It’s 2014, and for North American manga publishers, the digital revolution is well underway. Where there once were only a handful of publishers offering their titles online or via e-book apps, now almost all of them are offering, or negotiating to offer at least some of their current and backlist manga via their own Web sites/proprietary iOS or Android apps, or e-book platforms like Amazon Kindle, Apple iBookstore, Nook, or comics-centric platforms like Comixology.
Digital offerings once thought almost impossible, such as same-day and date releases of online and print editions, simultaneous publication of the English version on the same day that it hits the newsstands in Japan, and offering comics to readers beyond North America, are all now part of many companies’ digital publishing strategies.
In 2013, new players entered the arena (Crunchyroll Manga, an online portal for streamed anime and manga), several forged new partnerships (Udon and Seven Seas with Comixology) and expanded their reach to readers beyond North America. Viz Media began offering titles to readers in French via Comixology’s distribution deal with Viz Media Europe and Kaze, its French-language subsidiary. Kodansha Comics ramped up day and date releases of the popular series Attack on Titan and Fairy Tail to catch up North American fans with Japan. Even digital holdouts like Last Gasp and Fantagraphics are in the midst of negotiations to offer manga titles digitally in 2014.
Almost all publishers report steady sales growth, though many concede that print is still the primary source of revenue. “[Digital sales] vary according to title, but at the most, it would be one-tenth of total sales,” says Michael Gombos, director of Asian licensing at Dark Horse Comics. “Often times, it can be seen as more as a marketing vehicle than a way to generate revenue. Our licensors recognize this. One licensor who is very involved in [getting] digital publishing licensing fees lowered, said, ’It’s not like this is a way to make lots of money.’ ”
Nevertheless, every publisher confirmed that it is committed to expanding its digital publishing efforts in 2014.
Gagan Singh, executive v-p and CTO at Viz Media, adds that the company’s digital-first/print later releases have enjoyed healthy sales that haven’t affected sales of the print. For example, the first volume of Nisekoi: False Love, a romantic comedy featured in Weekly Shonen Jump, was released digitally in November 2012, but the first print edition hit the shelves in January 2014.
“Nisekoi has had an amazing reception in North America, and has been one of our top digital sellers,” says Singh. “Print sales don’t seem to be affected, which supports what we’ve seen in the past: the audience for digital and print are somewhat different, and the crossover is relatively small. Anecdotally, we’re hearing of some fans who purchase both print and digital copies of their favorite series, one to read and one to collect. Ultimately, it all comes down to content— a story with strong characters and a great plot will attract fans no matter the medium.”
So that’s the good news. North American manga publishers have come a long way from the days when the only way to read manga online was via pirate/scanlation Web sites. There’s now more manga than ever available in almost every format, for every device and every reader, from kids to adults
But there is still lots to be done for this digital revolution to fully take hold. Challenges remain to the digital manga market from online piracy, a fragmented marketplace, title availability, and a vastly underserved library market.
Many publishers are executing an “all of the above” strategy for digital publishing, by pushing out as many titles as possible via various platforms. However, from a reader/buyer’s point of view, the digital manga market is still incredibly fragmented.
While more and more publishers are offering a larger selection of titles on popular e-book platforms like iBookstore, Kindle, Nook, and Comixology, many titles are only available via a single publisher’s Web site or proprietary app. Availability on different e-book platforms varies wildly. Some offer DRM-free downloads, while others offer their most popular titles on their proprietary apps. Apple and Amazon have made it clear that they aren’t comfortable with offering risqué comics content like yaoi (aka boys’ love) or hentai (explicit erotic) manga. And several titles are region-restricted, meaning that due to licensing constraints, they aren’t available to all readers worldwide.
Browsing and discovery is also challenging. If you want to buy or read all of the manga titles available in English today, you have to have several devices and/or read them via various apps or Web sites. Even titles from a single publisher can have varied availability from platform to platform. For example, Digital Manga offers a handful of titles via the Comixology and iBooks marketplaces, but many of its titles are only available via the eManga Web site and apps.
The way things are now, there’s no way for a reader to have a single, central library of digital manga from every publisher available with a single sign-in to a service or app.
Just as many manga readers preferred to browse and buy their manga in bookstores rather than comic shops, the same holds true in the digital space. Overall, the selection is better and more frequently stocked with the latest releases in digital bookshops like the iBookstore, Kindle and Nook retail platforms or the individual publishers’ Web site and apps, rather than the Western comic shop-centric offerings from the dominant digital comics vendor Comixology, which currently has a relatively small (but growing) selection of Japanese manga.
As for browsing and discovery, one only has to try entering any manga title into Google to see the problem that many publishers have with search engine optimization (SEO). Nine out of 10 times, readers typing in any given manga title into a search engine will find themselves directed to a pirate/scanlation Web site, not the official publishers’ Web site.
Manga magazines, online subscription portals usually offering serialized manga, have experienced ups and downs in 2013 as well. While Viz Media began offering Weekly Shonen Jump magazine digitally in the U.K., Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand and ramped up releases of their weekly English-language manga magazine to publish simultaneously with the Japan newsstand street date, Yen Press announced that the December 2013 issue of Yen Plus, their online manga anthology, would be its last. Newcomer Sparkler Monthly debuted with a femme-friendly mix of comics and light novels, while indie digital-first upstart GEN Manga is shifting gears to focus on offering its titles in print.
As for digital offerings for libraries, well, it needs some work. A handful of publishers mention that they’re either negotiating with digital vendors, or have a handful of titles available via Overdrive and iVerse. However, concerns about a less-than-thrilling revenue stream in relation to the effort required, plus “quality issues” due to file-size restrictions, will need to be addressed before more publishers make more manga available this way.
Clearly, there’s been a lot of progress made in the past two years, but there is still a lot of work to do to wean readers away from pirate/scanlation Web sites to get their manga fix.
So where are things now, and what’s on the horizon for 2014 for digital manga? Here’s a sampling what some of North America’s publishers are saying about what’s working and what’s next.
For Western/American comics in English, the top app and platform in North America is Comixology. But as Comixology CEO David Steinberger puts it, the company is setting its sights on expanding its reach to other countries, other languages, and other genres.
“Comixology’s mission is to bring comics to everyone, everywhere. We’re committed to reflecting the diversity of the medium—whether that is single-issue comic books, graphic novels, bandes dessinées, or manga.” With recent sales results revealing that 51% of the Comixology user base now currently originates outside of North America, Steinberger adds, “Comixology constitutes the largest marketplace of fans of sequential narrative in the world helping Comixology become a top-10–grossing iPad app in 2011 and 2012 and the top-grossing non-game iPad app in 2012 and 2013 in the U.S. Worldwide, we’re also the #1 top-grossing iPad book app in France, Belgium, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom for 2013 and the #1 top-grossing book app in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, India, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, and many other countries.”
Digital Manga Publishing has also started offering a handful of its titles in other languages, including German, French, and Spanish.
While most of the big players in North America’s comics publishing business now offer their titles via Comixology, manga publishers have been a bit slower to get on board with this comics-centric site. As of today, Comixology offers manga primarily from six publishers: Digital Manga Publishing, Harlequin (via DMP), Seven Seas Manga, Udon, TokyoPop, and a direct-to-digital deal with Ishimori Productions for several series by manga legend Shotaro Ishinomori.
For Canada-based Udon, choosing Comixology for digital distribution partner was its best option. “For us, the upfront investment on creating a stand-alone app didn’t make sense from a cost/benefit perspective,” says Christopher Butcher, Udon’s director of marketing. “Comixology was doing the best job of putting traditional comics in a digital format in front of readers, and I think they still are.”
A significant chunk of Comixology’s manga offerings are from Digital Manga Publishing, a California-based publisher that operates the eManga Web site, but according to DMP marketing lead Yoko Tanigaki, the process is not without its hiccups. “It’s [been] slow going for them to process our titles to go on sale on their platform. We sent them a batch of 300–400 titles two years ago, and not all of them are up yet,” she says. “I’m guessing their “Guided Panel to Panel Viewing” technology [a feature of Comixology digital comics that allows fans to easily read panel by panel on small devices] may have a lot of manual work behind it, or manga takes a back seat in priority based on sales, or deals they make with bigger fish.”
Would Vertical consider publishing its manga through Comixology? Ed Chavez, Vertical’s director of marketing, says “No, we are not. That disappoints not only me, but the company. We have an exclusive distribution partnership with Random House, and until they settle their situation with Comixology, we do not know when we’ll be able to proceed with them. We hope that gets resolved soon because we really feel that would be a boon for us.”
Today, readers looking for the largest selection of Japanese manga from various publishers are discovering more and more titles via three primary online booksellers/platforms: Apple iBooks, Amazon Kindle, and Barnes & Noble Nook.
Yen Press, Kodansha, Viz, and Kodansha began offering a larger selection of their current titles on iBookstore and Kindle in 2013, and are adding more every week. In Kodansha’s case, it opted to retire their iPad and iPhone apps in favor of offering its titles primarily through Amazon and iBookstore.
“Kodansha Comics iOS app was a great way to read our manga but it was too limited in its reach,” says Dallas Middaugh, director of publisher services at Random House, Kodansha’s distribution partner, who points to problems around displaying Japanese manga, which reads from right to left. “As we were considering the creation of Android and Web apps in 2011, we learned that all of the major e-book platforms were finally going to work with right-to-left reading and page turns. Believe it or not, this was one of the major holdups preventing us from releasing our books on [certain platforms]. Faced with the options to either develop our own apps across multiple platforms or to partner with the major e-book retailers, the best decision was clear to us.”
According to Kurt Hassler, publishing director at Yen Press, Hachette’s manga and conventional graphic novel imprint, “Our experience has been that our sales through traditional e-tailers have been more robust than sales through our proprietary app—which makes sense because these outlets are able to offer a far wider selection than any individual publisher can offer through their catalogue.” But like Dark Horse, Viz, and DMP, Yen Press sees its app as an important part of their digital publishing strategy. “We will absolutely continue to offer titles through our iOS app in 2014, and have plans to update the users’ experience with the app this year. “
Was this ramp-up to offer more titles digitally a response to fan demand? To combat piracy? To reach more readers? “Yes to all three,” Middaugh replies. “The demand for manga in the U.S. is on the rise both in print and digital, and it only makes sense for us to make our books available on as many platforms as we can. There has certainly been fan demand for us to expand our offerings, and yes, we do hope that offering a legal alternative to piracy will help ethical readers make the best decisions they can to support the mangaka [Japanese manga artists] whose works they love so much.”
While making a large array of titles available on various platforms can reach more readers, sometimes availability comes down to three factors: licensing constraints, content concerns, and staffing resources.
Singh concedes that publishing on numerous platforms can mean a significant investment in time, effort, and money for a publisher like Viz Media: “This process does require a tremendous amount of coordination, but it has proven very successful. Consumers today want choices and the maximum amount of flexibility on how they download and enjoy their manga content. The Viz Manga platform, accessed through the proprietary app and through Vizmanga.com, offers the core fan a one-stop shop for all their manga needs,” says Singh. “By partnering with Kindle, Nook, iBook and GooglePlay, we broaden our reach and draw the casual readers.”
From Dark Horse’s perspective, Gombos breaks it down this way: “What title is available is contingent on so many factors: whether or not our contract with the licensor allows it; whether or not our contract with a certain platform/company has proceeded that far; whether the files have been sent to that company for their use; etc. With thousands of Dark Horse titles and limits on manpower, we’re doing what we can, but there is an order to things.”
Time was with also a factor in Udon’s efforts to expand its offerings on other platforms. “We’re not exclusive with Comixology, and we’d happily consider working with other content providers and on other platforms,” says Butcher. But as Udon marketing manager Stacy King adds, “Finding time to build those relationships has been our biggest stumbling block, unfortunately.”
The other downside to working with digital publishing partners is that the publisher and creator get a smaller cut of the cover price. For DMP, “We are now in the stage where our own publishing platform, eManga.com, will be our primary #1 platform, and all other platforms, apps devices, become secondary,” says Tanigaki. “Another factor for many publishers is the big cut that platforms like Apple, Kindle, and Comixology take, so it makes sense to try to find ways to counter that.”
While most publishers report that print is king, there are several direct-to-digital manga publishers that are staking their claim with online readers, including 2013 newcomer Crunchyroll Manga.
Launching with a handful of titles from Kodansha Japan, Crunchyroll Manga now offers 26 manga series, from Kodansha, Futabasha, and Shonen-gahosha, and, according to Robert Newman, the company “is looking forward to adding more publishers and manga series soon.”
Offering “all you can eat” manga on a flat-rate, monthly subscription basis, plus publishing the latest chapters at the same time as Japan, Crunchyroll Manga is making the most of its connection/co-location on Crunchyroll.com, one of the leading Web sites for streaming anime. Beside enjoying the built-in readership of Crunchyroll’s anime subscribers, Crunchyroll Manga is also able to co-promote the manga alongside the anime that they’re streaming.
“We work closely with the content providers to decide on tiles, and we consider a number of factors when selecting titles for Crunchyroll Manga, like whether or not the title has been adapted into an anime and has an existing fan base on Crunchyroll,” says Newman.
While some titles cannot be read by readers in certain countries, says Newman, “the publishers and content providers that we have been working with have been very aggressive with many titles being made available worldwide excluding only Japan. Even for titles with more territory restrictions we are still able to simulpub them in over 180 countries.”
Also worth noting is that a small but growing group of Japanese manga creators have opted to go direct-to-digital, skipping the usual route of licensing their work to North American publishers to localize, print, and distribute their comics.
In fall 2013, Fujio F. Fujiko Productions began releasing Doraemon, one of the most popular kids’ comics in Japan, in English via Amazon Kindle. Tokyo-based Manga Reborn added several titles by Moyoco Anno (Sakuran), Shuho Sato (Give My Regards to Black Jack), and shojo manga pioneer Machiko Satonaka to its site. Ishimori Pro, which handles the works of “the King of Manga” Shotaro Ishinomori, is offering some of his works via Comixology and Finland-based Amimaru. Meanwhile, Digital Manga is proceeding with its direct-to-digital publication plans for over 250 manga titles by the acclaimed and influential mangaka, Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy), with the first title to be available via eManga in May 2014.
Indie publisher GEN Manga is taking a different approach by publishing manga that is “created for Western audiences” first. As GEN publisher Robert McGuire explains it, “ Let’s look at the present publishing model: that is, to let Japanese publishers fetter the work first. Why? Should it be that way? No, it shouldn’t. But why can’t Western readers be allowed to develop their own market?”
While most publishers have their roots in print first and adopted digital over time, GEN started out as a digital publisher that is shifting its focus to print. “Instead of continuing to offer a dual digital and print magazine every month on multiple platforms, we now only offer a digital subscription to our Web site,” says McGuire. “Readership trends caused us to focus more on our individual books,” which are now available via Diamond Book Distribution.
Early digital adopters like DMP and TokyoPop experimented with apps and cell-phone comics. But some publishers held back until the publishing technology could offer them the image quality, reading experience, and readership that would make it worth their while.
San Francisco–based publisher Last Gasp is only now announcing that it will make its books available in digital format in “late 2014,” with manga titles to follow “sometime in 2014-15.” Why did Last Gasp opt to “join the digital party” now? According to publisher Colin Turner, “it’s because so many of our books are visual and didn’t translate well to previous e-book formats. But now the readers are sufficient to at least represent the art well. We want to make sure that customers are rewarded with a high-quality digital product.”
Noted U.S. indie comics publisher Fantagraphics Books, which specializes in equally indie or “literary” manga titles, has a handful of its titles available on Comixology, but so far none of its award-winning manga titles, like Wandering Son or Heart of Thomas. But, according to Fantagraphics’ Jen Vaughn, this will be changing soon. “[Fantagraphics publisher] Gary [Groth] is speaking to the Japanese publishers of our manga about releasing the titles digitally, but no agreement or dates have been made yet.” Jacq Cohen, Fantagraphics director of publicity and promotion, adds, “It will happen. We are just working out the details. As soon as we are able to offer our manga titles digitally, we will do so right.”
So what are the takeaways from publishers in this middle stage of the digital manga revolution? Watch and adapt to changes in this rapidly developing technology space, be flexible, and go where the readers are.
“Since the big digital rush started in 2009, DMP’s philosophy was to take the all of the above strategy, says Tanigaki. “We called it the ‘more the better’ strategy. We won’t completely abandon this, however, as the market starts to change, we will change with it.”