At the beginning of 2020, the future looked bright for manga and light novel publishing in North America. Sales were strong in print and digital, and there were more and more kinds of manga on the publishing schedule, with new titles being added regularly. Large and small publishers were holding steady, and it seemed like every few months a new manga publisher or digital distribution app was popping up. Streaming anime was also picking up steam, as Amazon Prime, Crunchyroll, Funimation, Hulu, and Netflix gave fans more choices and introduced new viewers to fan-favorite anime series. Anime conventions were looking to post another record-breaking year of attendance.
That all changed, of course, once Covid-19 began its rampage around the world. Retail stores closed due to shelter-in-place orders, large events such as comic and anime conventions have been canceled, and unemployment and economic uncertainty have made many reconsider how they’re spending their money.
So where does that leave manga publishers and manga readers? It’s still too early to tell, but for now, most North American manga publishers are holding steady, making adjustments to their programs (including pivoting to more digital publishing and production processes), and trying new ways to promote titles and stay connected with fans. A list of current popular series as well as forthcoming titles are available here.
A “solid upward trajectory”
“The fundamentals of the North American manga market are rock solid,” says Kurt Hassler, managing director and publisher at Yen Press, a joint venture between Hachette and Japanese publisher Kadakowa. “The business has been on a solid upward trajectory for years, and we were absolutely thrilled with our first quarter results for 2020.”
Kevin Hamric, Viz Media’s v-p of publishing sales, agrees. “The overall manga market in North America is strong and was showing positive growth again for 2020 prior to the Covid-19 crisis,” he says.
And the big manga publishers weren’t the only ones doing well as the year began. Denpa Books, a startup indie press, was also riding a wave of strong sales into the beginning of 2020. “We had successful launches of such new series as Gambling Apocolypse: Kaiji, Heavenly Delusion, and Pleasure & Corruption,” says Denpa publisher Ed Chavez. “We were hoping to launch a few new series starting late spring. But the Covid-19 crisis has changed things tremendously.”
A number of publishers also entered the manga marketplace before the pandemic, and business models varied. There are all-you-can-read manga subscription services such as Futekiya, which focuses on boys’-love manga, and Mangamo, a startup mobile app. There are publishers offering a mix of print and digital-first offerings, among them Kaiten Books. There are digital-only startups like Mantra Comics, a machine learning translation company dipping its toes into manga publishing, and Irodori Aqua, a Japanese company offering mostly adult-themed doujinshi (independently created comics). And there are Western comics publishers, such as Ablaze Publishing, that added manga to their publishing lists.
Newcomers and established companies alike now face an uncertain and rapidly changing manga market that makes planning difficult and rapid adaptation a requirement for survival. “The Covid-19 situation has thrown a major wrench into the gears for manga, publishing, and the country in general,” Hassler says. “I’d be concerned for anyone who wasn’t regrouping right now, given the circumstances.”
For some publishers, regrouping means revising upcoming release schedules and delaying some titles for a few weeks or months—partly in response to the loss of sales from bricks-and-mortar stores. Others are changing their production processes to accommodate working from home for editorial, marketing, and production staff in North America and Japan.
The biggest hit to manga publishers’ bottom lines so far has come from the closure of many bookstores, comic shops, and libraries due to shelter-in-place orders, cutting off the main distribution outlets for print manga.
“The early picture has been turbulent and bracing, with physical sell-in for all manga publishers down by half or more,” says Ben Applegate, Penguin Random House’s director of publishing services. “That’s significantly worse than graphic novels overall. Before Covid-19, online sales had been gaining ground, but brick-and-mortar stores—Barnes & Noble in particular—still represented a relatively high share of physical manga sales. In-store browsing is important for manga, and consumers tend to be young people or teenagers. As the pandemic shuttered stores, juvenile and middle grade graphic novels were insulated from the impact thanks to parents buying online to entertain their kids, but my sense is that more manga are purchased by teens for themselves. With B&N seemingly not in a hurry to reopen, it may take a while to reconnect with that audience in print.”
Masaaki Shimizu, general manager and publisher at Square Enix Manga and Books, says that based on BookScan data, “overall manga sales for the last five weeks have been down 40%–50% compared to the same period last year, and there seems to have been a greater impact on frontlist titles than on backlist. We hope and expect that this decline will gradually be reversed.”
Those comics shops that remain open have been trying to adapt to the new conditions by offering no- or low-touch shopping options, such as delivery and curbside pickup. But they confronted a new problem in April when Diamond Comics, the primary distributor of comics and graphic novels to the direct market, suspended deliveries, leaving many stores without new titles.
Hamric notes that Diamond’s suspension didn’t completely cut off sales of new titles by Viz, which publishes such bestselling series as My Hero Academia and One Piece. “Our sales in the U.S. are better than we thought they would be,” he says. “This has almost totally been through the book trade since Diamond Comic Distributors shut down.” He adds that “many comic shops have been getting Viz Media titles from [Viz’s book trade distributor] Simon & Schuster or Ingram.”
Hamric says prior to the crisis, Viz was well on its way to another record year in the direct market. But “our readers are very resourceful, and they will find a way to get their manga.”
Ivan Salazar, a senior marketing director at Kodansha USA, says, “The closing of bookstores did make discoverability and purchase of print titles more difficult, hindering sales and leaving us a bit exposed. But we’ve noticed that the demand for manga hasn’t abated. This is why we decided to continue releasing digitally, while postponing on-sale dates for print versions of titles we announced in early April.”
Demand goes online
The main bright spot in these otherwise dark days is increased interest in (and increased availability of) digital manga from apps and websites and print manga from online retailers. “As for readers, they are ravenous!” says Yen Press’s Hassler. “People have a lot more free time on their hands, and who can deny that manga, comics, and light novels are a fantastic means of escaping when the walls start closing in?”
Samuel Pinansky, president of J-Novel Club, a light novel and manga publishing house, says the market for manga and light novels (short prose works with manga-style illustrations) had been “strong and growing stronger” until store closures began. “A lot of the sales ended up shifting to online sales,” he says, “so overall it hasn’t been as drastic a negative on physical sales as one could have feared.”
However, online sales of print manga have been hampered by distribution issues too. For a month, Denpa Books’ Chavez says, Amazon pivoted away from books, prioritizing the delivery of essential goods to consumers. “With few distribution options, sales were down for us about 70%,” he notes.
“Probably the biggest frustration we hear is that fans are having a difficult time getting their hands on physical copies of the books they want to read,” Hassler says. “Who can even remember the last time it took a month to get a book you ordered in the mail?”
Square Enix’s Shimizu noticed a trend: “Readers are currently buying from a more diverse range of retailers, such as bookshop.org,” he says. “And many are trying to support their local book and comic shops.”
Viz’s Hamric says, “Our e-book sales have increased nicely, and we have also noticed higher sales of our e-books through [library vendor] OverDrive as checkouts from libraries have increased.”
Salazar says Kodansha USA has seen an “uptick” in online print and digital sales and has added new digital distribution channels. “We recently debuted our full library of Kodansha Comics and Vertical Comics manga on the European digital service Izneo and added a truncated library of titles to the Nintendo Switch subscription service InkyPen and the newly launched Mangamo. This is on top of our consummate digital partners BookWalker, Comixology, Amazon Kindle, Apple Books, Google Play, Barnes & Noble Nook.”
In response to increased interest in online manga, publishers have been offering free or deeply discounted digital titles. Kodansha began selling the first volumes of 270 different series for 99¢ each. Some series, such as the supernatural romance Vampire Dormitory and the horror anthology PTSD Radio, saw a significant increase in readers, according to Salazar, who says the publisher wanted to “lower the barrier to entry for readers to try new manga series and let readers stock up on reading material in a time we knew fiction could help pass the time.”
BookWalker Global, a digital manga and light novel online retailer, has been creating promotions geared toward readers eager for entertainment while sheltering in place. BookWalker’s “I Couldn’t Go Outside, So I Just Stayed in and Read Light Novels All Day!” promotion—created with J-Novel Club and its Japanese publishing licensors Earthstar Entertainment, Frontier Works, Futabasha, Hayakawa, Hobby Japan, and TO Books—gave fans free access to 24 series and 55 volumes of light novels in April.
Pinansky says the promotion was “extremely successful, with tens of thousands of free downloads. Although profit wasn’t the motivation for it, a lot of our series did gain some new fans from it.”
The promo paid off for BookWalker as well. “We made record sales in March and April,” says manager Yuko Koike. “Both manga and light novels are growing, and the ratio is about 50-50. There was a large increase in new users who had never purchased e-books before.”
The forced migration to online reading works in favor of startups such as Mangamo, the manga subscription app that launched in May. “We started Mangamo because we saw the interest in manga globally was growing dramatically, especially within the digital space,” says cofounder and executive editor Dallas Middaugh. “Retail closures are affecting some people, but we’re in homes on people’s devices. A lot of people are stuck at home right now looking for new things to discover. We hope some of them will discover new manga through Mangamo.”
Daihei Shiohama, Media Do International’s president and CEO, remains cautious though. “Digital manga sales have gone up, but it’s still too early to see if this is a permanent change or a temporary one because so many readers are staying home.”
And for some publishers, print remains critical. At Denpa, digital gains weren’t enough to offset physical sales losses. “E-books are not distributed in bulk like paper books,” Chavez says. “The uptick in à la carte e-book sales have not really made a dent in our lost revenue.”
Working from home
The closure of retail stores was a big factor in publishers’ decisions to delay their release schedules, but so was the shift to new production processes as employees work from home. Los Angeles–based Tokyopop had to adapt quickly to “a situation where all the moving parts to the industry machine had ground to a halt,” says marketing manager Kae Winters. “We’ve had to adjust some parts of our production process, particularly at the lettering and editing stages, as our usual team isn’t able to work from home.”
Yen Press abandoned its new offices in New York City to work from home. “Everyone’s telecommuting,” Hassler says. “So we’ve had to find new ways to share materials and redefine what was for Yen still a very paper-driven business.”
At Denpa, which is based in Portland, Ore., delayed materials and approvals from Japan has been a big challenge. “In Japan, things started to slow down in the middle of April,” Chavez says. “Overall, getting materials, approvals, or contracts is now requiring anywhere from a couple weeks to a month more time than usual. This won’t impact us now, but it might impact things down the line.”
J-Novel’s Pinansky says that in Japanese business, working remotely has caused a lot of things to grind to a halt—especially the signing of contracts. “Everyone is still functioning, but it is definitely slowing down all decision making.”
Hamric says, “Working from home really has not affected Viz in getting books produced. Of course, we have had to come up with new ways of doing everything remotely, and our licensors in Japan and the Viz staff in the U.S. have really stepped up. We are not altering our publication schedule.”
But Viz is a rare outlier in that regard. Almost all of the other manga publishers—including Kodansha USA, Square Enix, Tokyopop, and Yen Press—decided to delay their summer and fall 2020 releases.
Staying connected without cons
Another challenge faced by manga publishers is the cancellation of pop culture conventions, including Anime Expo in Los Angeles, which usually attracts more than 100,000 fans. As of press time, Anime Matsuri in Houston is still slated for mid-July, and Crunchyroll Expo, slated for September 4–6 in San Jose, Calif., is also holding on. However, the fate of fall events remains uncertain.
Manga publishers have had to quickly rethink marketing and promotional plans. Many have looked to expanding the use of social media, videoconferencing, and other online tools to get the word out about new titles and stay connected with their fans.
Yen Press is ramping up activity on all social media channels—including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—while exploring the possibilities of other outlets, according to sales and marketing director Mark de Vera. “We have ramped up our activity on those platforms to a significant level and have additionally capitalized on the individual platforms’ capabilities to extend the reach of our social media efforts further,” he says. The Yen Press team, he adds, responds “to nearly every comment and message in an effort to develop a strong relationship with our fans, some of whom we talk to every single day.” Yen Press is also experimenting with panels and hangouts via streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube.
“Until now, conventions have been a rare opportunity for manga fans to express their passion for their favorite series with kindred souls, and also a space for publishers and creators to express their appreciation to fans,” Salazar at Kodansha USA says. “But what happens to them for the rest of the year, and to those people who don’t have access to such events? Arguably, the experience that we were able to provide was always somewhat limited and exclusive. Which leads us ask, what could we do to bridge that gap, and make things better? We want to bring the manga creators and fans closer. And perhaps remind ourselves that we’re not entirely alone––and find a way to stay connected all year around!”
Kondasha USA has a number of new initiatives aimed at bridging the gap. “We’ve participated in Comic-Con International’s WonderCon@Home initiative, where they ask creators and publishers to record panels that Comic-Con can then host on their YouTube page for fans to view on demand and free of charge,” Salazar says. “We also started partnering with Funimation to host a kind of weekly anime ‘live watch,’ where we ask fans to view a couple of episodes of a Kodansha anime and join us on Twitter to chat about them. In the same way we might also promote the anime alongside the manga at a convention, we have the ability to have those discussions online with fans directly.”
An uncertain future
Publishers, like everyone else, worry about the lasting economic fallout from Covid-19. Denpa’s Chavez worries that it will lead to consolidation and a reluctance to publish certain genres and “alternative voices.” He adds, “I know we will continue to do that with Denpa, but I can’t say we haven’t thought about leaning a little more mainstream to help bump up future revenue.”
J-Novel’s Pinansky says that while this is “a difficult period for many publishers that rely on print sales, I think everyone in the industry is confident that there’s no fundamental drop in demand for the content. If anything, there’s been a reinforcement of how important manga, light novels, and anime are as an entertainment segment.”
According to Salazar, “It’s just a matter of giving greater access to readers while they’re unable to leave their homes.”
Yen Press’s Hassler says, “The rest of 2020 is still an open question in many respects. Our goal is to remain as nimble as possible to react to how the market develops with the best strategy. As for the impact beyond 2020, we fully expect that we’ll regain all of the momentum we had at our backs and more in time. I think for everyone the question now is, when?”
Deb Aoki writes regularly for Publishers Weekly about manga.
Correction: a description of J-Novel in an earlier version of this story was incorrect; J-Novel is a light novel and manga publisher that releases works in print and digital formats.