Manga Answerman - Does Buying English-Language Manga Releases Support the Mangaka?

by Deb Aoki,

Hi ANN readers – I'm Deb Aoki, and I've been writing about manga and the manga industry for quite some time. I'm here to take on your prickliest manga questions as Manga Answer(wo)man! Let's get started with this one from the Answerman mailbag:

Q: I've seen people online say that the only money that mangaka get from purchases of official English editions of their manga are the license fees, as they only get royalties from purchases of the original Japanese, so buying English manga doesn't really support them at all. Is there any truth to this? How does this apply to anime?

So first of all, it's correct that the vast majority of the money made by manga creators is largely from the sales of their books in Japan, not overseas. Why? Because sales of manga in Japan are so, so much greater than they are in North America.

In N. America, for a graphic novel to be considered to have respectable sales, it maybe moves… 4,000 units. In Japan, manga listed in the 2017 top ten sales chart for Oricon show gross sales of 11,495,532 (11.5 million!!) volumes of One Piece by Eiichiro Oda, with the next closest sales giant (no pun intended) being Attack on Titan by Hajime Isayama, which moved 6,622,781 copies in 2017 in Japan alone. Multiply that 11.5 million copies of One Piece by the average 500-600 yen cover price, and that comes out to roughly USD $57.5 million in gross sales in 2017 for One Piece, just for manga, just in Japan.

Meanwhile, in N. America, it's rare that a best-selling manga moves more than 30,000 copies per year. (at least if you only count BookScan – more on that later). I'm not a math whiz, but comparing sales by a factor of millions for top sellers in Japan vs. tens of thousands for best-selling manga in English -- that's just one of many big differences the comics biz in Japan vs. the manga publishing industry in N. America.

N. America isn't even the largest overseas market for manga – France is a huge source of manga sales, as is other Asian countries, like China, Korea, and Indonesia. So get over yourselves, American fans -- in this case, you're not #1.

Another caveat – finding reliable, all-in-one-chart comic book sales information is notoriously difficult to get in N. America. There's Nielsen BookScan, which is used to track sales in brick-and-mortar bookstores and online stores, like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Costco and Walmart. While BookScan claims to capture 85% of the books sold in N. America, it does not track sales to comic book stores (presumably including the manga vendors at your average anime or comic convention, if they order via Diamond) libraries, schools, and events like Scholastic Book Fairs, which sells books directly to school-age readers. Then there's Diamond Distribution's charts, which largely tracks sales to comics shops. To get on the New York Times Graphic Novels bestseller list, which gathers data from various retail sources (when it was a thing – it was discontinued in early 2017 with much disgruntlement from the comics community), a given graphic novel only needed to sell a few hundred copies per week to hit the top 10.

Getting access to BookScan numbers is not easy – or at least, it's not cheap. You need to pay for a very expensive subscription to get this info. This is why we're left to rely on the efforts of comics-industry data-crunchers like retailer Brian Hibbs (owner of Comix Experience in San Francisco, and resident data-cruncher for Comics Beat). His annual reports are worth a read if understanding sales numbers is your idea of fun.

So what can we glean from these sources? Let's start with the best-selling manga of 2017, according to BookScan via ICV2: Tokyo Ghoul Volume 1 by Sui Ishida from Viz Media. Tokyo Ghoul represents 16 books in the 2017 BookScan year-end chart. BookScan reports 2017 total sales for Ishida's books as USD $3,487,487.51. Let's round that out to $3.5 million dollars.

Meanwhile, on the Diamond Distribution's Top 100 manga chart for 2017, Tokyo Ghoul Vol. 1 is the #4 best selling manga for 2017, but instead of giving us anything useful like how many copies were sold, or how much money was made from said sales, we get stuff like “overall graphic novel unit rank” and “overall graphic novel dollar rank” – which effectively means almost nothing to your average reader.

Thankfully, there are sites like Comic Chron, which tries to decipher Diamond's sales charts too. According to Comic Chron's analysis of 2017 sales to comics shops, Tokyo Ghoul Vol. 1 sold 5,062 copies to comics shops in 2017. Multiply that by the $12.99 cover price, that comes to $65,755.38, or let's round that up to $66K. And again, that's only the comic shop sales for Tokyo Ghoul Volume 1, not the other 13 volumes in the first series, or the other Tokyo Ghoul series, like Tokyo Ghoul:re and the art books, and so on.

It's also unclear if these numbers from BookScan or Diamond include the sales of Tokyo Ghoul via online, eBook sources like Amazon Kindle, Comixology, Apple iBooks and Google Play. It probably doesn't include the sales of manga in English sold in other English language markets, like the United Kingdom, India, South Africa, and maybe even Canada? The numbers from BookScan and Diamond don't represent ALL the manga sold in N. America either. Sales to school and public libraries aren't included here, and that can be a significant source of income for any given manga title too.

So that $3.5 million from Tokyo Ghoul manga sold in 2017 from BookScan is really only a portion of the total sales generated by this popular horror/drama series. We may never know exactly how many volumes of Tokyo Ghoul in English were sold in 2017, much less how much money was generated by the various ways this manga was sold, distributed and read last year.

Is it any wonder that in the absence of real, comprehensive sales numbers that the online chattering class can say that “buying English manga doesn't support mangaka at all” ?

And the numbers that I've quoted to you are just raw, retail sales. Any given book is sold to a bookseller at roughly 50-60% of that retail price (the store need to make a profit, in order to pay rent, salaries, and heck, to even make it worth their while to sell comics in the first place).

So that $12.99 volume of Tokyo Ghoul volume 1 is sold to comics shops for, oh, let's say it's sold to them for $6.50. That $6.50? Some of it goes to the publisher, Viz Media, who pays for the cost of translating, editing, laying out, printing, and marketing (which covers everything from print and online ads to promotions at anime conventions), on top of the licensing fees. Some of that $6.50 goes to the distributors, Simon and Schuster or Diamond, who get the books to bookstores and comics shops. Some of that goes to Shonen Jump / Shueisha, the original publisher of Tokyo Ghoul in Japan, and the licensor, and some goes to… (drumroll please) to Sui Ishida. So for starters, let's just kick that “they only get royalties from purchases of the original Japanese editions” myth to the curb.

How much of that $12.99 from the sales of Tokyo Ghoul Volume 1 that was sold in a N. American bookstore or comics hop actually shows up in Sui Ishida's monthly (I think?) royalty checks? Well, I don't know exactly how much, but it's safe to say, it's a lot less that $6.50. But it's a lot MORE than $0.00 that Ishida would get from people reading Tokyo Ghoul from a scanlation site.

So while we may never really know exactly down to the last yen how much money Japanese manga creators make from overseas sales of their manga (or at least I haven't really dug deep enough or knocked on enough doors to get reliable, apples-to-apples numbers to compare), AND we can safely conclude that their overseas sales will generate much less than what they make from sales in Japan, it is real money that really goes to real manga creators. It's real money that also goes to real people like translators, editors, production artists, bookstore and comic shop employees in Japan, N. America and beyond.

It's this real money that pays for publishing super-successful, top-selling manga, AND it also supports a manga publishing economy that allows publishers in Japan and worldwide to take chances on publishing new or lesser known comics creators, or picking up riskier, maybe more niche genre titles that may or may not sell thousands of volumes. It's this cycle of constant creation that's fueled by manga sales that allows the Japanese publishing industry to pump out new manga series at a mind-boggling rate.

Bottom line is: the money that is spent on buying official print or digital editions of manga in Japanese, English, French and so on supports not only the actual manga creator who wrote and drew the story, it supports the entire manga publishing industry that continually generates new series, stories and characters that may or may not be adapted into your next favorite anime series.

That manga you read as scanlations? Well, that pays for someone, somewhere who is not a manga creator to pay for webhosting, and pocket the rest of the cash themselves – cash that does nothing to create or publish more manga, much less more anime. I don't know about you, but some $$ to a manga creator is better than the $0 they'd get from their work being posted on a pirate website.


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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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