Why Don't Manga Publishers Announce When Books Go Out Of Print?

by Justin Sevakis,

Bill asked:

Why are manga licensees so cagey about when books are close to going out of print? Usually theres no way to tell If something is on its way out, or even fully out of print, until it's only available for jacked up prices on eBay.

As consumers we tend to think of physical media -- books, DVDs, Blu-rays, video games, etc. -- as being either "in print" or "out of print." However, the reality for a publisher is not so simple.

When a publisher licenses the rights to publish something in their country or territory, the license agreement covers a specific amount of time, usually 5-10 years or so (though I've seen as little as two years). During that time a publisher has the right to make and sell as many copies as they possibly can until the contract runs out. At that time, they may attempt to negotiate an extension of the agreement. If their rights come to an end, however, they have a few months to sell off whatever extra copies they have in the warehouse. After that, they're no longer allowed to sell that title.

However, there's a difference between a particular volume being "in print" and having its rights be valid. A publisher needs to print a certain number of copies at a time: both book printers and disc replicators have minimum quantities that need to be printed at a given time. Initial print runs tend to be higher, in order to make the setup costs worthwhile. Minimums for reprints can be as low as 500 copies. That said, the more you print at a time, the lower the price goes. A run of 500 copies and 1000 copies might cost almost the same amount of money. That means, if you only make 500 copies, your cost-per-unit doubles!

For a publisher, this is a difficult balance to strike. Low print runs often mean per-unit costs that are so high that there's barely any profit left in selling it. However, if they order too many copies, those extra units will just sit in a warehouse, and the money they paid for the extra copies is wasted. Even just storing those extra copies in a warehouse can potentially cost money. Not carefully controlling inventory is a huge reason that publishers can fail.

A publisher must be able to guestimate that they'll be able to sell a majority of a new printing in order to bother with one. For many books that aren't massively popular, that math will never work out. Even if the contract extends into the future for years, the book is technically "out of print" because the publisher doesn't have any more copies and doesn't feel that printing more is a good idea. But maybe someday they'll find a way to do a reprint, so they really can't definitively say it's "out of print." They still have the rights, after all.

This is a particular problem with manga because, unlike most anime, its release is spread across many volumes. And with almost all multi-volume media, volume 1 will always sell the most, followed by a steep drop-off for subsequent releases. After 4 or 5 volumes, things will level out, but generally each new volume sells less than the one before it, as fans fall away or forget about the series as it goes on.

But this means that if volume 1 of a series sells less than expected, it's only worth doing a small printing of the rest of the series so fans can finish it out. The publisher has decided that the number of fans who might discover the series later is not great enough to justify the risk of paying for a larger print run. The end result is that there are WAY more Volume 1's in circulation than the rest of the show. If, eventually, enough people buy those Volume 1's and can't find later installments, that's a huge problem for everyone. This happens often, and the publishing industry has not found a good solution. Many of us had high hopes for print-on-demand books and DVDs, but technical and contractual issues have made that technology a tough sell.

Alternately, if a series does well and they're in the process of negotiating for a contract extension, the publisher has no idea if it's going out of print or not. False alarms help nobody. So unfortunately, there really is no good way for a publisher to announce in advance if something is going out of print -- they often don't even know, themselves, until it's too late.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original 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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