Manga Answerman - Digital, Print or Both? How Do Manga Publishers Decide?

by Deb Aoki,

How do publishers decide whether to release manga in print, digitally, or both? My understanding is that a digital release is cheaper, so some titles that wouldn't be profitable in print can support digital-only releases, but what are factors that go into print-only releases? Shelf-space is at a premium for me, and I was hoping to get digital copies of Fullmetal Alchemist: Fullmetal Edition, as well as Kaoru Mori's A Bride's Story, but they're only available in print.

Since I'm not privy to what's behind all of the decisions that North American manga publisher make regarding what gets published in print, what's digital-only, and what's released in both print and digital format, I can only make some educated guesses. There are many things that are considered, but if I had to sum it up, there are two important factors that go into these print/digital/both decisions: 1) the manga publishers' best guess about the projected sales/popularity/profitability of a given manga series, and 2) the Japanese manga creator/rights holders' consent.

We've pretty much established in past Answerman columns that it's much faster and less financially risky to publish a manga in digital format. With digital publishing, there's none of the costs associated with printing, shipping, and warehousing that comes from publishing and selling printed books. However, with both print and digital, there's still the costs associated with paying people to translate, localize, letter/touch-up art, edit, and market/sell books, plus licensing fees (among other things), so it's not exactly free and easy to publish manga digitally either. But digital gives publishers greater latitude to try out manga with readers, to see if there's enough interest to warrant putting it out in print.

Kodansha Comics' Digital First program is a good example of this. Digital publishing allows them to put out much-requested but longer or niche-interest series like Ace of Diamond and Chihayafuru, bring back and complete the run of incomplete or out-of-print series like Beck and Nodame Cantabile, or publish the latest serialized chapters of brand new series like Eden's Zero by Hiro Mashima or Aposimz by Tsutomu Nihei before the first volume of the collected graphic novel or tankobon is even available in Japan. It also lets them try out new series like Tokyo Tarareba Girls and Peach Girl Next (the 10-years-later sequel to this popular shojo series is debuting in mid-September, along with the return of the other Peach Girl manga, which was previously published by TokyoPop).

SuBLime Manga also offers some boys love manga titles as digital-first or digital-only releases, with the added bonus of them being DRM-free (digital rights managed) files you can download and read on any device.

In the case of Tokyo Tarareba Girls, a fun romantic comedy/drama about three 30-something single women by Akiko Higashimura, it was initially only available as a digital release, but thanks to strong sales and reader buzz, it is now being released as print editions.

It won't end up this way for all digital-first manga titles, but isn't it nice to know that it's a possibility, if there's enough support from readers?

But what about those other examples you mentioned: Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa (published by VIZ Media) and A Bride's Story by Kaoru Mori (published by Yen Press)? In this case, my best guess is that both series are pretty popular and would likely sell well in both print and digital, so financial risk is less of a factor. However, I'm guessing that these titles are not available for purchase in digital format at this time because the authors/manga creators have specified that these series be released as print-only editions.

Why? Well, it's hard to say specifically without asking each artist directly, but the most frequently-cited reasons for why a manga creator might say “no” to digital editions of their work are 1) fear of piracy and 2) they want their work to be presented as they originally intended: as printed books.

Regarding the piracy anxiety bit, for some manga artists, there's a lingering fear that even when their work is released as official editions from a publisher, digital manga pages are easier to pirate and upload to unauthorized distribution sites. Whether this is statistically true or not is irrelevant – what matters most is if the manga creator is comfortable with digital publication and distribution of their comics, and they get the final say. For some manga creators, the answer is “no” to digital, and there's not much publishers or readers can do about that.

However, as digital publishing makes up a bigger and bigger portion of manga sales in Japan and abroad, these attitudes are shifting, and it looks like there are fewer holdouts in the print-only camp than there were before.

The other reason why a manga series might not be available digitally is that it may require separate negotiations or additional fees to get both print and digital publication rights. For example, before digital publishing was common, publishers may have paid for the print publication rights. If, at a later date, they decided that they wanted to get digital publication rights too, then they would have to negotiate a new contract and probably pay additional licensing fees to cover this.

Specific circumstances may be different for different manga series, manga creators and publishers, so there's no one answer that will address the “why” question for the many manga titles that are currently not available for purchase in digital format. It doesn't hurt to let publishers know that you're strongly interested in buying these titles in digital format. A lot of the things we're seeing now, like same-day-as-Japan releases of new manga chapters are due in part to comments and suggestions from readers. So make your voice heard, and maybe someday, you'll be able to free up space on your bookshelves by having more of your favorite manga available in your digital library instead. You never know.

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Deb Aoki was the founding editor for 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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