Why Don't We Have A Subscription Manga Service Yet?

by Justin Sevakis,

Matthew asks:

What's stopping an English language manga distributor (Viz, Yen Press, etc.) from incorporating an all access subscription model to their online libraries? Unlimited access for a monthly or yearly subscription fee seems to currently work well for the anime business, so what's stopping a company from doing the same thing for manga? Crunchyroll currently allows you to read a few titles provided you're a member of their service, but their library is extremely limited. The average consumer likely isn't willing to pay $5-$7 for a digital volume of manga but I can see tons of people paying $60 a year to read everything in the Viz catalogue. Given how common piracy of manga is would this not be a good model to combat these kinds of issues the same way legal streaming did for fansubs?

It would be a good model, and I think such a service is probably pretty likely in the future.

For the consumer this is an idea that makes perfect sense. Most people only want to read most manga once. Online anthologies like Shonen Jump only make sense if you're already fairly current with what's going on in those stories, and you want those specific titles. Most public libraries don't have an awful lot of manga, and dedicated manga cafés have, by and large, faceplanted outside of Asia. Having access to a large online library of manga, Netflix-style, would be incredibly helpful.

Regardless, such a leap would be extremely time consuming and difficult to implement behind the scenes. While Western manga publishers usually have online rights to their series these days, they can't just try new things with them willy-nilly. They have to get approval from the original publisher and the manga artist before they can do anything.

The big Japanese manga publishers who control all of the popular series are very tight-fisted when it comes to rights, pricing, and trying anything "new". Nobody wants to be the first on board with a new plan. Those publishers would have to be convinced that a subscription business model is the right approach to take, and then THEY'D have to convince every single manga artist to sign on. There would absolutely be hold-outs, probably many hold-outs.

Crunchyroll's manga service has partially paved the way, but their selection is quite limited, and while they absolutely have some hits in there, it's not yet a huge library. It remains to be seen whether the service will be successful enough to grow the library to a point where it would be something like what you describe.

Here's the question: would a paid all-you-can-eat collection really move scanation fans towards legal sites? As anime has proven, those illegal sites don't just go away because we now have simulcasts. Lots of people use them, some unaware that they're illegal, and they're still a huge problem. And would someone who uses an illegal site be able or willing to pay $60 a year or whatever?

Or would a service like that erode the existing market? Currently we have fans that buy a TON -- hundreds of dollars worth -- of manga every month. Would the ability to suddenly read an unlimited amount online for a monthly fee cut into that, to the point where they buy less manga? Worse, would it cause a substantial drop in sales, to the point where book stores would cut back on the amount of shelf space they give to manga? And would that cause fewer new fans to discover the stuff to begin with?

These are hard questions, and there aren't any real solid answers to them right now. We can look at the behavior of the anime business, and the larger DVD business to an extent, but those markets and their respective consumer behaviors are not the same. There are a lot of unknowns at work here. With so much to lose, I would think that any exploration into subscription-based online manga libraries would be slow and delicate.

Which isn't to say it won't happen. But if we do transition to that business model, it will be a very slow process, one with small libraries and a lot of missing titles and original publishers. But I think it'll happen someday.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap. Please note that he does not take question submissions via Twitter.

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