Why Aren't Anime/Manga Sales Numbers Public?

by Justin Sevakis,

"Oshino Hunter" asks:

In Japan exact sales numbers are given for all anime and manga, but in America, we get NO stats on anime sales, and only what has sold better than others for manga. Why is this?

Even in Japan, publishers do not release sales numbers directly. Doing so is not in their best interest: it gives the competition valuable information on what worked and what didn't. Failures are embarrassing, and too many failures tips people off that the company might not be doing well. You get overzealous fanboys bugging you about them, trying to back-seat drive your business decisions. Partners and licensors get embarrassed by them. On the other hand, if you have successes, those can be trumpeted in other ways. There's simply no upside to having those numbers public.

And even if the publisher did want to release those numbers, they often don't know exactly how many copies sold, because they mostly sell them wholesale. How that works is that they sell a bunch of copies to retailers, and then those retailer will hold onto those copies for however long they want to. Many retailers may eventually send them back if they don't sell. The publisher has no idea how many of those copies the retailer bought are still on the shelf, or how many sold through to consumers.

The sales numbers that you see -- including the ones from Japan -- are gathered by data metrics firms like Nielsen in the United States or Oricon in Japan. They are estimates that the firms come up with based on feedback from the retailers. Sales data is tracked directly from the retailers' cash register and inventory systems, and the metrics firms pay the retailers for the information. This doesn't cover ALL of the places where a piece of media can be sold, but they manage to cover the vast majority of the big retailers.

Oricon tracks media sales in Japan, and publishes the top of their lists as news stories, to keep themselves in the public eye and make people aware of their data services. In music, we refer to the top singles as the Oricon charts. But not all of the data is free, only the top sellers have their numbers made completely public. Their complete historical charts are available only to companies -- including the publishers themselves -- who pay them several thousand dollars every month to access their database. The companies that pay for this service use this data to predict how future titles might sell, and to track the competition and the market overall. There are lots of potential uses for this data, but it's so expensive (and copyrighted) that only companies of a certain size can justify paying for it.

In the US, both books and DVDs are tracked by the Nielsen Company, and their divisions Bookscan and Videoscan respectively. (VideoScan was bought by NPD Group earlier this year, but is being operated by Nielsen during the transition period.) Nielsen works in pretty much the same way as Oricon, but unlike Oricon, they do not provide actual sales numbers to press outlets -- only chart rankings. Nielsen's similar system for music, SoundScan, is used by Billboard magazine in tracking US album sales.

With more and more media sales moving online, these numbers are getting very hard to track accurately. Anime and manga have always been a particular problem, since many units are sold through smaller specialty retailers and online -- places where the data metrics companies don't track. As a result, Bookscan and Videoscan might only catch half of the copies sold -- giving a tremendously erroneous impression of how well something did.

So any numbers you see released are just estimates, and sometimes not even good estimates. In Japan, where manga is more mainstream, sales are easier to track, and the handful of numbers released by Oricon are probably fairly complete. But any firm trying to do the same with an American release is in for a struggle. It's questionable whether such an endeavor is even worth it.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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