North American manga publishers continue to recover from the double whammy of recession and a market correction in the late 2000s, citing strong sales in print and digital and looking to the future with a cautious optimism. Manga publishers are adding more titles and expanding distribution channels; others are expanding their digital publishing efforts and branching out into new ventures—and a few are even looking to open new offices.
Among North American manga publishers looking to grow, the key word is sustainability. To get a better sense of what’s happening in the marketplace, PW checked in with publishing pros from North America’s top manga publishers and got their take on today’s trends in licensing and publishing manga.
Like many of her peers at other companies, Leyla Aker, Viz Media’s senior v-p of publishing, reports that “print manga sales have been growing the past couple of years.” She sums up this trend as a “market correction after the retrenchment triggered by the Borders closure in 2011 and the bursting of the manga bubble.”
Ed Chavez, marketing director at Vertical Inc., a publisher of contemporary Japanese fiction, nonfiction, and manga in New York City, says there has been “quite a bit of growth in the last year.” This includes “more units shipped, and more revenue as well.”
Udon Entertainment editor-in-chief Erik Ko characterizes his company’s print and digital sales as “stable,” a view that Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl from Chromatic Press—a new online independent publisher of manga and original comics—echoes: “My impression is that U.S. manga sales are pretty stable, with a few megahit bright spots out there. But what increase there is, it’s coming from the digital space.”
At Yen Press, Hachette’s manga and graphic novel imprint, v-p and publishing director Kurt Hassler is even more bullish, describing the North American manga industry as being in a state of “healthy growth, both in print and digitally.” He adds, “2014 represented for Yen an all-time high, both in terms of dollars and unit sales, with a healthy increase over 2013, which was our previous record-setting year.”
Jason DeAngelis, publisher of Seven Seas Manga, also has good news to share. “Our sales have literally doubled in 2014; most of this comes from print.” DeAngelis says access to “licensors and new content has never been stronger” and emphasizes that backlist sales have been “very robust.” He also points to a variety of new award-winning licenses coming in 2015, such as The Ancient Magus’ Bride, by Kore Yamazaki, and Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, by Nami Sano.
Smaller publishers have new titles listed for 2015 release, such as U.K./Spain-based indie publisher Fanfare-Ponent Mon and the manhwa (Korean manga) publisher NetComics, both of which have been lying low for the past few years.
A good deal of the renewed vigor in the manga market can be attributed to an overall stronger U.S. economy, but there are other factors, including new distribution channels, the growth of legal digital publishing, and some new popular series that are generating a rising tide of sales for the entire category.
Dark Horse Comics reports stronger than ever manga sales, largely due their new distribution deal with Penguin Random House Publisher Services, the distribution unit of the giant publishing house.
“We have seen a very noticeable increase in sales since we switched our book distribution to Penguin Random House last summer,” says Dark Horse manga editor Carl Horn. “In particular, we are now getting our manga to more independent bookstores, as well as the major chains.” Michael Gombos, Dark Horse’s director of Asian licensing, adds, “Our numbers are up overall, considerably, and we’re very happy with them.”
“It’s great news for manga publishers these days, and we’re no exception,” says Kana Koide, general manager of Kodansha Comics, the U.S. subsidiary of Japan’s largest manga publisher. “We’re seeing growth across the board for most of our books, in both print and digital.” Kodansha Comics has benefited from the runaway success of its Attack on Titan series, but Koide notes that “when we ran our numbers for 2014, we found that if we removed Attack on Titan from our analysis, we were still up by double digits [in percentage points] from 2013 to 2014.” He adds, “It’s a great sign that manga is growing again.”
Strong franchises, including many that also feature anime, game, and movie tie-ins, continue to boost many publishers’ bottom lines—such as Kodansha Comics’ success with the continuing popularity of the aforementioned Attack on Titan. With more than 2.3 million copies in print and a version airing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, Attack on Titan remains the manga juggernaut of the moment.
Besides the main AOT manga series, various spinoffs are on tap for 2015 release, including the manga Attack on Titan: Before the Fall, light novels (i.e., illustrated prose tie-in works) such as Attack on Titan: Kuklo (Vertical), and tie-ins such as The Science of Attack on Titan, a companion book that delves into the science behind the fictional world of the giant Titans, mammoth creatures that terrorize the populace. In August, Kodansha will release a special edition of Attack on Titan, Volume 16, which includes a deck of high-quality playing cards with art from the series.
But AoT is not Kodansha Comics’ only success story. Koide also cited continuing interest in Hiro Mashima’s Fairy Tail—a bestselling fantasy/adventure manga series, which will release its 50th volume in 2015—and breakout hits such as Say I Love You, by Kanae Hazuki, and Noragami, by Adachitoka.
What about the other reigning champ of the manga bestseller list, Naruto? Even though this long-running ninja series ended recently, Viz Media doesn’t see it as the end of its enduring popularity.
“Although the frontlist releases of the Naruto graphic novels concluded in 2014, this certainly doesn’t spell the end of the series,” Aker says. “There will be more publishing product in the future, and the anime releases will continue for quite some time,” she explains. “More importantly, Naruto is one of those rare properties that has achieved the status of being a pop-culture touchstone,” she says, likening it to such manga classics (and Viz properties) as Dragon Ball and Death Note. “Years, or even decades, past their initial publication, they continue to sell and sell as new readers continue to discover them,” Aker says.
Viz isn’t resting on its laurels either. In recent months, they’ve added several buzzworthy titles to their 2015 lineup, including The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the long out-of-print classic drawn by Kamen Rider creator Shotaro Ishinomori; the zombie series Tokyo Ghoul; the heartwarming shonen (boy-oriented) superhero tale My Hero Academia; a revamped version of Ultraman; and Fragments of Horror, a new collection of short stories by Junji Ito.
Digital Is Growing
In 2015, almost every publisher is exploring ways to fortify and expand its presence in digital publishing.
The more-is-more approach is still in effect, as several companies offer digital content via their own websites and retail outlets (such as Dark Horse Digital, VizManga.com, Digital Manga Publishing’s eManga). In addition publishers are selling manga-using apps (Viz Media and Yen Press both have apps for iOS and Android) and using digital comics retailers such as Comixology and Sequential, app-centric bookstores such as Apple’s iBooks store and Google Play, and e-book platforms such as Amazon Kindle, Nook, and Kobo.
Though readers once had to wait years before they could read the latest chapters of their favorite series from Japan, same-day/same-week publication of manga in Japanese and English is happening more and more. Viz Media, Crunchyroll Manga, Yen Press, and Kodansha Comics are all offering “day and date,” or simultaneous, releases of hot manga titles, in a move that gets bestselling titles to manga fans and also serves to stem digital piracy.
For example, Kodansha Comics’ Manga Simulpub arrangement with the online manga subscription service Crunchyroll Manga has expanded from 12 to 21 English-language series in a year, 17 of which are simultaneously released with the Japanese-language version every week or every month. Thanks to positive fan feedback, Kodansha launched similar services in South Korea (with Haksan) and Taiwan (with Tong Li), and it is gearing up to launch in Europe.
“We never think it’s enough, and we need to add more series in the service to attract more new manga fans,” Koide says, adding, “We would like to hit 30 series within this year.”
Similarly, Yen Press teamed up with Japanese publisher, game developer, and distributor Square Enix last year to offer more than 200 titles digitally, including some released simultaneously in Japan. “We fully intend to continue aggressively pursuing digital releases and to expand our efforts through new platforms, with a retooling of the Yen app, which is still going strong,” Hassler says.
In addition to its popular weekly digital manga anthology Weekly Shonen Jump, Viz Media is experimenting with initiatives such as Jump Start, which gives readers a taste of the newest series as they debut in Japan. The new sequel to shojo (girl-oriented comics) cult hit Boys over Flowers is also being offered to readers immediately via VizManga.com and Comixology.
And though Viz is “looking forward to rolling out more digital initiatives like these in the near future,” Aker also concedes that “digital sales, like those of many other publishers, have skyrocketed in the same period, but in absolute dollar terms print is still very much larger than digital.”
Koide reports that though digital sales contributed to the strong performance of Kodansha Comics’ Attack on Titan and Fairy Tail releases, the digital sales still only represented 10% of the sales on those two series in 2014.
At Vertical, “digital is pretty flat for [Vertical prose], and it has been minimal at best for manga,” Chavez says. “The [Osamu] Tezuka books have done quite poorly in e-book format. We have had one manga title that has bucked that pattern: Knights of Sidonia, by Tsutomu Nihei. Volumes that debuted after the anime of the series launched on NetFlix have been quite strong [in sales].”
A Tipping Point?
In 2014, Comixology, the digital comics marketplace, boosted its manga offerings significantly when they gained access to Viz Media’s catalogue. Top Viz titles, including One Piece and Midnight Secretary, joined offerings from Udon Entertainment, Digital Manga, Seven Seas Manga, Fantagraphics, and Chromatic Press.
Chromatic Press editor Diaz-Pryzbyl notes, “I feel like Comixology hit the manga tipping point in the last year or so, and it’s opening up digital access to manga in a way that just didn’t exist until now.”
However, there are factors that prevent Comixology and sites like it from offering a broader array of manga from various publishers. Chavez says Vertical is in a “holding pattern” in getting its titles on Comixology. “Some of our contracts will not work under Comixology’s financial breakdown, so that is another potential setback.”
Ko says his Japanese licensors prevent him from offering Udon’s complete catalogue on Comixology. However, he adds that “we are certainly hoping to expand our digital footprint in 2015 with more titles and more platforms.”
Over at Dark Horse, Gombos explains how the intricacies of getting the required approvals from individual creators and their publishers prevents Dark Horse Manga titles from being widely available in more countries and on more platforms: “You will see certain titles on certain platforms, such as Nook and Kobo; it varies not only by licensor but by title as well. For example, I am currently working with a licensor, and on a particular title, they’re fine distributing anywhere—but not Kobo. That happens sometimes.”
Besides Comixology, there are sites offering content on a “pay once, all-you-can read” digital subscription model, such as Crunchyroll Manga, Gen Manga, and Viz Media’s digital Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. There are also several Japan-based sites and apps offering manga in English, such as MangaBox, ComicWalker, and BookWalker.
But offering a solid user experience is key, and telling users to go to different sites to get their manga fix just isn’t going to cut it.
“The thing about digital platforms is that people don’t want to have to sign up for a million different things—they want easy, one-stop digital comics shopping, featuring the latest and greatest, and that’s what I think Comixology and Crunchyroll are finally providing,” Diaz-Pryzbyl says.
There is more manga available to fans (both digitally and legally) than ever before, and it’s available faster than ever. But the digital marketplace is still scattered and inconsistent when it comes to global availability, platform availability, and discoverability. Though manga publishers have made great strides, the current situation is unfriendly to the casual browser/buyer of manga who can still get a superior, one-stop browsing and discovery experience from illegal scanlation websites—and pirated manga at these sites is all free. Things are getting better, but many publishers won’t truly win against pirate manga sites until they can beat them where it counts: worldwide availability and great user experiences.
Kodansha Comics Goes West
As recently as five years ago, Japanese licensors were reluctant to give North American publishers digital rights, mostly due to piracy concerns. But change is in the air, and some of it’s coming from the Japanese side of the business.
“U.S. manga publishers have been actively pushing for digital rights since my final days at Tokyopop—four years ago!—but that branch of licensing was always like pulling teeth,” Diaz-Pyrzbyl says. “But I was approached in the last year by two major Japanese publishers who were looking for advice on how to branch out into digital spaces in the US. Both were interested in pursuing those avenues very aggressively.”
One such move is already in motion: Kodansha has announced the arrival of Kodansha Advanced Media LLC (KAM), a new subsidiary based in San Francisco that will be the base for Kodansha’s digital business in North America. According to Koide, “KAM will try to increase the number of digital manga volumes drastically, up to 2,000 volumes, as soon as possible. Our priority is to make as much digital manga as possible available to fans, and to make it easier to try and purchase new manga. To realize that goal, we won’t hesitate to work with any type of platform, retailer, or service provider.”
A Healthier Market
Though not quite at the level of its peak years in the early 2000s, print and digital manga sales are on the upswing; innovation and expansion is happening, and almost everyone agrees that the category is moving toward a healthier, more sustainable market.
There is still lots of room to grow, lots of opportunities to reach new readers, and a lot of improvements needed in digital publishing. However, given how far U.S. manga publishers have come since the darkest days of the recession, you can’t blame these companies for relishing this moment of hard-earned and long-overdue optimism.
Deb Aoki writes regularly on manga and graphic novels for Publishers Weekly.