How Can You Tell If An Anime Is Popular?

by Justin Sevakis,

Ricardo asked:

More times than not, Anime Fans seem to take sales figures as gospel of a series's popularity, if there's a chance to hope for a sequel, etc... but I've seen some authors, among them Durarara!!'s, stating that sales figures are far from what determines a story's popularity. Actually, what we fans tend to get are only the tip of the iceberg that's the true sales figures of any media. What exactly determines a story's popularity and what do sales figures truly mean in this whole matter?

Anime fans, both in Japan and in the US, love going over sales numbers. Among US releases, those numbers are hard to come by, but Japan's Oricon regularly posts estimated sales figures of the top discs every week, and otaku pore over those numbers. They obsess over them. They draw imaginary lines at which point they proclaim a series to be "profitable." And it's not just otaku -- media outlets regularly report on them as if they were absolutely true.

The truth is, while these numbers can sometimes be useful in comparing similar shows' overall popularity in Japan, they are pretty much useless for everything else. And thanks to the frustrating echo chamber that is social media, ill-informed fan analysis often gets repeated, blown up, analyzed, and wildly misinterpreted. There are some days where I wish Oricon would stop releasing these numbers, because the speculation they fuel causes more problems than it solves.

The first problem is the numbers themselves. Oricon gets its numbers through deals with certain (mostly brick-and-mortar) retailers, who report what sells through to consumers every week. This is an incomplete picture, especially with more and more physical media sales moving online to places like Amazon, who are not tracked. Videoscan, who publishes American video sales figures, but doesn't actually make numbers public, has a similar problem. As a result, the numbers reported paint a very flawed picture of sales, particularly if a show leans less mainstream -- more people are going to buy cult shows online. It's estimated that Oricon and Videoscan both "miss" up to 50% of total unit sales.

EDIT: I've been told by a couple of fans that Oricon does track Amazon sales, but I can't find confirmation of those statements. Regardless, Oricon specifically does not track units exported from Japan, and still does miss a significant number of unit sales, is the point.

The second problem is that DVD and Blu-ray sales are simply not a good way to gauge a show's profitability. They ignore revenue from online streaming and international rights sales -- both of which are a significant and growing part of the pie. While a number of shows are dependent on disc sales to break even, there are very popular shows that are clearly huge successes that didn't even bother with traditional, expensive home video releases. Kemono Friends, one of the biggest shows of 2017, was simply bundled with its books rather than sold as expensive stand-alone video units.

Also hugely important, particularly for kids' properties, is merchandise sales. In fact, many children's properties don't even bother with Blu-ray releases simply because the real money is in toys, video games, apparel, and all the other related merchandise that fans buy up. Most long-running shows are structured like this: most of the money for those comes from a sponsor, perhaps a toy company, who will happily pony up for more episodes as long as the related toys keep selling. (This is why so many of these shows are ridiculously long and drawn out, and have so much added story filler.) Other shows are produced as marketing for the original manga, light novel, music or video game. As long as the companies paying for production see a benefit to the show existing, they are likely to try and produce more. Disc sales are a nice added bonus, but ultimately don't matter very much.

So if sales figures are such a poor metric to determine a show's success, how DO you figure it out? Unfortunately, I don't have a very good answer for you. Nobody outside of the show's production committee can tell what the producers' priorities were in making the show in the first place; whether or not they've met those goals is impossible to know. In broad terms, you can tell what's popular and what's not just by putting your ear to the ground and seeing who's talking about a show on social media, and what's in the Popular list on Crunchyroll. Disc sales estimates can be useful here, in a broad sort of way, but you can't apply any real formula to what you see.

It's hard to tell people to stop taking these numbers so seriously when it's the only concrete data point that people can get their hands on. But unfortunately, that's really the only thing I can advise.

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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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