Over the past decade, North American manga publishing has gone from double-digit annual growth to company-crushing declines and back again. In 2018, publishers are cautiously optimistic in a manga market with steady sales in print and digital. The market is being driven by some surprise hits that suggest North American fans are ready for titles that would have been considered too risky—“too Japanese”—in the past.
Last year and, so far, this year have been good for several publishers. Kurt Hassler, Yen Press’s publishing director, reports “double-digit growth” so far in 2018, compared to the same period last year. “I think any publisher would be thrilled with the early  results we’re seeing,” he says.
Lianne Sentar, marketing lead for indie manga publisher Seven Seas Entertainment, is similarly upbeat: “We’ve had some huge hits in the past year—strong backlist titles that keep selling, continuing series that have enjoyed a new wave of popularity, and brand-new books that made a big splash.”
Norihide Tominaga, v-p of business development from online e-book and manga retailer BookWalker, reports that its revenue in 2018 to date is up 400% from the same period in 2017.
Others offer a more sober—but still optimistic—assessment of the current state of the business. “Sales for manga and graphic novels overall are leveling off after five years of pretty explosive growth,” says Ben Applegate, associate director of publishing services at Penguin Random House. Though the rate of growth has slowed, he says, “in many ways, we’re living in the golden age of manga in terms of the breadth and depth of the titles available.”
A New, Diverse Golden Age for Manga?
Shojo manga (which targets girls), teen romances, and magical girl adventure works, such as Cardcaptor Sakura Clear Card; action-packed, anime-driven shonen (boys) manga such as My Hero Academia; and Isekai, a fantasy subgenre featuring stories in which ordinary people are transported to a magical world, continue to be popular. But publishers are taking note of a growing demand for slightly unconventional fare that appeals to older readers.
This spring’s breakout anime and manga hit, Wotakoi: Love Is Hard for Otaku, written and drawn by Fujita, is a good example of this. This quirky romantic comedy follows the romantic misadventures of office workers in their late 20s and early 30s who balance their business responsibilities with their undying, geeky love for video games, manga, and cosplay. Kodansha published the first volume (a two-in-one combined edition) of the manga the same week the anime premiered on Amazon Prime, and series sales are picking up steam as word-of-mouth spreads.
“There is definitely an appetite for shojo/josei [manga targeting older women] out there, and edgy comedy,” says Alvin Lu, general manager of Kodansha Advanced Media, which oversees digital distribution of Kodansha manga and prose. “It’s the kind of titles you might more likely see adapted as TV drama than, say, anime, if I may generalize. These are not things I’m used to seeing driving the business in a shonen-manga-dominated world.”
Other romantic fare for grown-up tastes includes Moteki and After the Rain from Vertical and Tokyo Tarareba Girls from Kodansha Comics. Moteki is a quirky comedy by Mitsurou Kubo (cocreator of hit ice-skating anime Yuri on Ice) and focuses on a hapless single guy who suddenly becomes popular with women. After the Rain follows a slice-of-life friendship between a 30-something restaurant manager and a teenage girl. And the main characters of Tokyo Tarareba Girls by Akiko Higashimura (creator of Princess Jellyfish) are a trio of single women who discover that love becomes harder to find and relationships more complicated as they get older.
On the quirkier end of the scale is Dead Dead Demon’s Dededede Destruction by Asano Inio, from Viz Media. In this unusual sci-fi saga, Tokyo is at the mercy of a huge spaceship hovering in the skies above the city, and it seems that the fate of the Earth is in the hands of two high school girls.
Another offbeat title that caught fire in 2017 is My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Nagata Kabi, an autobiographical manga from Seven Seas Entertainment about a young woman dealing with extreme anxiety and depression. Nonfiction or essay manga is a popular genre in Japan, but until now, not much has been made available in English. Seven Seas is following up the success of My Lesbian Experience with a sequel, My Solo Exchange Diary, which continues Kabi’s story: though she’s received much acclaim following her manga’s success, happiness continues to elude her.
In a similar vein, Seven Seas is publishing another essay manga, The Bride Was a Boy by Chii, about a transgender woman who falls in love with a cisgender man, gets gender-reassignment surgery in Thailand, and gets married in Japan. It’s a surprisingly cute and cheery story that answers a lot of frequently asked questions about transgender issues in a matter-of-fact way. Seven Seas is also releasing Claudine, a melodramatic take on the travails of a girl who struggles with her masculine side, by Riyoko Ikeda, creator of the classic manga Rose of Versailles. The house is also launching a new manga imprint for mature readers called Ghost Ship.
“We’re really pleased to see the sheer breadth of what kind of books can be hits,” Sentar says. “They’re not limited to a certain genre or audience at all. The fact that [Okayado’s] Monster Musume and My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness can both be bestsellers on the manga shelf of today’s bookstores is a sign of how much the Western manga market has grown to cater to different audiences. The manga industry in Japan is famously known for producing comics for almost any kind of reader, and we’re seeing a little more of that in the Western market as the audience ages. We now see an entire generation of Western kids who have had access to manga in English since their childhood.”
Seven Seas is also expanding its lineup of LGTBQ-friendly titles, including more yuri (girls-love) manga, and adding its first boys-love title: Go for It, Nakamura!, a romantic comedy by Syundei about a shy high school boy dealing with his first gay crush. In a similar vein, Viz Media is releasing That Blue Sky Feeling (Sorairo Flutter) by Okura and Coma Hayashii, a charming story about two high school boys discovering the first exciting and awkward feelings of attraction for each other.
Original comics content is also making a bit of a comeback with North American manga publishers. Kodansha has rallied several top comics creators such as Alex DeCampi (Prophet) and David López (All-New Wolverine) to tell new stories based in the world of the manga sci-fi classic, The Ghost in the Shell. Previewed on Free Comic Book Day and due for release in fall 2018, The Ghost in the Shell: Global Neural Network includes four stories set in the world of Ghost in the Shell, supervised by its original creator, Masamune Shirow.
JY, Yen Press’s new young readers imprint, has Crush, the sequel to bestsellers Awkward and Brave by Svetlana Chmakova, due for a fall 2018 debut. Viz Media recently picked up the cult hit webcomic Homestuck by Andrew Hussie and released it in a hardcover edition. And Tokyopop, the early “original English-language manga” proponent, recently added more original manga content to its publishing list, highlighting a series of newly discovered female creators marketed under the banner of “International Women of Manga.”
Light novels—illustrated prose novels often based on, or adapted from, manga and anime—are also enjoying growing popularity with readers in North America, with publishers such as Seven Seas, Vertical, and Yen Press all mentioning light novels as highlights among their current and upcoming releases. Yen Press mentions the whimsically titled I’ve Been Killing Slimes for 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level as a light novel standout hit, and Seven Seas reports strong presales for Didn’t I Say to Make My Abilities Average in the Next Life?! and Monster Girl Doctor. BookWalker account manager Meilyne Tran also notes that light novels compose 40% of the e-book retailer’s total sales, even though light novel titles represent only 20%–30% of its total current inventory.
According to Yen Press’s Hassler, “It’s not at all unusual for us now to see the light novels outperforming the manga iterations of those series—something that wasn’t always the case historically. Light novels have established themselves as an increasingly important component of our business. We’re planning to increase our light novel output by about 30% this year over last.”
Deluxe Editions, Manga Classics, Manga Lit
Back-catalogue titles being re-presented in premium formats are also enjoying some success, as well as reprints of classic manga. Kodansha’s deluxe 35th-anniversary box set of the seminal sci-fi/action manga series Akira received an Eisner Award nomination and is also going back to press for a new printing.
Viz Media is bringing back perennial fan favorite Fullmetal Alchemist in an expanded hardcover edition with new cover art and bonus content not available in previous editions. Seven Seas is betting on the success of the Devilman Crybaby anime on Netflix, publishing hardcover editions of the original Devilman and Cutey Honey manga by Go Nagai, as well as deluxe hardcover editions of Captain Harlock and Space Battleship Yamato by Leiji Matsumoto.
Also appearing on the high end of the manga publishing scale is Dark Horse Comics’ gallery editions. The publisher is releasing a new work based on the final chapter of Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. Dark Horse manga editor Carl Horn says the idea behind this coffee-table book is “to reproduce the artwork, as closely as possible, as the original artist would have seen it on his or her drawing board—including things like stray marks from pencils, doodles in the margin, paste lines, and Wite-out.” He adds, “Dark Horse’s Lone Wolf and Cub is the first attempt to publish an entire manga story through its original art, and in a format that this story is not available in, even for readers in Japan.”
Classic western novels adapted into comics in the manga style are also enjoying a modest renaissance. From its initial release of three titles back in 2014, Udon Entertainment’s Manga Classics imprint now has almost 20 titles in print or about to be released, including short stories by Edgar Allen Poe, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Also coming to the Manga Classics line are two works by Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Udon publisher Erik Ko presented these titles at the recent Toronto Comic Arts Festival during its Librarian and Educators Day, as well as at the London Book Fair in April. He was impressed by the response he received and will showcase these books at the American Library Association Annual Conference in New Orleans in June.
Also coming in October from Viz: a manga adaptation of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein by horror manga master Junji Ito.
The Anime Effect, Amplified by Netflix and Amazon
Anime is a powerful driver of manga sales in North America. These days, there’s more anime available on more channels to more viewers, and it’s available in English faster than ever before, thanks to simulcast streaming services that release the latest series—often within hours of their broadcast in Japan. In addition to Crunchyroll, a digital subscription service that caters largely to an anime-savvy fan base, Netflix and Amazon are investing in and bankrolling streaming anime series.
Anime’s presence is also growing on cable channels such as Cartoon Network, on-demand cable outlets, and even in movie theaters via short-run or one-night screenings, such as Crunchyroll’s movie nights series for The Ancient Magus’ Bride.
“With the proliferation of players in the anime streaming space and the sheer number of anime out there, we’ve seen the marketing effect of anime adaptations become more muted,” says PRH’s Applegate. “But they are, of course, still very important.”
Unlike in Japan, where the popularity of manga and light novels generally precedes their anime and movie adaptations, in North America anime is often the way fans discover stories that were inspired by manga or light novels. Unfortunately, long lead times for licensing and publishing have often resulted in a gap between when an anime airs and when manga or light novel tie-ins to the series are made available in English. The good news is that publishing is now better equipped to anticipate demand resulting from a popular anime, and publishers are getting ahead of the curve by making related print or digital editions available before or at the same time as the anime airs.
For example, the first volumes of Yen Press’s Kakegurui: Compulsive Gambler, by Homura Kawamoto and illustrated by Toru Naomura, were on shelves well before the anime debuted on Netflix. Same goes for Land of the Lustrous by Haruko Ichikawa from Kodansha Comics, a dazzling fantasy series about a world of genderless gem warriors that was available in print before the anime aired on Amazon Prime.
Digital Manga Enjoys Steady Growth
Adoption and readership of digital publishing is increasing, as the catalogue of new and midlist titles grows. Piracy is still a concern, but there are now more legal options to read the latest chapters from hot manga series in English as soon as they hit the newsstands in Japan, via all-you-can-read subscription services such as Crunchyroll Manga and weekly digital magazines such as Viz Media’s Weekly Shonen Jump, and by purchasing single chapters via digital outlets such as Comixology or Amazon Kindle.
Crunchyroll’s manga service recently added a download-to-own e-book store to its service. “The Crunchyroll Manga Shop has also been growing with more e-books from our partners Kodansha Comics, Vertical Comics, and Seven Seas Entertainment,” says Robert Newman, Crunchyroll’s licensing manager.
A new addition to the digital manga publishing lineup is virtual reality or VR manga. Manga publisher and game developer Square Enix has been previewing the first chapter of an immersive VR adaptation of Tales of Wedding Rings by Maybe at trade shows and conventions, the first chapter of which will be available for purchase soon via game distribution platforms such as Steam.
While digital sales are growing steadily, most sales of manga are still from print editions sold through bookstores and comic shops. But with so many titles being released every week and changing patterns in consumer buying habits, publishers are looking to social media to get the word out about their new and upcoming releases.
“Though bricks-and-mortar is still king for manga saleswise, Amazon’s share of physical manga sales has been growing,” Applegate says. “So it’s getting more important for us to communicate directly with our fans, which is why we’ve put much more focus onto our email list and social media.”
What’s next for manga? Many publishers are gearing up for Anime Expo in Los Angeles in early July, where they’ll likely make their next wave of new title announcements for winter 2018 and where publishers will make their next big bets on what manga fans want to read most next year and beyond.
Deb Aoki writers regularly for Publishers Weekly about manga.