Manga Answerman - How often do English publishers sell at a loss?

by Deb Aoki,

How often do English publishers sell at a loss? Viz and Kodansha have so many different series and there has to be a good amount that they aren't making money on. Nearly a decade ago, Viz Media dropped Hitman Reborn, Gintama and a few others and I often still see people on social media complaining about it. Is it better to just sell series that decline at a lot loss for image sake for the bigger companies like Viz and Kodansha? If that's true, how come Dark Horse ends up dropping more series than they actually finish when they're one of the bigger names in the comics industry?

This particular question is fairly difficult to answer for one simple reason: most manga publishers in N. America are privately-held companies. Sooo, they don't have any obligation to release sales information to the general public, especially information that is potentially embarrassing to the publisher, the original Japanese publisher/licensor, and the manga creator(s). No one wants to broadcast to the world that a particular manga sold poorly – but if you read the tea leaves (and maybe have access to BookScan numbers, which is only available via a very expensive subscription), you can pretty much figure that out.

So no, you will not be able to get ANYONE in the publishing industry to say, “oh, maybe 30% of our titles at any given time are not profitable.” Nope. Not happening. (and that 30% number? It's something I picked that's a completely random number. I have no idea what the percentage might be, not even a ballpark idea.)

Obviously, there are hits and misses in the manga market in N. America – same as the US comics biz and the book publishing business in general. I don't think any company expects that ALL of the books they publish will be wildly successful. They make their best guesses about what will sell well, they put their best efforts into publicizing their new releases, and hope that readers will buy the books.

Just as no baseball player gets a home run everytime they're at bat, publishers don't expect that every book they publish will sell by the boatload. They do hope that their mix of super bestsellers, mid-range sellers and low sellers, along with backlist somehow average out to a net profitable outcome at the end of the day. Sometimes, a book that doesn't seem like much turns out to be a sensation, and sometimes a book they have high hopes for just doesn't move as much as they had projected. That's partly what makes the publishing business so interesting to watch – you can make your best guess, but you never know.

I will say that one thing that people tend to forget when they mention that VIZ cancelled Gintama and Hitman Reborn in mid-series is that it happened at a time when the manga publishing industry in N. America was experiencing dire financial straits. The Borders bookstore chain closed, and the recession in N. Amercia that hit in 2007 didn't help matters either. If you recall, this was also the time when several publishers laid off staff, and drastically cut their publishing output. Some publishers just closed their doors and stopped publishing all together.

Cancelling a series in mid-run is not the ideal situation for publishers or readers, and it's not a decision that's made lightly. For the most part, it doesn't happen that often, especially now when sales of manga in N. America is fairly strong, compared to what it was ten years ago.

What does tend to happen instead when a title doesn't have strong sales is that print runs may be cut. This is partly why latter volumes of a given manga series may go out of print more quickly that earlier volumes, because fewer copies were printed, and there are simply fewer available. Also, the frequency of publication may be cut – meaning that instead of quarterly, a new volume may come out every 6 or 12 months or more.

Another way that publishers cut risk is by publishing a title as a digital release first, and if it sells well, it may be offered as a print edition later. Or, in the case of Kodansha, they've been releasing and completing some older, out-of-print series as digital releases. For example, Kodansha Advanced Media has made several former TokyoPop, Del Rey Manga / Kodansha titles, such as Nodame Cantabile, Beck, and Princess Resurrection available as complete series in digital format.

I can't say what's the case with other publishers – how they handle slower selling titles and titles that have been put on indefinite hiatus is entirely their decision based on their business circumstances and best practices, and sometimes, based on factors that are outside of their control that they can't discuss publicly.

I know sometimes the opaqueness of the licensing and publishing decisions of manga publishers can be frustrating to fans, but I think we need to remember that there will sometimes be questions that you can't or won't get specific, direct answers. All you can do is 1) purchase, support and let others know about manga you love, and 2) let publishers know what you're interested in reading through their usual feedback channels – online surveys, social media, and maybe chatting to them at conventions.

The bottom line is, if a manga sells well, it will continue to be published, and will be less likely to be cancelled or put on a slower release schedule. That is pretty much the best and most direct way you can influence the fate of your favorite manga series.

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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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