At the ICv2 Conference on Comics & Digital II that preceded New York Comic Con last October, ICv2 CEO and industry analyst Milton Griepp offered a grim take on the manga market: while sales of comics and graphic novels as a whole were up, in his annual white paper on comics publishing, Griepp said that manga sales have declined for the past three years and were down 35% in the first half of 2012.

The next day, as if in some alternate reality, fans dressed as anime and manga characters crowded the halls of the Javits Center, lined up to get autographs from Moyoco Anno, packed a large room to hear Yoshitaka Amano speak, and competed enthusiastically in trivia games to win swag featuring anime and manga characters. What’s going on here? The manga market may be smaller than it was five years ago, but a substantial fanbase remains, and publishers contacted by PW for this article said they are optimistic that the decline has come to an end, that long-awaited digital initiatives are attracting readers, and that the manga market is stabilizing at a new, sustainable level.

Manga: Boom to Decline

The boom in licensed Japanese comics began in the early 2000s when the mall bookstore chain Waldenbooks started carrying manga. “Every one of those Waldenbooks was a billboard to kids,” says Griepp in an interview with PW. “Where do kids go? They don’t go downtown, they go to the mall. “By mid-decade, another factor was in play: anime on television. Naruto began airing on Cartoon Network in 2005 and Bleach in 2006, and each time, sales of the associated manga went up—a phenomenon Griepp’s newsletter, ICv2, dubbed “the Cartoon Network effect.” Manga sales in bookstores and comics shops soared, going from $60 million in 2002 to $210 million in 2007, by Griepp’s estimate.

Then things started to change. Borders, which owned Waldenbooks and was an early pioneer in selling manga in the U.S., shut down its 600-store chain in 2011. The Borders shutdown hit the manga industry hard. “There was a time when publishers told me Borders was half their manga sales,” says Griepp. “That hasn’t been the case for a long time, but they were still a pretty healthy percentage. They all disappeared, and if you look at the overall numbers for Barnes & Noble, they barely picked up any—I’m talking about the overall market [not just manga].”

Meanwhile, anime was also facing issues over its business model and moved away from prime-time TV to streaming over Web sites such as Crunchyroll and Viz Anime, as well as via Netflix, Hulu, and Adult Swim. Around the same time, pirate sites popped up that allowed readers easy (albeit illegal) online access to hundreds of volumes of manga without paying publishers or their artists a dime.

The result: a sharp decline in manga sales. In his 2012 White Paper, Griepp estimated the market at $105 million, half of what it was at its peak in about 2007, and he projected a further decline in 2012. The Borders closure resulted in an odd blip—an uptick in sales—because Borders liquidated its stock at discounted prices. Griepp believes this inflated 2011 sales relative to 2012, resulting in what appears to be an even sharper drop in 2012.

“My vibe is the total audience is smaller than five years ago,” says Griepp. “I base that on the reduced amount of television exposure and also the reduced number of retail outlets. There are now some alternatives where kids find manga online, that has replaced some of those two things, but it is really tough to replace high-rated shows on the Cartoon Network.”

Market Crash or Correction?

In his white paper, Griepp calculated that the number of manga volumes published in North America per year dropped from just over 1,500 in 2007 to 695 in 2011. One reason is that seven manga publishers have gone out of business or at least stopped publishing new manga: ADV Manga, Bandai, Broccoli Books, CMX (a former imprint of DC), Central Park Media, Go! Comi, and Tokyopop, which was once the largest publisher of manga in North America. (Tokyopop continues to sell backlist books, e-books, and print-on-demand books via its Web site, but it is not currently publishing new licensed manga.)

That leaves nine active print manga publishers serving the North American market: Viz Media, Yen Press, Kodansha Comics, Dark Horse, Vertical, Udon Entertainment, Seven Seas, Gen Manga, and Digital Manga (DMI).

PW analyzed the top 750 graphic novels in BookScan for 2011 and 2012. The 2011 numbers came from a spreadsheet published by Brian Hibbs at Comic Book Resources, while the 2012 numbers were provided directly to PW by BookScan. While unit sales of manga were down overall, four publishers showed increased sales: Yen Press, Kodansha, Dark Horse, and Seven Seas. Vertical showed a drop in sales on BookScan but many of its sales are outside the channels that BookScan tracks, and marketing director Ed Chavez says that manga sales were indeed up for the year. DMI had no manga in the BookScan top 750 in 2011 or 2012.

The largest publisher, Viz Media, did see a substantial drop, but Leyla Aker, Viz Media v-p, publishing, says she believes the market has stabilized. “We think that as of calendar 2012 we have hit our steady course,” she says. “There were a couple of years of contractions that led to stabilization at a natural level of sales, which we are anticipating [will continue] going forward.”

Aker cites two reasons for optimism. The first is that the market is now at a more realistic level. “There was a lot of aggressive ordering that was going on by retailers,” she says. “Certainly at the height of the bubble, people were taking everything we were putting out and it couldn’t be ordered fast enough, and that wasn’t sustainable.”

The other is that Viz is publishing fewer books. “The number of our titles is probably about three-quarters of what it once was,” Aker says, “and we don’t think that’s a bad thing. We are at a level now that we are comfortable with in terms of the amount of product we are putting out and the retailer support we are seeing.”

The other publishers were also upbeat. “We had a great 2012,” says Kurt Hassler, publishing director of Yen Press, Hachette’s graphic novel imprint. “Sales are up over the previous year. Licensed manga did especially well for us. We are growing, and we expect to grow even more in 2013.”

Hassler attributes Yen’s success to picking good properties—and avoiding bad ones. “We have been very, very selective in what we introduce into the market, and we have done a very good job of picking titles that perform extremely well,” he says. “By and large, everything we license tends to be profitable in its own right, which is what you want to see. Each title should be holding its own.”

“My personal feeling is that the worst days are behind us,” says Dallas Middaugh, director of publishing services for Kodansha Comics, which launched in May 2011. “I think there is still a lot of opportunity for manga out there, and Sailor Moon [in which a goofy teenage girl discovers she’s a magical warrior] is really doing phenomenally well.”

“Our sales have been growing steadily each year since our inception in 2004,” says Jason DeAngelis, CEO of Seven Seas Entertainment, which publishes its manga via a partnership with its distributor, Tor/Macmillan. “2012 was our biggest year yet across all channels.” DeAngelis says he plans to increase Seven Seas’ manga output by 50% in 2013.

Michael Martens, v-p of book trade sales for Dark Horse, says he doesn’t break out manga sales separately, but sales of Dark Horse comics are up across the board and he believes manga sales are up as well.

At Vertical, which publishes an array of literary and genre titles, Chavez says manga sales are up over last year, when all channels, including comic shops and specialty retailers such as RightStuf, are taken into consideration. “The market seems to be stabilizing and even maturing,” he says.

Dedicated Fans

Manga may not be the mass-market phenomenon it was six years ago, but attendance at anime conventions has risen at a steady pace from 2000 to 2012, which suggests the audience is still there.

Viz’s Aker believes the fanbase is smaller but more engaged. “Five years ago, because all the properties were up on TV and readily available at malls, there was much more of a casual fanbase, people who weren’t necessarily invested in the genre,” she says. “Now it’s people who mainly are really knowledgeable about comics and manga and they love it, so we are seeing a lot of dedicated fandom activity.” Viz sponsors meetups and other activities that bring fans together in the real world. “The readers have this socially connected but physically isolated experience,” she says. “That’s why these cons [conventions] are so huge, because it gives them a chance to physically be with other fans.”

Although he hasn’t done extensive research, Middaugh believes the readers are still fairly young: “I don’t think the demographics of manga have changed dramatically over the last four or five years,” he says. “I still think preteens to teens are our core demographic. Depending on which books we have and how they perform, I still see the audience being 50/50 male/female, possibly skewing more female than male.”

While teenagers may not be finding manga in the mall any more, Aker says, they are continuing to find it in the traditional way: from their friends. “More than anything, what kids read is determined by what other kids are reading,” she says. “Whether in school or clubs, the thing that most predicates them to pick up a book is what other kids think is cool. Number two is online—what is being talked about through social media, which I suppose is the same as friend recommendations.”

Several smaller publishers are targeting older readers. Dark Horse’s swordplay manga sell well in comics shops. DMI specializes in yaoi manga (romances between two males) and recently added hentai (explicit adult titles) manga to its line, and they have run two successful Kickstarter campaigns to publish manga by the late and prolific manga superstar Osamu Tezuka. Vertical also publishes Tezuka titles as well as teen manga, and recently it began publishing josei manga, which is aimed at young women.

In addition, North American indie and small-press graphic novel publishers now actively seek out and publish literary manga, works much like the artists they already publish. Drawn and Quarterly publishes the work of such acclaimed literary manga-ka as Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Shigeru Mizuki; Fantagraphics launched a line of classic manga in 2010; and recently PictureBox, which specializes in publishing innovative literary and experimental indie comics, announced it was launching Ten Cent Manga, a line that will showcase manga influenced by America and other cultures.

PictureBox owner Dan Nadel says that the audience for these books is not the traditional manga reader. “It seems like it’s a lot of the same people reading other PictureBox books and authors like the indie anthology Kramers Ergot, Matthew Thurber, and Sammy Harkham,” he says. “There’s a couple generations of readers hungry for this broadening of the manga narrative.”

Shelf Life

Physical bookstores have historically been the biggest channel for manga. Several publishers say that while Barnes & Noble and Amazon have picked up some of the slack from demise of Borders, bookstore sales overall are still down—not just for manga but for all books.

Hassler, who helped create the manga boom as the graphic novel buyer for the Borders chain from 2000 to 2006, said Yen Press has been reaching out to independent bookstores. “In the past year, we have done a lot of independent bookstore outreach and have seen them going from very little manga to a very significant manga selection and growing that customer base,” he says.

Middaugh says that a “substantial” number of Kodansha’s sales are coming through online bookstores, including Amazon and specialty retailers such as Right Stuf. Dark Horse’s Martens says that higher-priced books, such as omnibus editions that collect multiple volumes of a series, tended to sell better on Amazon, possibly because customers were looking for the online discount.

Several high-profile titles, including Naruto, Bleach, Pokemon, and Sailor Moon, are also being carried by Walmart. Middaugh called Walmart “a key market” for Sailor Moon: “It’s not half of our sales, but it’s a good slice.”

Comics shops—the network of about 2,000 comics specialty shops around the country served by Diamond Comics Distributors—are a smaller piece of the picture. TakeViz Media, which is the biggest graphic novel publisher on BookScan, but has less than a 1% share of the comics retail market, a retail channel traditionally focused on selling the superhero comics category.

Still, comics shops that take manga seriously, such as Toronto’s the Beguiling and Boston’s Comicopia, can attract manga readers, and publishers see potential in the shops. “Diamond and the comic book shops have really been coming through for us over the past year-and-a-half, so we are very happy with our performance in comics shops,” says Middaugh, “and in fact we want to work hard in that channel.” Martens agreed, noting that Dark Horse’s samurai manga and teen-oriented books, such as CLAMP’s Gate 7, do well in comics shops; indeed he pointed to the most recent volume of Dark Horse’s popular Blade of the Immortal, which, he says, sold better in comics shops than in the book market.

Marketing Challenges

Manga has a long tail: the first volumes of Death Note (first published in 2005), Fairy Tail (2008), Hellsing (2003), and Naruto (2003) all sold over 2,200 copies last year, according to BookScan, which suggests new readers are still coming in. The first volume of Black Butler was published in January 2010, but it was Yen Press’s top title in BookScan for 2012, selling just over 15,000 copies. “Everyone is decrying the manga base, but that is a perfect example of an evergreen title,” says Hassler. “Black Butler is our strongest license from Japan. It is every year, every quarter, listed among our top titles.” Similarly, he says, Yen Press’s Azumanga Daioh has sold “well over 20,000 copies,” although it came out years ago and was previously published by ADV. Several Yen titles have sold over 100,000 copies. “The idea that there are no new manga fans is erroneous,” Hassler emphasizes.

At the same time, popular manga series can go on for years and publishers can run into trouble with such long-running properties. “We have been publishing manga for 25 years, and for 19 of those years we have been doing Oh My Goddess and Blade of the Immortal,” says Martens. “The numbers on Oh My Goddess are down because the volume numbers are so high.” The solution is to release older series in two- or three-volume omnibus editions. “The idea is that someone doesn’t have to carry 24 SKUs; they can carry eight,” Martens says.

Hassler says that in-store placement is his most important marketing tool. “Paying for end caps and displays is the best marketing you can do,” he says. “Conventions, newsletters, Facebook— those are effective marketing channels for us [as well].”

Pirates and Scanlations

In October 2011, Middaugh hosted a panel featuring Fairy Tail creator Hiro Mashima at New York Comic Con. Volume 16 of the manga had just been released in the U.S., but members of the audience asked so many questions about later storylines that Middaugh had to ask them twice to stop. While it’s possible that those readers all knew Japanese, it’s more likely they were reading bootleg fan translations, or scanlations.

Before about 2005, scanlations were downloads that passed from fan to van via IRC (Internet relay chat). Finding, downloading, and reading them required a bit of tech savvy and insider knowledge. Then aggregation sites came along that allowed anyone to read bootleg manga in a Web browser., which launched in 2005, was one of the 1,000 most popular sites on the Internet in 2010, with traffic of 4.2 million unique visitors per month—more evidence that the manga audience is still there.

Onemanga no longer carries scanlations, but other sites persist. Many of them gather scanlations from a variety of sites and also carry scans of translated manga. “As soon as the online aggregation started, that’s when you really, really started to see the impact, because it literally became easier to read manga on one of the illegal online aggregators than to get a physical copy,” says Aker.

The popularity of smartphones and other mobile devices has led to a new outlet for pirates. Search for “manga” in the iPad app store and three of the top four results are apps that take manga from bootleg sites. In the Google Play store, the top two manga apps are bootleg manga readers with over 500,000 and 100,000 downloads, respectively; the legitimate Viz app has 50,000, while DMI’s has just 5,000.

Digital Poised for Growth

Digital media allow publishers to bring out books closer to the Japanese releases and partly compensate for the lack of bricks-and-mortar stores. Viz launched its iPad app in November 2010 and followed up with an iPhone/iPod Touch app, an online Web site, and an Android app. It also converted its monthly Shonen Jump magazine to a digital weekly, which carries manga chapters the same week they are released in Japan.

“We are seeing good results so far,” Aker says of Viz’s digital program. “Would we like them to explode and take the place of all the Borders business? Absolutely. They are not going to get there. It’s not just Viz, it’s the industry as a whole. The economics of digital and print work differently. We will continue to see growth on the digital side, but it complements what we are doing with print. We don’t see it as a replacement.”

Yen Press and Kodansha have much smaller digital programs, but both are expanding. Later this year, Yen will begin carrying manga published by Square Enix, the licensor of Black Butler. Kodansha has sped up both digital and print releases of Fairy Tail, releasing two volumes a month digitally and one a month in print—so by the end of the year, the digital releases will be caught up with Japan.

Both Viz and Yen also offer manga for the Nook HD. “People say ‘If there was only one app where I could get everything’—that’s what traditional e-book retailers are,” says Hassler. “That is the first and most obvious place to get our material out rather than branded applications. Everything we have available digitally is on the Nook.”

Digital distribution has been a challenge for manga because print and digital rights are negotiated separately. “Only in the past couple of years could you even have the digital distribution conversation with licensors,” says Hassler, “and for every one of the titles, we have to go back and get the creator’s sign-off on it. If a particular creator says—and we have had this happen—‘I’m not a fan of digital; I don’t want my work distributed digitally,’ we can’t do it.”

Dark Horse carries a selection of new and classic manga on its Dark Horse Digital service, alongside its other comics and graphic novels. It also offers manga via the Kindle and Nook stores. Vertical plans to begin selling selected titles digitally on the Kindle, Nook, and iTunes platforms this spring.

This approach has changed in recent years, but the digital side of the manga market is still in flux. In 2011, a group of 39 Japanese publishers launched the digital manga site JManga, a streaming Web site that carried a wide variety of titles. This venture proved to be short-lived, however; the site has ceased new manga sales and will go dark in May. Gen Manga, a digital and print magazine that publishes manga by emerging creators, uses a download model rather than streaming. Recently, the Gen Manga monthly anthology went on hiatus and the company launched Gen Manhwa, a monthly anthology of Korean comics, which publishes two chapters per month of an ongoing manhwa (or Korean comic). Gen Manga publisher Robert McQuire said he will publish “multiple tankobons [book-format graphic novels] this year,” and just announced a print distribution deal with Diamond Book Distributors.

True to its name, Digital Manga has the biggest digital footprint, offering manga via its own Web site, iOS and Android apps, the digital store comiXology, Kindle, and Nook. DMI faces some unique problems, however. Many of its books are sexually explicit, which limits the distribution channel, and their largest licensor of Yaoi Libre is now licensing to Viz as well.

Manga’s Persistence

The manga market may be smaller, but the publishers who remain are optimistic about the future.

“In Japan, manga is everywhere,” says Kumi Shimizu, general manager of Kodansha Comics. “Everyone reads it, from little kids to adults. In the United States, you have a population three times that of Japan, but the manga market size is just 1/25th of the Japanese manga market. One of our goals is for the U.S. market to become like the Japanese market.”

“The audience never left,” says Hassler. “The people catering to the audience may lose faith in it but the audience is still there. I do think that fact that you have anime and manga conventions growing is a good indicator of that, and if people chose not to capitalize on it, that’s a missed opportunity.”