One of the big publishing success stories—and perhaps one of the industry’s biggest surprises—of the past two years is how well manga is selling in North America. Words like “explosive growth” and “unprecedented” are now commonly used to describe the manga marketplace. Driven by such strong tailwinds, manga publishers are looking to a possible postpandemic consumer market with more readers hungry for even more titles, more channels for print and digital distribution, and still more types of stories, not just from Japan but from South Korea and China as well—indeed, more of everything that has made manga such a popular category of late.
“The manga market has grown so much in the last two years that it’s now at its highest level by far, more than 2.5 times larger than the earlier sales peak back in 2007,” says Masaaki Shimizu, general manager and publisher at Square Enix Manga & Books. “We’re hoping to see it maintain this level, but I believe it has the potential to grow even more.”
“Sales exploded in 2021 even beyond what we saw in 2020, and 2022 has outperformed 2021,” says Yae Sahashi, v-p of sales and marketing at Kodansha, “with growth driven by series like Wotakoi, Blue Period, Vinland Saga, and others.”
Here’s a snapshot of North American manga sales: according to NPD Bookscan, first volumes of such longtime manga bestselling series as Attack on Titan, My Hero Academia, and Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba sold more than 160,000 copies each in print in 2021, a year-over-year increase of over 25%. Keep in mind that these numbers don’t include sales of digital editions, streaming and subscription readership, or other sales that aren’t reported to Bookscan, such as library purchases and sales at comic book shops, so total sales for these titles (and many other manga published in North America) are likely much, much higher.
But it wasn’t just the bestsellers: almost all publishers reported stronger than usual sales for their midlist and backlist titles. According to Erik Ko, publisher at the Canadian manga studio and publishing house Udon Entertainment, “In the past year alone, we sold 200% more copies of [the video-game-inspired] Persona 3, Vol. 1 than we did over the past seven years combined. It’s almost like people didn’t know that this manga existed until now!”
Several publishers offered anecdotes about the growing number of younger readers discovering manga through watching anime on streaming channels such as Netflix or Crunchyroll.
“The driver behind the unprecedented growth for manga was a chain reaction effect, which was triggered during the early stage of the pandemic and amplified throughout it,” Shimizu says. “It began with the major video streaming services experiencing a surge in their subscriber numbers, which led to anime getting, or regaining, more and more attention, which led to consumers’ increased interest in the original manga series behind the anime. All this resulted in rapid growth of the manga market as a whole.”
Sahashi says, “Readers new to manga fandom have flocked to existing hits, helping make Attack on Titan, Vol. 1 the bestselling manga of 2021, even though it’s nearly 10 years old.”
Lianne Sentar, sales and marketing manager at Seven Seas Entertainment noticed this newcomers-to-manga trend, as well. “My niece and nephew are young teens, and I can’t believe how mainstream anime and manga is for kids their age,” she says. “They’re devouring anime I watched 20 years ago, but now it’s legally streaming on their phones in the car ride to a family-friendly anime or comic convention.”
If manga’s place at the forefront of graphic novel sales in North America wasn’t obvious before, it definitely is now. “Manga is no longer a niche category,” says Kevin Hamric, v-p, publishing sales at Viz Media. “It is now a mainstream/mass category. We welcome all the new readers and fans.”
Demand Clashes with Supply Chain Woes
When the pandemic started, it was hard to predict how it would affect manga publishing in North America. At the end of 2019, manga sales were on an upward trajectory, but given how past manga booms have later fizzled out, many publishers tend to be cautious about spikes in sales. As we move toward midyear 2022, however, it’s becoming clear that manga’s recent and rapid sales growth is real and has the potential to endure even in the face of current supply chain problems.
Many of the trends that boosted manga sales in 2020 and 2021—the popularity of anime streaming, a proliferation of titles and genres for teens and adults—are still factors today. Also, with many other forms of entertainment like concerts, movies, and sporting events either restricted or shuttered throughout much of the pandemic, people of all ages were able to discover and read more manga than ever. And as demand for manga continues to grow, retailers that would not previously have considered carrying much manga are now lining up to get a piece of the action.
“The North American market for manga is still strong and growing,” says Viz’s Hamric; Viz is one of the largest publishers of manga in North America. “This includes all sales channels in the U.S. and Canada—book retail, indies, online, library, mass merchandisers, direct market, etc.—and there is continued interest from new accounts that have never sold manga before.”
This success isn’t just limited to the bigger publishers. Denpa, a small Portland, Ore.–based indie manga house, is also seeing encouraging signs from its current and new retail outlets. “The majority of our catalog is up,” says Denpa publisher Ed Chavez. “We are expanding to more new markets these days. Sales in the U.K. have picked up a bit, and more indie bookstores are working with us domestically, including a few new manga specialty stores.”
But supply chain problems—including limited printer capacity, paper shortages, and other production and distribution problems—are hampering all manga publishing and creating headaches for publishers big and small. Unexpectedly strong sales of both front and backlist titles have resulted in publishers seeing inventories that would usually last several months or years being sold out much more quickly, before they can get printer time scheduled to replenish. The result? Many titles are listed as unavailable, with retailers sometimes waiting months to restock the manga readers are looking for.
“Reprints have slowed down to rates I have never experienced before,” Chavez says. “Lead times are four to five months longer than even a year ago; that is impacting us, as a number of our series have volumes out-of-stock.”
Kurt Hassler, publisher and managing director at Yen Press, a manga co-venture between Hachette and the Kadokawa corporation, says, “Supply chain issues—most notably paper supply and printer capacity—remain our biggest challenges this year. While the growth of the category is welcome, it puts increasing pressure on our ability to manage both front and backlist publishing.”
Hamric agrees. “The supply chain issues are ongoing and will be with us for the foreseeable future,” he says. “For example, paper suppliers are now asking for estimates into summer 2023.”
Sentar notes, “There’s not enough paper, there’s not enough press time, overseas shipping is less predictable and more expensive—the printing and distribution of physical books has been in crisis mode since 2020 and will probably continue to be that way at least through 2023. Even if shortages were fixed tomorrow, things would still be a crunch because of the unprecedented demand! It’s a perfect storm of soaring popularity and limited supplies.”
In response to this crisis, publishers have had to make compromises and changes to their production schedules and processes. Leyla Aker, director, publishing services at Penguin Random House Publisher Services, says for Square Enix titles, “We’ve had to become flexible in sourcing materials—substituting different types of paper or cover stock, for example—and in moving publication dates due to last-minute changes to manufacturing and shipping timelines.”
In response to limited printer capacity, publishers are working to get new vendors to print manga. Ben Applegate, director publishing services at Penguin Random House, which oversees the production of Kodansha titles in the U.S., says, “Though most of our books are still printed in North America, we’ve gone from printing in four countries to printing in eight countries across Europe, North America, and Asia, which has led to a gain in flexibility. We’re constantly vetting new printers.”
Yen Press’s Hassler says, “While we’re slowly starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel with regard to the reprints we’ve had in the works, we’re still looking at increasing lead times for new reprints. Six to eight months to get certain titles back in stock has become something of the norm, so we continue to look further ahead and try to get ahead of reprints as much as possible.”
Hamric says, “We are constantly communicating with our suppliers and updating our accounts and readers with relevant information. The good news is that almost everyone understands the situation.”
Print Shortages and Webtoon Drive Digital Growth
So what can readers do when popular titles are out of stock? Well, digital publishing—digital first, digital only, subscription, and mobile apps—is a key option. Consumers can find a broad range of online manga services that can either sell them e-book versions of their favorite manga, or they can get access to them for free or for a monthly subscription fee. Services have proliferated and include Azuki, BookWalker, Comixology, InkyPen, Izneo, Mangamo, Manga Planet, MangaPlus, and Weekly Shonen Jump. They offer a wide variety of genres and stories, while other platforms, such as Futekiya Library and Renta, offer a mix with an emphasis on such genres as romance, adult, and boys’-love/girls’-love stories.
In the past 12 months, newcomers like Manga Plaza, a streaming manga subscription site founded by Japanese mobile and web manga publishing company NTT Solmare, have entered the North American market. In addition there’s pop culture retailer/publisher Animate International, and Kadokawa digi-Pub, an English translation and digital publishing operation offering Kadokawa’s extensive manga and light novel catalog in digital format directly to readers through ebook e-commerce platforms and apps.
Encouraged by the growing popularity of mobile webcomics platforms such as Tapas and Webtoon—which serialize manga-style comics online, including the webtoon fantasy adventure series Solo Leveling—Yen Press is launching Ize Press, a new imprint dedicated to Korean manhwa/webtoons. “Manhwa has been a part of Yen’s business from our earliest days,” Hassler says, “and we’re delighted to expand our support and advocacy with our Ize Press initiative in collaboration with Redice Studio and Riverse.”
Directed by Yen Press deputy publisher and editor-in-chief JuYoun Lee, Ize Press will launch with titles from Hybe, a K-pop/webtoons collaboration featuring some of the Korean music world’s biggest stars, among them BTS, Enhyphen, and TXT. “These titles were released in 10 languages when they debuted, and collectively they’ve accrued more than 70 million views and growing,” Yen’s Hassler says.
While releasing comics from South Korea is not new for manga publishers, the current success of such webtoon platforms as Leizhin, Manta, Naver Webtoon, Tapas, and Tappytoon is fueling greater interest among print manga publishers, including Dark Horse, Seven Seas Entertainment, Tokyopop and Yen Press, to offer print versions of popular online series.
Boys’-love, girls’-love, and Adult Readers
Another genre enjoying newfound success and reader interest is adult romance, especially such genres as boys’-love (or yaoi, which centers on intimate relations between men and is marketed toward women) and girls’-love manga (or yuri, which centers on intimate relations between women). Given the sensitivity of selling manga with mature content in stores that often shelve titles alphabetically rather than by genre or content rating, the print editions of these titles are shrink-wrapped and are frequently (but not exclusively) purchased online.
Denpa recently acquired the Kuma BL imprint in 2021 and has expanded its release schedule from two books a year to a book a month. “Song of Yoru and Asa sold out its first printing in three weeks,” Chavez says. “That title already had its largest print run ever, so it’s moving at a rate we were not expecting at all.”
Viz Media’s SuBLime boys’-love imprint reported strong sales for titles including Natsuki Kizu’s Given and Reibun Ike’s Dick Fight Island, while Seven Seas Entertainment has been getting a lot of fan buzz for a new line of danmei (Chinese boys’-love) fantasy novels by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, a renowned Chinese danmei author. “The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, and Heaven Official’s Blessing were our biggest-ever releases in our biggest-ever year,” Sentar says.
TokyoPop has also been expanding its Love x Love manga lineup with several boys’-love and girls’-love manga titles, including some Korean webtoon BL hits, such as On or Off by A1. Seven Seas Entertainment has also expanded its offerings of manga with sexier, more adult-oriented content via two separate imprints for sexy manga—Ghost Ship for male readers, which debuted in 2017, and Steamship for female readers, which was added in early 2022 with a list offering four shojo/josei titles for ages 17 and up: Ladies on Top, Outbride: Beauty and the Beasts, I’ll Never Be Your Crown Princess!, and Game: Between the Suits—with more coming soon.
“Manga readers were very receptive to this imprint when we announced it, and we expect it to do well,” Sentar says.
Deb Aoki writes regularly for PW about manga.