Despite a serious downturn in the U.S. economy and a 20% drop in sales last year, manga, or Japanese comics, still represents more than $140 million in sales and continues to be a significant niche in the American comics market. Yen Press, Hachette's manga/graphic novel imprint, dominates the New York Times manga bestseller list with such works as Black Butler and the Twilight and Maximum Ride manga adaptations, and independent comics publisher Dark Horse reports sales of its manga have grown 13% this year. (Figures on the size of the manga market courtesy ICv2.com)
Still, it's clear that the American manga market is in the midst of a shakeout. Last month, Viz Media, one of the largest U.S. manga publishers, laid off 40% of its staff; DC Comics shut down its manga imprint, CMX; and indie manga publishers Go! Comi and Aurora Publishing quietly shut their doors as well. Clearly, the market is not what it was during the boom years of 2000–2006, and manga publishers have been forced to become creative in finding ways to survive a tough economy.
Indeed, the launch of a coalition of Japanese and U.S.-based manga publishers focused on fighting "scanlations," or scanned and translated copies of manga illegally posted online without the permission of copyright holders, shows an industry determined to survive and fight a growing threat. Scanlations were originally placed online by fans at a time when it was difficult to find manga outside Japan, and many publishers believed they seeded the U.S. market and attracted new readers. But in recent years, the practice has been dominated by "scanlation aggregators," sites that host thousands of illegally scanned manga editions, offering them to read for free. These sites attract millions of readers and generate revenue for the sites through advertising.
"Our fundamental stance is that scanlations are hurting our industry, not just North American localization but the global manga industry," said Alvin Lu, v-p, book publishing, at Viz Media, a member of the new anti-scanlation coalition along with such major Japanese houses as Kodansha, Square Enix, Shueisha and Shogakukan. Other members include U.S. manga houses Yen Press, Vertical Inc. and Tokyopop.
The announcement is also an acknowledgment of the growing digital revolution in book publishing and publisher plans for legal digital distribution in a category crowded with digital bootlegs.
"We're dipping our toe in the water," Lu said. Viz Media distributes a select list of manga over two Web sites: Shonen Sunday for teen readers, and SigIkki for mature and experimental manga. Lu said that the company is looking into the various e-reader devices, and also has a Web site, Viz Anime, that offers whole episodes of anime series. Viz will also start streaming anime from Japan—a model that Lu said the company is exploring for manga as well. "We're beginning various efforts for simultaneous English/Japanese publishing on our Shonen Sunday and Ikki sites."
Two years ago, independent Los Angeles manga publisher Digital Manga Publishing launched its eManga Web site, where visitors could rent or buy digital versions of its manga. DMP's president and CEO, Hikaru Sasahara, said revenue is still small, but has been gradually increasing. "We took a very aggressive approach," he said.
But Japanese publishers—the majority of U.S. manga is licensed from Japanese houses—have been very slow to address digital publishing, quite possibly because of the pirated scans. Add to that the tough negotiations required by licensees to get digital rights, which are not included in Japanese print publishing contracts, a process Sasahara described as "tedious." He said "big [publishing] companies in Japan are very conservative about new media. They always want to do it on their own, and they are very, very slow."
However, Sasahara is not a part of the anti-manga piracy alliance, and he does not believe that piracy is the problem. He thinks the licensing process has become prohibitively expensive and overly restrictive for U.S. licensees, and that the U.S. manga market is so small—manga is a $5 billion industry in Japan—that scanlations help bring in new readers. He's quick to add that he is not endorsing scanlation but he also believes publishers need to find a way to exploit the huge traffic on scanlation sites. "There's one million people visiting those sites," Sasahara said, "that's a big demand." Likewise, Dark Horse, publisher of American and Japanese comics, doesn't see scanlation as a problem. "I don't think scanlations can account for such a precipitous drop [in manga sales]," said Michael Martens, v-p, new business development at Dark Horse.
On the other hand, Vertical Inc., a small U.S. publisher responsible for bringing manga's founding father, Osamu Tezuka, to the U.S., is adamant about piracy. "It's obvious to us," said Vertical marketing director Ed Chavez. "We've noticed that when [Tezuka's] Black Jack was on the aggregator site, our numbers have taken a bit of a dip." Conversely, Chavez said, when the aggregator has removed the books (after numerous requests from the publisher) "the numbers go back up." Indeed, Yen Press publishing director Kurt Hassler is also convinced that scanlation aggregators are hurting his book sales and also noted that sales of Yen Press titles found on scanlation sites go back up when they can get them removed from these sites. "It's quite a coincidence," Hassler said.
If there is any consolation for publishers during the downturn, it's that manga is now a permanent part of the American publishing marketplace. "No one can read what direction this market is moving in," Lu told PW. "We've gone through one tremendous cycle. Anyone with historical perspective on this knows that the manga market is better off now than we were five years ago. We're far from moribund."