A few years ago, the manga publishing business in North America was reeling from the closure of Borders and the proliferation of online piracy, in combination with the disastrous affects of the recession. Publishers were very cautious about licensing new titles from Japanese publishers, especially quirky works or long series. Manga was still selling, but it was no longer the sales juggernaut it had been.
What a difference a few years can make. As of 2017, North American manga publishers report strong sales in print across the board, with digital sales showing slower but continuing growth. Digital piracy is still a concern, but the outlook for the overall category is much brighter, and it shows in the increase in volume and variety of titles being published this year.
What has made this possible? Here are nine reasons why there’s more optimism and more manga in the North American market in 2017.
Reason One: More Access to Streaming Anime
In North America, anime—Japanese animated features that are almost always based on manga properties—is a key driver of manga sales. North American fans’ interest in a manga or light novels (illustrated prose works that are sometimes adapted into manga) usually starts from exposure to the anime series, and a new anime series tends to boost manga sales too.
Once upon a time, most North American fans got their anime fix through TV programming, like that of Adult Swim’s Toonami and Cartoon Network. But the decline of anime programming on TV made it impossible for U.S. fans to see their favorite anime unless they used illegal channels.
However, things have changed dramatically, thanks to the increased availability of online simulcasting through subscription streaming services such as Crunchyroll, Daisuki, Funimation Channel, Hulu, and Netflix. Now fans can see the latest episodes of new anime series, subtitled or dubbed into English often within minutes or hours of airing in Japan, without needing to resort to pirate sites.
While piracy is still a concern, there are signs that more viewers in North America are watching anime legally through authorized sites. In February 2017, leading anime streaming site Crunchyroll attracted more than a million paid subscribers, a 36% increase from the year before, according to a report published in Variety. Crunchyroll now boasts more than 20 million registered users and a recently announced “distribution partnership” with Funimation that increases each service’s catalogue of backlist and new series. The release of the long-awaited second season of the wildly popular Attack on Titan on Hulu, Crunchyroll, and Funimation in early April has renewed interest in the bestselling manga series on which the show is based and its various spin-off titles.
Netflix is also introducing anime to new audiences with original shows in the genre, including Knights of Sidonia and Blame! (sci-fi stories based on manga by Tsutomu Nihei) and the supernatural suspense series A-Jin: Demi-Human by Gamon Sakurai from Vertical. Given all this, it’s pretty safe to say that interest and viewership of anime on these sites will continue to grow, and with them the appetite for manga.
Reason Two: Simultaneous Japanese and English Publication
Manga fans in the U.S. want to read their favorite titles as soon as they are published in Japan, but in the past the time required to license, translate, and distribute manga in print meant that it took months, if not years, to get the latest volumes in the U.S. Meanwhile, “scanlation” websites, pirate sites that translate and post manga online illegally without delay, gained a vast readership. This is a key reason why online piracy became so prevalent.
Piracy remains an issue, but there is now far more legal “simulpubbing” of manga in Japanese and English, including in Weekly Shonen Jump, Viz Media’s English-language digital edition of the popular Japanese print magazine. Weekly Shonen Jump offers paid subscriptions and free-to-read chapters via the Viz website and the Viz app. Weekly Shonen Jump’s “Jump Start” showcases brand new manga series that are just starting in the Japanese print edition.
Crunchyroll Manga is another simulpub option that gives readers an all-you-can-read monthly subscription option. Subscriptions include access to several popular series such as Attack on Titan and UQ Holder, available on the same day they hit the newsstand in Japan.
Yen Press and Kodansha are also introducing readers to new titles as soon as they debut in Japanese manga magazines, by making the latest chapters available for purchase in North America via e-comics sites such as Comixology and BookWalker, or general e-book sites such as Amazon Kindle, on the same day that they publish in Japan.
Reason Three: Digital-First Publishing
Manga’s increased presence in the North American market is also due to the fact that publishers are test-marketing new titles with digital-first or digital-exclusive releases. Cautious manga publishers can now easily test-market an unusual series, category, or new manga artist with a digital edition before committing to the expense of print. For example, the North American Weekly Shonen Jump regularly features digital-only titles such as The Emperor and I, a quirky story about a girl who lives with a penguin.
Kodansha Advanced Media, which oversees the digital distribution of Kodansha manga, has been re-releasing out-of-print titles formerly published by its original U.S. publishing partner, Del Rey Manga, as digital-only releases. KAM is also offering some digital originals, including sports manga series such as Ace of Diamond, which is about a high school baseball team, and All-Rounder Meguru, about mixed martial arts.
Reason Four: Live-Action TV and Film Adaptations
Live-action adaptations of manga are drawing attention to the source material. The controversial 2017 live-action film adaptation of Shirow Masamune’s acclaimed SF manga series Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johannson, spurred interest in the manga, which Kodansha Comics released in a new paperback edition. A film version of the classic 1990 sci-fi manga Battle Angel Alita directed by James Cameron will debut in summer 2018. Kodansha and Comixology will offer exclusive digital-first access to a new translation of the manga and a deluxe hardcover edition in 2018.
A new live-action adaptation of Death Note, another wildly popular manga series first published in English in 2005, is coming to Netflix very soon. To tie in, the series publisher, Viz Media, is planning a special print edition of the supernatural series, The Death Note All-in-One-Edition, to be published in September. Viz senior v-p of publishing Leyla Aker says: “It’s a single-volume omnibus of the whole series, all 12 volumes. It comes in a foil-stamped box and will include a new epilogue story. It’s really a marvel of print design and production; one dedicated employee at the printer in Japan spent months of R&D on it.”
Reason Five: Romance Manga For Teens and Adults
Adult and teen manga readers in North America are showing interest in quirky shojo (manga aimed at young girls) and josei (designed for older women) romance manga. Alvin Lu, general manager of KAM, says that “a lot of digital growth is coming from less talked-about corners: digital-first shojo titles with no [anime] tie-ins have been impressive out of the gate.” Lu highlighted shojo series such as LDK, a high school romance, and That Wolf-Boy Is Mine!, in which a cute high school boy turns out to be a werewolf. Other bright spots for sales include romantic fantasy-adventure series such as Yona of the Dawn from Viz’s Shojo Beat and the Ancient Magus’ Bride from Seven Seas Entertainment.
Reason Six: LGBTQ Manga
Yaoi or “boys’ love” manga—manga romances between male characters—has been a popular genre with adult English-language readers, especially women, for years, while yuri (“girls’ love”) manga has been less readily available in print in English. Now, however, yuri is making a splash in the U.S. manga market.
Seven Seas Entertainment has largely led the way in this genre, with translations of sweet, funny, and steamy erotic dramas such as Citrus and Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, with more on the way. Among them are My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata, a single-volume memoir of an anxiety-plagued young woman’s experience with a female sex worker.
Originally posted as a webcomic, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness has been lauded for Nagata’s painfully honest and raw exploration of her battles with anxiety and self-loathing. “Every time we mention that book, our social media feeds explode,” says Lianne Sentar, Seven Seas’ marketing coordinator.
In the same vein, Viz will debut English-language translations of two series with lesbian protagonists: After Hours and Sweet Blue Flowers, both by Takako Shimura, the creator of the acclaimed transgender coming-of-age story Wandering Son.
Reason Seven: Betting on Backlist
For many years, North American manga publishers focused on licensing new releases from Japan, while older series were considered risky bets. This seems to be changing. Yen Press has released new omnibus editions of Natsuki Takya’s classic 1998 shojo series Fruits Basket in 2016, and Dark Horse has reprinted Makoto Yukimora’s Planetes (1999), a science-fiction manga series about a space salvage team, in two omnibus editions beginning in 2015.
Classics series such as Devilman by Go Nagai and Captain Harlock by Leiji Matsumoto have been licensed by Seven Seas Entertainment. And Rose of Versailles, Riyoko Ikeda’s popular historical romance about Marie Antoinette, will be published by Udon Entertainment in 2017. Udon publisher Erik Ko says, “Rose of Versailles is a very personal project to me, so we are taking the time to make it perfect both in localization research and the design of the book.”
The second and final volume of OtherWorld Barbara, a surreal sci-fi suspense story by Moto Hagio, who is considered the founding mother of modern shojo manga, will be published by Fantagraphics in August 2017. And in fall 2017 Drawn & Quarterly will publish Kitaro’s Yokai Battles, a new volume in the continuing supernatural adventures of Kitaro by acclaimed manga artist Shigeru Mizuki.
Reason Eight: U.S. Fans Want Light Novels
Light novels, serialized illustrated prose novels based on manga series, are big business in Japan. Volumes of top-selling series such as Konosuba: God’s Blessings on This Wonderful World by Natsume Atsuki, a comedic light novel series about the afterlife, can rack up sales of one million or more copies. Light novels are also often the primary source material for hit anime series.
In North America, light novels are starting to find their way into the bookstore and online e-book market. This is largely thanks to Yen Press’s Yen On prose imprint (which is now publishing Konosuba in English, for example), but there are also titles coming from New York City–based Vertical as well as a smattering of Naruto light novels from Viz.
“Light novels are unquestionably the area we’re seeing the most growth at the moment, and the interest is growing to the point where we’re starting to see dedicated shelving and sections emerging,” says Yen Press publishing director Kurt Hassler.
Reason Nine: Kadokawa Expands North American Presence
Also increasing manga’s presence in North America is the decision by Japanese media giant Kadokawa, a major prose and manga publisher, to place bigger bets on the region. It’s been a year since Kadokawa bought a 51% share of Yen Press, Hachette’s former graphic novel imprint, and formed a “strategic alliance” with streaming anime site Crunchyroll.
For Yen Press, Kadokawa’s investment means immediate access to the latter’s significant list of manga and prose light novels, a category growing in popularity in the U.S. Hassler describes the deal as a “huge boon” that gives Yen “more direct interaction with the Kadokawa team in Japan and other international affiliates.” He adds, “It’s also broadened our reach in terms of being able to make our books available to fans globally.”
Kadokawa also operates BookWalker, an online e-book retailer launched in 2015 that offers manga and prose light novels in English for sale to readers worldwide. Norihide Tominaga, BookWalker’s v-p of global business development, compared BookWalker, a retail operation directed by a publishing company, to e-book retailers such as Apple or Amazon, companies that are either primarily technology platforms or focused inordinately on pricing to attract readers. She says: “We are an e-book platform operated by a publisher, and not a tech company. We value authors and their works, and can spotlight a particular author’s works instead of having only [price] discounts. We are becoming more confident that our approach will work outside of Japan, as we make popular titles in Japan more accessible to English speakers worldwide.”
As the manga convention season heats up over the summer and new anime series begin to hit the airwaves, we’re going to see more examples of the reasons why manga publishers have much to smile about in 2017.
Deb Aoki writes regularly for Publishers Weekly about manga.