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MangaNEXT 2012 – State of the Manga Industry

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Gen Manga, JManga, Vertical and ALC Publishing were in attendence. Marketing Director of Vertical Inc., Ed Chavez become the defacto moderator of the panel. President of ALC Publishing, Erica Friedman introduced herself next as a representative of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Robert Newman of JManga sat on Chavez’s left with Robert McGuire, Editor in Chief and President of Gen Manga at the end. The varied panelists opened the room to an interesting discussion that can be addressed from different points of view of the industry.

Chavez opened with a question about what each of them thought about the manga industry in the recent years. He himself felt that the manga industry didn’t take off until the last 10 years even with the 20 year history.

McGuire noted that he was a fan of manga before Tokyopop began while collecting thin issues of Fist of the North Star. He also worked in Japan before in the manga industry and could compare it to the ‘traditional route’ that the US took when he worked in a different company here. He felt that the change in the manga industry is based on the how manga is being produced currently. Readership is up, evidenced by fans at cons but sales are drastically decreasing every year. Scanlations are a major issue. He added an anecdote about a kid asking him at a con if the Gen Manga releases were on Mangafox. “‘You know that it’s not legal’ And they were like ‘Oh’ and they ran away.” McGuire understands that fans don’t want to wait for their series but it’s impossible to release Japanese manga in English immediately. Gen Manga releases indie/doujinshi series which are licensed directly from the creator. Due to their closer connection, Gen Manga is able receive new pages as the creator draws them out. With the quick turnover, there is simultaneous release which may address the issue about waiting.

Friedman brought up a wonderful analogy to how manga is being produced nowadays. “We are in a pre-Gutenburg press space.” She explained that in the past monks were the ones who reproduced books via writing or copying by hand. With the Gutenburg press, books were standarized. With the manga industry, we’re still in the pre-Gutenburg time where there are a variety of monks all trying to put out manga a certain way without a standard method.

At the same time, through the internet, readers are way ahead of the companies. Licensing is getting more and more expensive and while companies are trying to catch up and release something, “technology slams you in the face and everyone saids ‘we’re not doing that again’.” Even the digital model that is created may not be able to stand up to the evolving internets. The concept of “‘We just want our manga now for free’ which isn’t really an actionable item for those of us in the industry” isn’t a probable choice for companies even if they want to give to the fans.

Friedman also addresses the common knowledge that the audience (those who read) is much, much larger than the market (those who buy.) Those fans may feel that the audience equates the market, that is untrue. The number of yuri fans that say there are so many yuri fans does not equate the number of fans that will buy the manga.

McGuire quips that Japan already has a manga-buying culture. “You go to the convenience store and you buy onigiri, you buy tea and you buy manga.” Friedman adds that in that vein, distribution is difficult in the US since not many bookstores carry manga. Many retail stores and convenient stores do not physically have manga on their shelves. Japan already has a distribution model with a long history that works and it’s vastly different in the US. Chavez noted that in Japan, companies have the ability to put pressure on distributors and stores while in the US, distributors put the pressure on several retail stores like Walmart and Borders. Bigger companies like Random House may be able to influence stores, but the companies on the panel find difficulty doing something like that. Vertical had experience trying to talk to them with the basic reply of “We only want the books on the New York Times’ Best Seller’s List.”

Newman explains that Japan’s manga industry has always been strong since there already is an existing infrastructure for it. A wide variety of manga is found everywhere. “I work in Akihabara and I’ve literally tripped over manga on the street. There is manga everywhere.” In the US, there is a huge audience, but the infrastructure that is being built centers on scanlations. Benefits the reader but takes a toll on the industry. The infrastructure needs to be rebuilt.

Friedman also brings up the point of danger of breaking obscenity laws since content on the computer is not just your own property and an extension of the self. TSA and border guards have the right to search electronics to not just keep out terrorists but to keep out pornography and obscenity of various kinds. McGuire adds that the point isn’t about scaring kids, arresting them or “attacking scanlators” since fans just want to read manga. The point is to create a system that it makes it affordable and easier to provide to the fans.

Scanlations were the only way in the past. Friedman mentions starting out in scanlations and providing translations to rare series: having to read text while looking at the Japanese raws. Although she supports that and don’t wish to attack the fans, there is still the risk that fans should be aware of. Arrested last year in Canada, US Citizen ‘Brandon’ was found with obscene manga on his computer and faces at minimum 1 year in prison.

McGuire believes that fans who feel that scanlations are of a certain quality are willing to pay a reasonable price for good quality manga. (I for one, agree.)

Newman points out that scanlations are sometimes just a way for fans to share something they love. “The artist may hear word of it and the artist will be so happy that some person in another country had enough passion to recreate it another language.” Although there are some scanlators that just want to get revenue for their site, there are others that just do it for the love of the series. He felt that good quality scanlations are rare.

The manga industry is at the point where the music industry was several years before itunes became popular. Friedman compared sites like MangaFox to Napster. The way to find a better method to let fans buy manga is made more complicated since the companies have to deal with Japanese companies which have an already pre-established infrastructure that was hinted at before. ALC Publishing and Gen Manga have an easier time with asking the creators directly for releasing their doujinshi in the US while licensed manga requires speaking with more “suits”. Money is needed to address all the different layers of “suits” and even then, the creators and editors might not get much out of the deal.

The subject of what doujinshi means to the industry was thrown about. Newman mentioned that in Japan, doujinshi is an integral part of the fandom, a way of expression. Doujinshi could consist of original story or ‘parodies’ and Friedman noted that fans usually prefer the ‘parodies’. (Although major cons like Anime Expo would have more original work.) The manga industry to Friedman feels more like short cycles of 5 years where a method is tried for production and than another. “It’s like two miscarriage and a baby.” The audience laughed and groaned at the analogy.

The conversation turned to merchandising. Publishing doesn’t make alot of money in general. Gen Manga releasing popular doujins that no one could possibly get otherwise in English may sell well, but it’s never that big. Larger companies with popular series like Naruto may sell many copies, but the money is in marketing the product and selling other things. Friedman further explains that the fanbase likes visuals so a series connected with an anime like Soul Eater will sell better than one without a visual component. She provides an example from Japan:

    “I walk into the convenience store and I see an Ax body spray that is One Piece branded. I than buy a nikuman-a bun-with a One Piece brand and I walk out and there is Chopper selling me ladies purses. I go into a sneaker store and I can get a sneaker with every single character except for the one I wanted, Nico Robin…You want to know why it sells that much? Because if you’re a person that has eyes that are open and ears that hear in Japan, you have seen One Piece branded goods.”

Newman agreed that if there was this type of marketing infrastructure in the US, “where you have to wear a blindfold in order to avoid seeing manga”, than obviously the market would be better. McGuire also addresses the literacy level in Japan. It is difficult to explain to the Japanese that there is illteracy in the world, people who don’t read since they have a society that reads. It is difficult to imagine in following their infrastructure since the public is vastly different from the US. He turns the attention back to the fans. “What do the fans want to see?” There are already brand related products in the market, the DC market is filled with them.

Friedman brought up an idea that if the fans could identify the creators, they would be able to contact them and suggest ideas. The ideas would bring things to motion and allow the flow of money to be more evenly distributed than if the licensing company made the decision. Direct marketing to the creators would eliminate most of the ‘middle men’.

Chavez bought up the question of what do the others think of the shift into the digital platform. JManga who works with many different companies explained that the Japanese companies like the paper medium as does Newman personally. Newman does feel that the digital medium cut costs and brings down the risks. JManga is able to release niche titles that would be very difficult to release in print. Chavez added that even if everyone had the capability to download manga into the brain, the concept of books would be very much ingrained into our minds since we grew up in that generation. McGuire supplied that since Gen Manga released in both print and digital with the print price being more expensive, he thought that the print copies wouldn’t sell as well. However, the sales is about 50% for each medium. Friedman added that she felt the current generation’s attachment to print stems from us growing up with it, a sense of nostalgia. However, she felt that it would faze out and the younger generation would be more drawn to digital media. (I agree to a point. Many people have reasons for choosing the digital medium over print. One is simply shelf space. Another is the ability to enlarge pictures to see details. However, like they say, I am very much attached to the print medium and doesn’t feel that digital copies hold the same hypothetical weight and value as books.)

McGuire addressed the magazines that are released in Japan. They’re the forerunners of the tankouban, an advertisement of sorts. They get the word out about a series and than when the tankouban are released, the fans will buy them which allows merch to be made. They noted that the one of the reasons why fans will buy the magazines are simply because of the things that come with it. Keychain, purses, phone straps. (It is true since the majority of the time I buy the magazines, it’s because I want the shitajiki or because I want the mail order limited edition item.)

The panelists agree that though the medium is moving towards digital releases, print releases are still a good idea. Friedman agreed with Gen Manga that releasing digital manga DRM free is important to keep restrictions from the consumer. The ability to read a particular chapter on any platform should be a given.

The panel closed with a open discussion on finding a shop to buy all sorts of manga rather than the digital component now of going to Viz to read Viz titles and the rest separated by the publisher. Friedman also expressed her indignation over restrictions over user content and the lack of consumer response especially with Apple’s declaration of ‘No porn on the ipad, get your yaoi on the Android.’ “When Jobs put the ipad out…he said ‘I’m going to protect the world from porn.’ He said that and none of you said ‘Hey, do not do that!'”

A funny comment from Chavez was that he pictured a future of digital manga with ability to release it in print for people’s personal museum/library. He himself would be in a jar with a bot flipping the pages “and telling me how nice the paper feels”. *audience laughs* He also hopes that there would be a central location for manga (which JManga hopes to achieve) with lots of information and suggestions for other manga leading to different publishers. Unfortunately, although Amazon provides a location to purchase manga, it is unable to provide proper suggestions in the same storyline or even genre.

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