Manga continues to be one of the hottest categories in bookstores, and publishers are responding to the demand with both new product and new marketing tools. Manga, like Japanese anime before it, is gradually evolving from a hard-core cult obsession to the kind of mainstream phenomenon that teens and young adults adopt as their own.

The strength of manga's appeal becomes apparent when you consider that most of the top-selling books are printed in the original Japanese right-to-left format. Not only do readers have to relearn how to read comics, they have to relearn how to read a book. But the audience has not been intimidated, and more publishers are going to what is being called the "authentic Japanese" format, which has been aggressively championed by Tokyopop.

Dark Horse, a longtime American publisher of manga, has traditionally reversed film in order to offer Western-style left-to-right editions. Dark Horse v-p of sales and marketing Michael Martens confirms the company's change to the right-to-left format, although series already started in the left-to-right format will stay that way.

Although relatively new, Tokyopop manga titles are dominating the weekly Bookscan charts. Steve Kleckner, v-p of sales and marketing at Tokyopop, reports that sales doubled last year, and he expect them to double again this year as title output increases from 300 to 500. Dark Horse enjoys steady sales from a line of proven classics, such as Astro Boy, Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Lone Wolf and Cub, which has over half a million copies of its 20 volumes in print.

Viz, which pioneered manga in the American market, recently underwent a reorganization after being acquired by Shueisha, publisher of Shonen Jump, the biggest manga magazine in Japan. The American version of Shonen Jump was launched ambitiously last year, and has sold well on newsstands.

Viz v-p of marketing Liza Coppola points out that the audience is often highly educated about products that haven't even made it to America yet. She noted, "These are fans that know exactly what they want. As soon as the property is announced, they know when it's coming." Viz's plan for the coming year include a line of Shonen Jump graphic novels, spun off from the magazine and featuring such franchise characters as Yu-Gi-Oh and Dragonball Z. This summer, Viz will launch the cult favorite Excel Saga. Overall, Viz is de-emphasizing monthly periodical comics in favor of graphic novels and the house has reduced the prices on its graphic novels to $7.95, to be more competitive with Tokyopop. (Dark Horse is also bringing down prices, although not much below $13.95.)

Raijin launched last year with a weekly comics magazine featuring more boy-oriented fare. While sales to specialty stores for Raijin magazine remain modest, the revamped graphic novel treatment of Fist of the Northstar, which is serialized in the magazine, has found success in bookstores and more graphic novels are planned. Success breeds imitation. Marvel, Image and DC have also jumped into the fray with projects ranging from Marvel's recently announced Tsunami line (News, Feb. 3) to DC's American manga edition of Kia Asamiya's Batman: Child of Dreams.

This year, manga publishers are moving in all sorts of directions. Dark Horse just launched Man-Machine Interface, the eagerly awaited sequel to the bestselling 1995 Ghost in the Shell. DH is introducing Metropolis, Lost World and Future World by Osamu Tezuka, the legendary manga artist known as the "Walt Disney of Japan." Beyond that, DH has several new licenses about to be signed, many of them already well known in the United States from either video anime releases or live-action films. DH is also developing manga versions of American comics, according to Martens.

Kleckner ascribes the success of Tokyopop's manga line to strong licenses, which include top sellers Chobits and Love Hina. "I am still amazed every week at how well the books are performing across the board, not just with women but with males as well, and a lot of that is the CLAMP stuff," he said.

CLAMP is a collective of women artists and writers who are responsible for such hits on both sides of the Pacific as Chobits and Cardcaptor Sakura. Later this year, Tokyo Pop will release CLAMP School Detectives, Duklyon: CLAMP School Defenders and The Man of Many Faces, all with various school settings. Tokyopop is also publishing Battle Royale, a Lord of the Flies—like tale about students competing to survive on an island; it's already created a sensation in Japan.

Tokyopop's young-reader-friendly Cine-manga line of storyboard-style (books made from images from the animated films) licensed books recently added Disney's Kim Possible and Lizzie McGuire, and Nickelodeon's Sponge Bob Square Pants and Jimmy Neutron to the lineup. Kim Possible is already doing very well in bookstores, "without any display and without any promotions. It's just on the shelves," Kleckner points out.

The Cine-manga books are also being launched into Target and Wal-Mart (one manga title, the epic fantasy Rave Master, is also being introduced into Target); Kleckner views the move as experimental. And Tokyopop is looking at other nontraditional outlets, said Kleckner, "retail places that never carried books before, but that appeal to young customers, like video game dealers."

Although manga is a hot category, it still hasn't reached mass market numbers. "We're not going to scare John Grisham, but the numbers are really solid," said one marketing executive. But returns continue to be phenomenally low. "Our sell-through has been really good," said Martens at Dark Horse. Tokyopop's returns are about 8%, which suggests there may not be enough product on the shelves. "My goal," said Kleckner, "is double-digits in returns." "We need to demystify the category," said Martens. "It's a format, not a genre."

And while librarians have been very receptive, Martens noted, he and Kleckner emphasized that are still some doubters. "I still run into a lot of people in the book business who are convinced this is just a fad and it's gong to go away in a year or so. How wrong they are," said Kleckner, whose background includes many years in electronics retail and the video game industry. He points to such kids' properties as Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh and noted that when one fad fades, another takes its place. "It's like video games—do you think there isn't going to be a another hot racing game in a year? This is not going away."