After several years of explosive growth, manga sales remain higher than in 2019 but appear to be leveling off. “The extra demand that was created for home entertainment during the pandemic seems to have settled,” says Masaaki Shimizu, general manager and publisher at Square Enix Manga & Books.
Still, manga is a dominant force in North American graphic novel publishing. In the U.S., 16.9 million units were sold in 2022 (54% of the total graphic novel sales), raking in more than $246 million, according to Brian Hibbs, founder of San Francisco’s Comix Experience, in his annual report for the Beat.
A 6.8% year-over-year increase, as Hibbs reports, is generally good news—but compared to the 68.5% growth in 2021, publishers and retailers have reasons to be cautious in planning for 2023 and beyond. “After the unprecedented growth, there is a bit of softening,” says Kevin Hamric, v-p, publishing sales at Viz Media.
According to Shimizu, 2023 has been down in the first 10 weeks of the year by 20% over the similar period last year. He attributes this to the decline of mega-hit series. “When we look at the units sold for the top-selling 10 titles and 100 titles during the same period, the year-to-date units are down by 45% and 35%, respectively,” he says.
That said, the most recent volume of Spy x Family was the bestselling book in the U.S. in early April, according to data from Circana BookScan, with Jujutsu Kaisen, Vol. 19 holding on to the fifth spot on the chart (Colleen Hoover occupied the slots in between).
“We’re starting to see the market come back down to earth,” says Leyla Aker, publishing director at Penguin Random House Publisher Services. “The question is whether sales will stay at an elevated point as a new steady state, or whether they’ll decrease in a contractive cycle as before.”
Hamric says, “No alarm bells are going off and no panic buttons are being pushed.” But in all aspects of manga publishing, stakeholders are wondering what’s next.
Global markets lead the way
While U.S. manga sales are cooling, publishers are looking toward other markets where manga has flourished as an import as models for future growth here. Though $246 million in manga sales in 2022 sounds incredible (especially when compared to $49.9 million in 2019), it’s trumped by sales in France (the second-largest market for manga after Japan).
According to market research firm GfK Market Intelligence, in partnership with the Angoulême International Comics Festival, French manga sales reached €381 million (approximately $417 million at the current exchange rate) in 2022. In that year, 47 million units of manga sold in France, more than double the country’s 22-million-unit record set in 2020. Overall manga sales in France have quadrupled in the past decade. Today, one in seven books sold in France is manga.
Nobuhiko Muranaka, director of global publishing at Square Enix, says Japanese manga publishers like his own should challenge themselves to expand their translation sales, arguing there’s an appetite among U.S. customers for more “official editions of manga.”
Ivan Salazar, senior marketing director for Kodansha USA, agrees. “We think there’s definitely room for more players in the manga space, whether it’s publishing or digital distribution—especially considering the sheer amount of stories that are published in Japan,” he notes.
Everything, everywhere, all at once
Manga is selling well partly because of visibility. “From the number of legal ways you can access digital manga to the variety of physical stores that carry manga, from direct market comic shops all the way to mass market stores like Target and Walmart, fans no longer have to seek out a few restricted channels,” Salazar says.
“Manga has grown from a niche category to one of the top categories in the entire company,” says Kat Sarfas, category manager for manga at Barnes & Noble. “The popularity is not just a passing trend. Now that the initial frenzy has calmed down, we are continuing our focus on curating the best assortment for our customers.”
But B&N and big-box stores aren’t the only ones expanding manga’s footprint. Ed Chavez, president and editor-in-chief at Denpa, says he’s noticed “a steady increase in manga specialty stores,” such as Kobe Mini Mart near Sacramento, Calif., Otaku Market in Union, Ohio, and Yiggybean online; it’s a trend Chavez hopes continues. He also points to signs of growth from foreign markets, bringing up that Denpa recently picked up accounts in the Philippines, the Middle East, and Guam.
Too much of a good thing?
Given past boom and bust cycles for manga in North America, publishers and booksellers harbor lingering concerns about history repeating itself. As more manga imprints enter the market, the fear is of a surfeit of new releases.
One hope is, instead, that the e-book, apps, and streaming market will keep generating new fans. Comparing the current era to the mid-aughts, when sales rapidly rose and fell, Aker says that “anime remains the primary sales driver for manga.” But now, she adds, anime can be viewed across a growing number of streaming sites (such as Netflix, Hulu, and Crunchyroll) as opposed to only the Cartoon Network. “The general consensus is that this increase in anime streaming led to the concomitant increase in manga sales.”
While streaming options have diversified, however, book sales channels continue to consolidate. “The majority now go through one online retailer, Amazon, and one physical retailer, Barnes & Noble, which together now account for over half of U.S. manga sales annually,” Aker says.
With sales softening, budgets are tightening up. Publishers are more selective about the titles they’re licensing, even while the expansion of digital distribution can make it easier to try out traditionally riskier bets, such as series with more than 20 volumes, older reissues, or genres that are relatively new for North American manga readers.
“Series publishing is always difficult, and it gets harder as a series gets longer,” Hamric says. “And then add to it the sheer number of series that are being published,” but, he says, “this is a good problem to have, and we work with our retailers and librarians to help them manage selection and merchandising.”
Booksellers also warily recall previous periods when manga flooded the market—especially independent comics shops, which were left with nonreturnable stock. “Anyone who’s been around for a while remembers the boom and bust of manga in bookstores in the early 2000s,” says Ryan Higgins, owner of Comics Conspiracy, a comics shop based in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Limited shelf space for manga is a concern for both publishers and retailers. Many popular manga series run up 20 or more volumes (perennial favorite shonen series One Piece by Eiichiro Oda is up to 103 volumes and counting).
“Fighting for shelf space is always an issue,” notes Erik Ko, chief of operations at Udon Entertainment. With the amount of manga releases growing so rapidly, retailers and consumers simply can’t buy them all, “so it is pretty much a survival-of-the-fittest-type situation,” Ko says.
This struggle is acute for direct market comics retailers like Comics Conspiracy, which rely on a customer base that preorders comics before release date so as to minimize ordering stock they can’t sell quickly and can’t return later. “Generally, we stock volume one of a lot of popular titles and special order or set up subscriptions for later volumes, as we just don’t have the physical space to carry full runs of many series,” Higgins says. “Keeping those early volumes in print is essential to keep readers coming back.”
Sarfas adds, “Of course, fans are going to come out big for that latest volume, but emphasizing full series and backlist picks has also really worked for us. Classic series like Berserk and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure continue to sell well for a reason.”
From a publisher’s point of view, a surplus of variety on shelves creates competition for their own midlist and backlist titles. “Hidden gems could get lost,” Ko says, adding that publishers need to “figure out how to do outreach to ensure that our new titles are being discovered.”
Lianne Sentar, sales and marketing manager at Seven Seas Entertainment, puts forward a hopeful sentiment, though: “We’re starting to see things stabilize, and in a good way. The new normal is a much bigger manga/light novel industry that’s a bigger piece of all North American publishing.”
More manga goes digital
Meanwhile, Japanese publishers have ramped up their efforts to release more titles in English via digital platforms. In addition to Kodansha’s K Manga app, which is set to debut in May, several launched in 2022, including Square Enix’s Manga Up! and NTT Solmare’s Manga Plaza. A number of publishers, including Animate International, Kadokawa Digi-Pub, and Shu-Cream, also expanded their direct-to-consumer e-book offerings.
Digital publishing has financial and logistical advantages: it’s faster to bring titles to market and eliminates the up-front investment required to produce, ship, and distribute print books. For readers, direct-to-digital releases means that there’s now more manga, webtoons, and light novels (prose works based on manga story lines with spot illustrations) available in English, and a greater variety of stories and art styles, than ever before. And fulfilment is faster: many publishers, including Kodansha, Viz Media, and Yen Press, are releasing new chapters of popular manga series in English the same day as in Japan.
It hasn’t all gone smoothly. Square Enix’s 2022 launch of the English version of its Manga Up! app received mixed reviews from readers—a point Muranaka, the producer of the Manga Up! global app, acknowledges. “We have made a lot of steady improvements,” he says. “However, we believe there are still many issues to be addressed, and we are planning some major updates to meet our customers’ expectations.”
While digital manga sales now represent over 66.2% of the manga sold in Japan, by almost all accounts, English-language readers’ adoption of digital manga hasn’t quite kept pace. “Digital manga sales have been steady, but the consumption of e-books in the U.S. is not near the levels of Japan,” reports Beth Kawasaki, executive director of content and marketing at Media Do International, a leading digital manga distributor.
The actual size and sales trends in this digital manga market are nearly impossible to track, since there’s no single sales report for e-books, nor is there tracking for readership of streaming subscription services like Azuki, Comikey, Mangamo, Manga Planet, Manga Plaza, and Manga Up!, much less webtoon services like Lezhin, Manta, Tapas, TappyToon, and Webtoon.
However, the trend seems to be that readers only want more and more subgenre representation. “Romance/shojo and BL/boys’-love, along with horror, have seen an uptick in demand,” Kawasaki says. “I think fans will continue to gravitate toward platforms that are familiar and convenient, but there is room for newer players to capture some market share if they have exclusives or a high-perceived value to help set them apart.”
One way that some streaming and subscription services have responded to the increasingly competitive battle for readers’ attention is by picking up more exclusive content, and offering their titles direct to consumers as digital e-books. Azuki, for example, offered its recent releases of My Dear Detective: Mitsuko’s Case Files by Natsumi Ito direct. Kodansha’s K Manga app is also promising more exclusive simulpub content, with many series making their official English-language debut on this platform.
Another growth area for digital manga publishing is the library market. Kawasaki says Media Do offers some thousands of volumes of manga (in English and some original-language) through OverDrive, which “readers will know through their Sora app for schools or their Libby app for public libraries. Last year, we also launched on Library Pass to bring manga to their curated experience, and they’ve really leaned into their editorial strategy.”
A caveat to the genre expansion is that explicit content can still get blocked on mainstream e-book retailers. “Mature-rated books don’t get carried on all digital platforms, but they don’t need to be,” says Seven Seas’ Sentar. “Fans will find what they want on our web of various distributors.”
More manga for almost every reader
Diversity in manga is another area of growth. Quarto is giving Saturday AM titles by global BIPOC creators greater visibility and distribution, as is TokyoPop’s deal with Noir Caesar, a publishing brand founded by former NBA player Johnny O’Bryant, to develop and distribute its manga that focuses mostly on Black and Latinx protagonists by global creators. Kae Winters, marketing lead at TokyoPop, says, “Seeing more BIPOC representation in manga is a huge deal, and we’re really impressed by the storytelling and art quality from the Noir Caesar team.” TokyoPop plans to showcase these diverse titles at Anime Expo and San Diego Comic-Con, both in California, this summer.
Independent houses have also taken part in the rising tide, bringing lesser-known and more indie-style artists to broader manga readers, including more Korean and Chinese and other global manga creators. Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, and Last Gasp are offering small but smartly curated lists of new and classic manga titles. Micropublishers like Glacier Bay Books, Starfruit Books, and Irodori are also growing and expanding their lists.
Tom Devlin, executive editor at Drawn & Quarterly, points out that while the publisher puts out manga, most notably by critically acclaimed creators like Shigeru Mizuki and Yoshiharu Tsuge, it has “always tried to find individual voices with our North American cartoonists, and we look for the same in our foreign cartoonists—Asian or otherwise.” He adds, “Books like 20KM/H by Woshibai or Night Bus by Zuo Ma were chosen because they were singular cartooning voices. I understand the division of manga from comics is an important marketing tool, but we don’t look at manga as some sort of genre. They’re just great comics made by great cartoonists.”
In terms of genre diversity, shonen manga still dominates the manga market, but publishers and booksellers report there’s strong and growing demand for shojo and josei manga, “mature romance,” and boys’-love stories. Salazar reports that Kodansha is “seeing more shojo and josei series among our top-selling titles for new releases. We’re working on meeting this demand by bringing more shojo and josei to print—like A Condition Called Love and the forthcoming Nina the Starry Bride.”
Boys’-love and josei manga-centric sites like Manga Planet, Manga Plaza, and Renta have arisen to meet the needs of this readership. Meanwhile, the selection on webtoon sites like Lezhin, Manta, Tapas, TappyToon, and Webtoon skews heavily toward romances, including modern, historical and fantasy-based tales—an indication that they’re addressing an unmet need and a potentially larger book publishing market for these genres.
LGBTQ content continues to be popular with manga readers, including boys’-love manga, girls’-love manga, and manga about gay, lesbian, and queer experiences, such as I Think My Son Is Gay from Square Enix and Why I Adopted My Husband: The True Story of a Gay Couple Seeking Legal Recognition in Japan from TokyoPop.
But there’s another, potentially larger and currently underserved segment of the market: manga for younger readers, especially for those under 12. “Although the manga market has matured over here, it’s still mostly aimed at teens,” Sentar says. “There’s definitely room for growth in manga aimed at young children and adults, which both have far more selection in Japan.”
“Kids’ manga should eventually hit really hard in the English market,” Chavez adds. “But outside of a few titles like Chi’s Sweet Home, Legend of Zelda, and Splatoon, I am not really seeing it.”
With the amount of investment being poured into the general middle grade comics market in the U.S., and the breadth and diversity of that category in Japan, kids’ manga seems like a ready prospect here.
“It’s an exciting time for manga, webtoons and anime,” says Rich Young, cofounder and publisher of Ablaze, which is growing its manga list. “As their reach becomes more global and we continue to innovate, the future looks bright.”
Deb Aoki writes regularly for PW about manga.
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