Across the board, graphic novels are reporting strong sales and steady growth in North America, and according to executives from major manga publishers and retailers, this trend is mirrored in the manga publishing world. Large manga publishers such as Kodansha Comics, Viz Media, and Yen Press are releasing more titles in print and on a variety of digital platforms. New independent houses like Denpa, J-Novel Club, and Sol Press and established Japanese publisher Square Enix are entering the market. And retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Comixology have expanded shelf space for manga and created new ways to read and buy manga digitally.
Manga continues its rebound from the recession of 2009 and from the 2011 closure of Borders, which was a key retailing outlet for the category. Nevertheless, publishers remain cautious, wary of repeating past mistakes and flooding the market with more titles than it can bear.
“The last few years’ growth seems to be, first and foremost, part of a natural recovery cycle that one hopes to see following a market downtown,” says Viz Media executive v-p, pubishing Leyla Aker. “For context, as much ground as has been gained, North American manga sales are still below the levels they were at before 2009.”
But there are reasons to believe that the manga business is healthy and growing in a sustainable manner. Erik Ko, publisher for Udon Entertainment, which publishes a popular Manga Classics line featuring manga-style adaptations of classic literature, says, “A lot of good titles are being published, and the manga and manga artbook market is very stable. I can see it steadily growing. I think the messed-up market that existed before is finally back to a normal and healthy pace.”
Manga Gets a Boost from Streaming Anime
Manga print publishing has had a strong sales connection with anime (Japanese-style animated features and serials) for decades. Manga and anime are no longer a cultural niche: they have become part of the mainstream of North American pop culture.
“We’re now on our second, if not third, generation of consumers who grew up with Japanese pop culture in some way,” Aker says, “whether it’s Pokémon or Dragon Ball or Sailor Moon.”
The growth of anime content on video streaming services such as Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix, as well as via Crunchyroll and other anime-centric outlets, has had a significant impact on manga and light novel sales in North America. Lianne Sentar, marketing manager at Seven Seas Entertainment, says, “When you add manga consumption to the growing business of anime, which is especially big business for streaming platforms now, you see growth, stability, and acceptance.”
“Anime streaming plays a significant part in dictating interest—more so in the last couple years than what I’ve previously noticed,” says Nick Rowe, director of manga inventory at Dr. Comics and Mr. Games, a comics store in Oakland, Calif. “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is a perfect example: before the new anime, Jojo was a dead end in print. Then the new anime hit streaming services, Viz took another chance, and now I’m routinely reordering volumes.”
Morgana Santilli, comic shop consultant and former manga buyer at Comicopia, a comics and manga retailer in Boston, noticed the same enthusiasm at the Anime Boston convention in late April. “We sold out of the prereleased copies of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable, Vol. 1 on the very first day,” she says. “A $20 hardcover going that fast at a show full of teenagers? That was a shock.”
Diversity Drives Growth
Manga has also benefited from diversification, publishers say—releasing a wider variety titles, expanding distribution, and seeking out partnerships that extend beyond geographic borders and into other segments of the entertainment business.
“There are more manga available in a greater variety of genres and formats and for a wider range of readers than ever before,” says veteran manga publisher Ben Applegate—director, publishing services at Penguin Random House, which distributes Kodansha Comics. Applegate pointed to the “influence of manga-style art and storytelling on comics creators working for publishers like Marvel, DC, and Scholastic” as a catalyst for the diversification, noting, “While there used to be clear demographic differences between manga readers and Western comics readers, those readerships are growing and converging, which makes this an extremely exciting time to work in manga.”
Classic manga (manga that’s more than 10 years old) was generally considered a hard sell. “Go Nagai’s Devilman: The Classic Collection hardcovers were a big hit [when they were released in 2018], which we were thrilled to see,” Sentar says. “That was one of our more popular classic licenses, but it’s a 40-year-old property. It’s nice to see fans both new and old rallying around it.”
In the same vein, Kodansha is launching Kodansha Classics, a line of premium-quality reprint editions, starting with two titles by Clamp, a bestselling all-female group of manga artists. Kodansha is publishing Cardcaptor Sakura (collector’s edition) in hardcover this summer and a Magic Knight Rayearth (25th anniversary edition) box set in fall 2019. Dark Horse debuted an oversize hardcover Lone Wolf and Cub (gallery edition) by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima last year, and TokyoPop is publishing a new hardcover of Aria (masterpiece edition) by Kozue Amano.
Publishers note another positive trend: an increasingly diverse array of stories. Though action-packed shonen manga series such as My Hero Academia and Attack on Titan and fantasy-adventure isekai series (stories in which a character from the real world is transported into a fantasy or multiplayer-game world) continue to dominate, readers are buying more manga with mature themes, such as horror stories and LGBTQ stories, as well as manga in the yaoi (boys’ love or BL) and yuri (girls’ love or GL) categories, which depict same-sex romantic relationships.
Strong sellers in the horror manga category include new and backlist titles by Junji Ito, a revered master of the genre and creator of the Eisner-nominated Frankenstein: Junji Ito Story Collection and the upcoming manga adaptation of novelist Osamu Dazai’s Japanese literary classic No Longer Human—both published by Viz Media.
“Junji Ito is a household name now,” Rowe says. “At Dr. Comics and Mr. Games, every single one of his books is an evergreen title.”
Manga with LGBTQ themes are growing in popularity, as well. In the past, a handful of niche publishers offered yaoi manga, and even fewer offered yuri manga. But over the past year, Kodansha Comics has released several yaoi and yuri manga titles, including Hitorijime My Hero, Yuri Is My Job! and 10 Dance. Another title, If I Could Reach You by tMnR, described as a more serious yuri drama, is coming out later this year. Add these releases to the titles being published by Digital Manga Publishing’s June Manga imprint, online manga publisher Renta, Seven Seas Entertainment, SuBLime Manga (Viz Media’s yaoi imprint), and Yen Press, and it’s clear that there’s now more LGBTQ-friendly manga in English than has been available in years.
“Big anime properties have helped our yuri titles get even more readers—most notably the Citrus and Bloom into You series,” Sentar says. “And it’s allowed us to experiment with a broader range of titles within the genre.” She cites such works as I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up and the mature-rated Eve and Eve.
At Comicopia in Boston, “books with queer content—whether that be more exploitative BL or genuine queer stories—do very well,” Santili says. “Things like I Hear the Sunspot [One Peace] and Go For It, Nakamura! [Seven Seas] are kind of Comicopia’s bread and butter.”
Ed Chavez, cofounder and publisher of Denpa Books and a former marketing director at Kodansha Vertical Comics, agrees that “niche titles are finding audiences with greater frequency.” Denpa Books debuted in late 2018 with an eclectic mix of titles, including quirky indie manga An Invitation from a Crab by panpanya and Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family, a cooking manga featuring characters from the Fate/Stay Night game and visual novel franchise. Denpa’s upcoming releases include Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, a fan-favorite series about high-stakes gambling that was recently adapted into an anime series, and Heavenly Delusion, a dystopian sci-fi series by Masakazu Ishiguro.
Manga for Young Readers
“Generally speaking, there have been a handful of releases geared toward all-ages and young adult girls, a market manga publishers don’t pay enough attention to,” Rowe says. Nevertheless, he notes that he has “high expectations for Little Witch Academia from Yen Press’s JY Kids imprint and Witch Hat Atelier by Kamome Shirahama from Kodansha,” comparing their sales potential to such bestselling Western comics as Boom! Studios’ young adult Lumberjanes series and Raina Telgemeier’s entire library of bestselling middle grade comics.
“Most of the kids in those age groups gravitate toward popular shonen manga titles or more recent anime releases,” Rowe says. “Meanwhile, they’re buying all manner of new all-ages comics and young adult comics that are flooding the market right now. They’re hungry for comics, and manga is ignoring them.”
Several publishers note that digital releases of manga titles aimed at female readers, shojo manga (aimed at teen girls), and josei manga (at women) seem to do particularly well. “Shojo and josei titles are proportionally stronger in digital,” Aker says. “In absolute numbers, shonen manga [aimed at teen boys] and seinen [at men or any grown-up reader] manga still make up the majority of sales, but it seems a higher percentage of shojo readers have converted from print to digital.”
“Shojo/josei manga form the core of our digital-first lineup,” says Alvin Lu, general manager of Kodansha Advanced Media, which manages the digital release of Kodansha manga and other e-content. “For something that started as an experiment, it has rapidly evolved into a key driver of our digital sales growth and become a viable business on its own.” Lu notes that “we see a lot of shojo/josei manga among our top digital sellers—and not the household names; there are no anime tie-ins.” He adds, “It’s harder to replicate that in print.”
Lu says this trend has been “going on for a few years, and it’s a known quantity in Japan—purchasing digital comics offers readers anonymity/privacy around their purchases.” He adds, “On the U.S. side, it’s similar to customer behavior around romance novels on e-book platforms like Kindle.”
Digital Manga, Piracy, Simulpubs
Manga’s worldwide popularity is both a boon and a problem in the digital age. Publishers have to deal with geographical restrictions on publishing rights at a time when fans can get whatever they want—legally or by other means.
“The biggest shift is that the market is increasingly catching up with the Japanese market in releases,” says Yen Press publishing and managing director for content Kurt Hassler. “More than ever before, publishers find themselves in a scenario where they are selecting content not on the basis of what’s big in Japan now but what will be big in the future. It represents a shift in direction in terms of acquisitions for English-language publishers.”
“Japan isn’t as far away as it once was,” says One Peace Books’ Robert McGuire. “Thanks to current technology and online communication channels, fans know much more about what’s happening in Japan now than they ever did.”
Hassler notes that this affects Yen Press licensing decisions: “One of the greatest benefits in recent years has been our Japanese licensors recognizing that former territorial restrictions have unnecessarily impeded access to the material for fans eager to read their favorite series. We’re gratified that worldwide availability is increasingly becoming the norm.”
Hassler praises simulpub—when titles are released simultaneously in English and Japanese—and digital-first initiatives. “Simulpub releases give readers the opportunity to be right on top of some of the most exciting releases from the Japanese market,” he says, noting that he’s “looking at new ways to expand these initiatives.”
Piracy remains a concern to artists and publishers, but Japanese publishers are now taking steps to try to curb its impact on their bottom line around the world.
Daihei Shiohama, president and CEO of Media-Do International, a Japanese digital distributor and marketing firm, says that Japanese publishers “banded together” last year “to appeal to the government to take action in banning certain piracy sites in Japan.”
Publishers in Japan and North America are increasingly turning to simulpub. The newest and most notable example is Viz Media’s revamped Shonen Jump digital magazine and Shueisha’s new Manga Plus websites and apps, which give readers all over the world free or low-cost all-you-can-read access to popular Shonen Jump manga series.
“A decade ago, manga piracy was a relatively constrained fandom activity, but today it’s a parallel industry fueled by aggregators generating ad revenue and subscription sales,” Aker says. She emphasizes that “one of the ways that publishers can respond to piracy is to fulfill reader demand for that content on the same terms: for free and simultaneously available worldwide.” She adds, “Our simulpub program has grown significantly. We’ve already added many new series and will continue to expand our offering.”
Another notable digital manga initiative is Kodansha Advanced Media’s publishing deal with online comics retailer and publisher Comixology. As part of the deal, most of the Kodansha Comics catalogue is available as digital releases, and a handful of Kodansha titles are offered as Comixology exclusives, available for individual purchase or as part of the Comixology Unlimited subscription service.
And KAM’s growing digital-first publishing line has debuted a variety of titles, including Akiko Higashimura’s Tokyo Tarareba Girls, a romantic comedy-drama, and Hikaru Nakamura’s Saint Young Men, a slice-of-life comedy about Jesus and Buddha hanging out in Japan. Lu says, “This is one of our fastest growing business areas.”
The Return of Original Manga
North American manga publishing is still largely a licensing business, focused on translating popular Japanese series for the English-language market. But several publishers are looking to expand their offerings of original manga produced for English-language readers.
Earlier this year, Viz Media launched the Viz Originals imprint, which will publish original graphic novels by artists inspired by manga and anime, under the direction of executive editor Fawn Lau. Aker says that though Viz has published original comics and trade books featuring Hello Kitty; Magic: The Gathering; and Voltron, as well as the online cult favorite Homestuck, Viz Originals will “focus on developing and supporting original creator-owned works from manga-inspired artists and writers.”
She adds, “The long-term goal is to create a professional space for all those who’ve been told in art school to stop drawing anime style, or who’ve wondered how to become manga artists. We’re planning for releases to be in both print and digital, with the first titles slated for 2020.”
Yen Press, Seven Seas, and TokyoPop have been steadily publishing original manga content as well, with a focus on licensed properties, such as Disney and My Little Pony properties, and adaptations of young adult novels.
Yen Press’s JY Kids imprint publishes Svetlana Chmakova’s bestselling Berrybrook Middle School series, including the middle grade titles Awkward, Brave, and Crush. The series will continue with Diary, which is due in October.
In addition to publishing works for Disney, TokyoPop is continuing its International Women of Manga initiative with two original releases coming this summer: Breath of Flowers by Caly is an LGBTQ title from France, and Deep Scar by Rossella Sergi is an Italian coming of age shojo romance. “Back in the early 2000s, there was this concept that manga had to be from Japanese creators and licensed from Japanese publishers,” says TokyoPop marketing associate Kae Winters. “As manga’s popularity has grown, its audience has become much more receptive to the idea of manga as an aesthetic and an art style that can be learned and emulated to great success.”