The future of manga worldwide is in digital distribution, according to Kunimatsu Atsushi, executive director of MangaNovel.com, the Toshiba Corp.’s recently launched online manga service. Kunimatsu said he believes MangaNovel will revolutionize manga distribution by bringing manga to an international audience at affordable costs to readers and publishers. The difference, according to Kunimatsu, is MangaNovel’s original translation system. Using Toshiba’s DRM software, MQbit, MangaNovel allows individuals to download and read translations, and also provide their own translations for the Web site.
MangaNovel plans to allow consumers to purchase manga at prices comparable to those in Japan and East Asia. Formally launched last month, MangaNovel will attempt to keep consumer prices down by removing the middleman, in this case the translators and editors. All of the manga on the site is originally available only in Japanese. MangaNovel encourages users from all countries and languages to purchase manga, download the content and use Toshiba’s MQbit MangaReader to translate the manga. Translated manga can then be uploaded to MangaNovel to be sold in exchange for MangaNovel credits. Kunimatsu said this system allows the original artist and the translator to tell their own stories, creating a sense of global community. He said, “Every user is a translator.”
Despite its development into a global medium, manga’s growth in the international market has been restricted by many issues. Japan’s 60-year history of publishing manga has developed a strong distribution system built on work published in periodical anthologies that is eventually collected into graphic novels. Recently, new channels in the form of digital media for personal computers and cellphones, have helped publishers sell new titles and, more importantly, backlist. Online services such as eBook Japan have generated sales in East Asia for graphic novels, magazines and prose titles that might have been pushed off shelves at most stores after being available for only a few months. In Japan’s competitive $4 billion manga market, finding new readers in an age where shelf space has maxed out in even the largest Tokyo bookstores means reaching readers in train stations, convenience stores and now online.
In the U.S., manga is available mainly in bookstores and specialty stores. Publishing manga internationally means, in addition to distribution issues, additional costs and obstacles, among them licensing fees, localization (including translation, editing, and lettering) and marketing, which can double or triple the cost of a book in translation. Shueisha’s Japanese version of Naruto costs 410¥ (U.S.$3.50), while Viz’s U.S. version is $7.99. Dark Horse’s Blade of the Immortal, Vol. 17 is available for $16.95, while the Kodansha version is only 540¥ (U.S.$4.60). The price for Viz’s Shonen Jump manga is considered low ($7.99) for manga in the States, but MangaNovel promises to beat even that.
The online publisher’s Web site [http://www.manganovel.com], designed with help from MIT’s Media Lab, is hosting 24 titles from Japanese publisher Shonen Gahosha and 5 MangaNovel original Web comics. and one manga, A Six Feet Tall Girl from Mainichi Shimbun. Individual chapters of licensed manga can be purchased for as low as 131¥ (U.S.$1.15) and whole volumes of manga are 525¥ (U.S.$4.50). MangaNovel’s Web comics are free to users upon registration with the site.
The translation program has the potential to open any manga on the MangaNovel site to new markets worldwide. Currently, readers from more than 130 nations have accessed the Web site, and translations have been made in English, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese and Tagalog (some of these have been provided by MangaNovel staff). The MangaNovel Web site is currently available in English and Japanese, but to other languages may be added in the future.
Kunimatsu says MangaNovel’s content will not be limited to manga or Japanese properties either. The Web site launched its third Web comic in early October. Izumi Bell’s Parano is a full-color comic published monthly exclusively for MangaNovel. MangaNovel is looking for more original content for the site from Japan and abroad. The potential global market for MangaNovel provides new opportunities for individual artists on equal terms with published print material, all the while generating public interest, new translations and new opportunities for growth. In the future, Kunimatsu said he would like to see illustrated books and comic strips on the site to go along with feature length comics and Web comics.
While there is currently only one publisher working with MangaNovel, Kunimatsu said a number of groups are interested in the project because of the technology Toshiba has created. MangaNovel’s MQbit software provides copyright protection by using DRM with several layers of protection to make illegal copying of purchased materials difficult. While DRM is generally frowned upon by consumers, copyright owners almost always demand such measures to keep their works safe.
All files are kept on a private server in Japan, and users can access the files through the MangaNovel reader. Once readers access the online server, they can select the titles they purchased, select languages and manage translations. Consumers will need a Windows-based computer (there’s no Mac service yet), and since only the MangaReader is downloaded, the manga does not take up space on the user’s hard drive. Translations will also be stored on MangaNovel’s servers, providing security to users as well as publishers. Kunimatsu suggested that MangaNovel’s low prices and easy availability may even attract manga scanlators—fans that post their own unofficial and quasi-legal translations of their favorite Japanese-language manga online.
Kunimatsu said plans are being made to accommodate PDAs and the iPhone/iPod Touch. While most cellphones would require manga to be reformatted for smaller screens, Kunimatsu said the iPhone’s large screen and unique interface is ideal for MangaNovel’s service.