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Manga Answerman
Why Isn't My Favorite Manga Licensed In America?

by Deb Aoki,

Got back from San Diego Comic-Con, where I moderated a panel with a bunch of manga publishing professionals, including editors, translators and publishers. I'll try to share some of the questions and answers that came out of that talk later, but for now, I'll try to address the question that comes up whenever new manga licenses are announced:

Why isn't [my favorite manga] licensed in North America yet?

There are as many, many factors that go into why a given manga series gets licensed for publication in English or not. This is not an exhaustive list, but meant to give you a taste of the factors that may count against a manga being picked up for publication in N. America. Of course, as we found out through some of the manga announced at Comic-Con 2018, things change, and some of these rules don't always apply 100% of the time. Your mileage will vary, so with that in mind, here's the most frequently mentioned reasons why your manga might be languishing in the ‘not now’ or ‘never’ files.

It's too old
Generally speaking, the manga that tends to sell best in N. America are ones that have been released in Japan within the last 1-4 years. The older it is, the greater the chances are that the art style will look “dated” and the story may seem “weird” to contemporary readers, and that means fewer potential buyers. The exception to that rule seemed to be the manga of “manga god” Osamu Tezuka, which has been translated and published fairly steadily over the past decade or so, thanks to Vertical, Dark Horse, Digital Manga and Viz Media.

While there are many older manga series that may never get official English releases, in 2018, we're starting to see more ‘classic’ titles getting added to publishers' catalogs, including Seven Seas' releases of manga by Gō Nagai (Devil Man, Cutey Honey) and Leiji Matsumoto (Space Battleship Yamato, Captain Harlock), Drawn and Quarterly's editions of Kitaro (a.k.a. Gegege no Kitarō), Fantagraphics' releases of manga by shojo pioneer Moto Hagio, including The Poe Clan, her early shojo series about a family of vampires (which was just announced for a 2020 release), and the return of Urusei Yatsura (a.k.a. Lum) by Rumiko Takahashi from Viz Media.

If you want to see more classic titles from manga's past published in English, I recommend you pick these up, because strong sales for these types of titles will encourage more publishers to take a chance on these under-published gems.

It's too long / has too many volumes
Ah, this is a painful one. Given the power of reader surveys in Japanese manga magazines, the more popular a manga series is, the longer it continues. Buuuutttt…. The more volumes that a manga series has, the greater the financial risk for an overseas publishers.

Generally speaking, the first volume of any manga series is its best-seller. And with each subsequent volume, the sales tend to be slightly less, slightly less… until it gets to the point where it's almost losing money to print even a minimal run of the later volumes.

There are of course exceptions to this rule – One Piece continues to sell reasonably well, even after 80+ volumes. But the large amount of volumes in a series was mentioned as a key factor why Baki the Grappler by Keisuke Itagaki was left in the “no go” pile for years. With the BAKI anime adaptation coming to Netflix, digital manga distributor Media-Do International has decided to remedy this situation by translating and releasing all 31 volumes of the 2nd series of BAKI digitally on Comixology, Amazon Kindle, iBooks, BookWalker and other online bookstores starting in August 2018.

Kodansha Comics has also been ramping up their “Digital First” publishing effort, publishing fan favorites like Chihayafuru by Yuki Tsuesugu, and previously unfinished series like Beck by Harold Sakuishi digitally, with the possibility of print releases if the digital sales are strong. This is what happened with Tokyo Tarareba Girls by Akiko Higashimura, which was a digital-first release months before they announced a print release.

Digital publishing significantly decreases the financial risk for publishers, because it eliminates the fixed costs of printing, shipping, distribution, warehousing and marketing to comic stores and bookshops. There's still the expenses related to licensing, translating and localizing the manga (which can be significant for a long series) though, so digital-only publishing isn't the be-all-end-all solution to all long-languishing, unlicensed or unfinished, out-of-print manga series. However, it does offer a glimmer of hope to fans who are rooting for series that aren't well-known or aren't a licensing 'no-brainer.'

It's from a Japanese publisher who has an existing ‘first look’ relationship
To explain this, it's helpful to understand the basic business relationships of some N. American manga publishers. Viz Media gets first crack for most Shogakukan and Shueisha and Hakusensha manga. Kodansha Comics and Vertical publish the bulk of Kodansha Comics and novels in N. America. Yen Press is partly owned by Kadokawa.

Of course, any publisher can bid on any title, but it's relatively rare that a Kodansha title gets published by another publisher than Kodansha or Vertical. Same goes for Shueisha and Shogakukan titles not published by VIZ. Exceptions do happen – Dark Horse published Gantz, which was originally published in Japan by Shueisha, and Yen Press is publishing Silver Spoon by Hiromu Arakawa, which was originally published by Shogakukan. Business relationships and economic climates can always change, but for now, this is basically how things go most of the time.

It's got underage characters doing some legally and socially unacceptable activities
So for example, shota or loli manga which features under-age characters having, uhm, sexual interactions with older characters is pretty much a no-go for most publishers in N. America. In North America, obscenity laws vary from state-to-state, in addition to different laws in different English-speaking countries. Most large publishers would rather avoid the legal hassles and headaches, so they steer clear of such material.

It's from a genre that hasn't sold well in the past
The general truism for manga in North America is that certain types of stories sell, and others… well, don't.

In the past, sports manga was considered a risky bet to license. However, in recent years, sports manga has gone from an automatic no-go to a “maybe” as Yen Press has been publishing boys-on-bicycles manga Yowamushi Pedal, VIZ has been publishing Kuroko's Basketball and Haikyu!!, and even Kodansha has been publishing (albeit only digitally), baseball manga Ace of Diamond and soccer manga DAYS! and Giant Killing.

As the manga publishing business clocks in healthy sales, there's more of an appetite to take chances on new genres and styles of manga. But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting to read a lot of mahjong manga in English.

It's too niche
One person's niche is another person's “the bestest manga ever.” But if a manga has limited appeal to people who aren't deeply into Japanese culture, it's hard to justify spending the time and money on it when there are so many other sure-shot titles vying for the chance to get licensed.

The creator or license-holder says “no”
Ultimately, sometimes it comes down to the wishes of the manga creator (or their estate). If the creator or license-holder doesn't want a given manga to be published in English, or has set pre-conditions that make licensing the series financially unfeasible (a.k.a. licensing fees that are too expensive in relation to how much money they think they could make back by publishing it in English), there's not much that an overseas publisher can do about that.

The prime example of this was Yoshiharu Tsuge. I say “was” because Drawn and Quarterly has finally been able to convince this influential gekiga creator, after “decades” of pursuing his works, to allow his manga to be translated and published in English. (The first of seven volumes will hit the stores in late 2019) The reasons for his reluctance isn't clear – I've only heard anecdotes that I can't confirm. But it basically illustrates the fact that no matter what fans say, no matter what Japanese or overseas publisher say, it's ultimately the creator/rights-holders' decision, and until they say “yes,” it's not going to happen.

This is far from an exhaustive list of the reasons why a manga might not be licensed, but it should give you a basic primer for the most commonly cited reasons, and hopefully help you understand some of the many factors that determine which manga series get published in N. America.

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Deb Aoki was the founding editor for About.com Manga, and now writes about manga for Anime News Network and Publishers Weekly. She is also a comics creator/illustrator, and has been a life-long reader of manga (even before it was readily available in English). You can follow her on Twitter at @debaoki.

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