New York Comic Con State of the Manga Industry Panel
by Mikhail Koulikov, Apr 22nd 2008
New York Comic Con's State of the Manga Industry panel brought together senior representatives from three of North America's most active manga publishers: Del Rey, Viz Media, and Tokyopop. For an hour, Dallas Middaugh, Liza Coppola, and Lillian Diaz-Przybyl shared their thoughts on some of the questions that will determine how the American market for Japanese comics will continue to develop.
Viz's Naruto has unquestionably been the most successful manga sold in America to date. Every time a new Naruto volume is shipped, it consistently performs well on the USA Today bestseller list against all books sold in the U.S., not to mention the monthly BookScan chart of top graphic novels. The obvious question, though, is: What happens to all of the manga publishers once Naruto has run its course? Are there other series that have the same kind of sales potential?
To answer this question, the panelists pointed to how well manga in general are selling. Of the top 50 graphic novels on the BookScan list, 37 originated in Japan. The real question, they agreed, is not about finding the next great manga hit, but about keeping the core audience of the current one engaged as the readers of Naruto and other manga that are popular now grow older. A parallel challenge has to do with attracting younger readers, those under the age of 10.
Starting off with these points, Tokyopop's Diaz-Przybyl noted that attracting younger readers remains difficult, since so much of the manga that are aimed at the elementary school age group in Japan would not be considered age-appropriate in the U.S.
Middaugh addressed how his company is looking for the Naruto killer, or at least Naruto equal, with titles like Fairy Tail, Del Rey's “hands-down biggest” new title since the company first entered the manga market with Negima and Tsubasa. In addition, it is apparently attracting many readers who have not previously been interested in Japanese culture. Somewhat to Middaugh's surprise, Kitchen Princess has been another extremely strong performer, and sales have increased with each successive volume.
Diaz-Przybyl added that one difficulty all manga publishers are still dealing with is promoting awareness of titles that have average sales and some interest, but should be able to do better. Two that she specifically mentioned are Gakuen Alice and V.B. Rose, which will be published bimonthly starting in the fall. At the same time, especially as the sheer number of manga volumes that are being published has shot up, retailers have been pushing the companies to extend the periods between individual volumes in order to give themselves enough time to clear shelves.
An audience member asked the panelists to talk about why out of the three of them, only Viz has been publishing a monthly manga anthology. The reasons they cited have to do with simple resource allocation. Launching a new magazine takes staff members that the other companies may not have. In general, the magazine market in the U.S. is highly competitive, and breaking into it, especially for a new publisher, is difficult. Finally, since Viz is a subsidiary of two of the leading Japanese manga publishers, it can boast assured access to manga to publish in its Shonen Jump and Shoujo Beat anthologies. Dallas Middaugh repeated that Del Rey's core competency is as a book publisher, and they see no reason to deviate from that. Advertisers are shifting money away from magazine advertising in general, so even commercially, launching one may not be viable. Finally, in his opinion, the reason Viz has been so successful with its magazines, in particular Shonen Jump, is because the manga that run it already have something that neither Del Rey nor the other American manga publishers has: nationwide television exposure. This allowed the magazine to make a very strong splash when it first landed in the market, and the positive effects of that have been ongoing. The panel did not include anyone from Yen Press, which talked extensively about its plans to launch the Yen Plus anthology at its own panel. That anthology will feature translated Japanese manga licensed from Square Enix, as well as Korean, Chinese, and original English-language comics.
Another audience question had to do with what influences each of the publishers in deciding when or how to reprint back volumes that are out of stock. As it turns out, this is not a particular issue for to all three, since they are all backed by major distributors that have the capacity to print based on demand. Volumes of Del Rey, Tokyopop, and Viz Manga may sell out in stores, but as long as the work itself has not been discontinued, they will be available via special older. In fact, Tokyopop has found that, after it launched an online promotion that made each volume of Loveless available to read online for one day during the week leading up to Valentine's Day earlier this year, bookstore sales increased for all of the volumes in the series.
When a manga goes on hiatus in Japan, for whatever reason, all three speakers agreed that at this point, there is not much American companies can do to entice the author or creator to work on it more. The only option that is really available is to wait the hiatus out and hope for the best.
Talking about editing manga and deciding what is or is not suitable for Western audiences, Viz's practice has been to move the manga in question to a new imprint that would be more appropriate. In general, their policy is to remain as careful about remaining true to the creator's original vision for the title as possible. The point was also made that retailers generally do not like it when a company changes the rating on a manga series half-way through its release, especially since some bookstores will simply not carry manga that are rated mature.
For all three publishers, deciding to release special formats such as pack-ins and multi-volume ultimate editions is actually driven more by a desire to draw attention to titles and attract new readers, rather than pursuing any kind of manga collector market.
Another question that has remained prominent has to do with how to best explain manga to parents and retailers who are unfamiliar with the medium, or who remain skeptical about it. The three speakers agreed that as manga publishers, they have a duty to do as much education as possible. Utlimately, even if some retailers do not understand what manga is, they certainly understand how well it sells, and how big the manga fan base is.
Turning to the original title of the panel, the three then made some points about what they thought was the actual current state of manga publishing in the United States. They agreed that it can be described as “strong and healthy,” but past the period of explosive growth that manga saw in 2005-2007. The category is stabilizing, to the point where one can comfortably talk about ‘A’ titles that are assured to sell well, B titles that will probably sell, and a larger number of other manga that will have to compete against each other to break out into any kind of meaningful sales figures. This, in turn, means that the delay between when a manga is licensed and when it actually becomes available in stores becomes crucial. For Tokyopop in particular, a major issue is figuring out how to get the “right titles at the right hands at the right time.”
For Viz, the next step the entire manga industry needs to take is to change the way manga is sold in bookstores. Instead of all titles being lumped together, Coppola hopes stores will begin shelving manga separately by category and/or genre, such as kids', shoujo, mature-oriented, and so on. This, in turn, may be one way of making sure that readers who are older than the typical high school age-audience for manga will continue considering it. However, simply releasing more new titles that appeal to older readers, such as Parasyte and Mushishi, is also an important step, and developing a consistent system of manga age ratings may also be another.
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