the second problem as well. Price, however, may remain a sticking point.
“As manga's biggest audience in North America is teens who might not be able (or willing) to pull out a credit card to read online, the site really needs a better freemium model,” said Forbes. “I'd look at successful freemium games for teens where the perks of paying gives prestige in the community. Or, at a minimum, a spotify/mog/rhapsody style unlimited subscription plan instead of nickel-and-diming by the chapter.”
On the other hand, Newman said, the site offers assets that others cannot. “Our priority is to provide a quality service that offers readers the opportunity to enjoy manga online in a legal manner that is beneficial to the readers as well as the publishers and artists that make manga a reality. JManga is also a place where fans will be able to find accurate information directly from the Japanese publishers as well as special feature content such as manga artists interviews that only an official site can provide.” And, he added, “Though the Digital Comic Association of Japan hopes that illegal sites will stop on their own, further legal action is being planned.”
“The global manga business is not at all like the U.S. comics business—it's going to have to find its own solutions to the digital question,” said Lu. “With JManga, VIZManga.com and our iOS apps, and all the other participants now and to come publishing legal digital manga in English, we're just at the beginning stages, but it's a very exciting time. Think about what's out now compared to just 6 months ago. A lot's happening, a lot of thought and energy is being put into this—that's pretty great.”