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Anime Expo 2007
Keynote: Manga Mania

by Carlo Santos,

Panelists: Jason Thompson (author, The Complete Guide to Manga), Jay Chung (Infinity Studios), Jim Chadwick (CMX), Yamila Abraham (Yaoi Press), Hikaru Sasahara (DMP), David Wise (Go! Comi)

Moderator: Derek Chaisson (Tokidoki Journal)

Keynote speaker Trulee Karahashi was unable to attend this panel due to illness. However, the roundtable discussion on manga still went on as planned.

The first point of discussion was the ongoing manga boom at bookstores. Panelists agreed that it was a two-sided issue—the wide range of titles was good, but the lack of shelf space at stores was a problem (especially with longer series). Sasahara felt that the market was still not oversaturated—rather, it was saturated in the fan market, but needed expand to casual readers and the mainstream. "When everybody becomes otaku, this world will be at peace," said Sasahara.

The role of advertising in the market is not necessarily what one might expect. Aside from major hit titles, most ads in fan periodicals (e.g. Newtype, Shojo Beat) are there simply to develop word-of-mouth about companies and product lines. Only for "gateway titles" can there be a focus on one specific series. And sometimes, publicity can come from unexpected places: an explicit yaoi title that was accidentally offered by Wal-mart got a jump in sales due to the controversy.

Market expansion to the mainstream can be reached with media tie-ins like the Speed Racer movie. Price point is also a problem—right now, manga is considered overpriced in the US.

In general, the industry needs to look further than just the fan market. However, the situation is a Catch-22: the mainstream press has no interest in running manga ads because they can't see the mainstream audience. To reach more readers, a "viral" plan of attack is also necessary, mostly in reaching young readers. As young manga readers grow up, they will drive the market.

Other key channels in reaching a wider market include mainstream publishers (e.g. Penguin Books, Simon and Schuster) and of course, the Internet. Chung openly supported online fandom and scanlations as a way of expanding manga publicity. Chadwick also added that libraries are also a key to reaching younger readers.

The growth of manhwa, OEL and other non-Japanese works also show new possibilities. Thompson felt that this globalization of manga as a worldwide culture could be a boost to popularity. However, title recognition could be an issue—many of these non-Japanese products are simply not widely known. Abraham noted that Yaoi Press, which specializes in original yaoi titles, often experienced a stigma from elitist Japanese-only fans—in fact, even more so than Tokyopop. In recent years, however, there has been more acceptance from fans towards global works.

Wise added that "OEL manga" was a poor label, implying mindless imitation of manga. "Manga ai" (love of manga; a manga influence) was a better descriptor: "It's all comics. Manga just means comics." Furthermore, the hair-splitting over what can be called manga was considered mostly a futile exercise, with printing presses in China, international artists selling in Japan, Japanese and global artists collaborating, and so on.

Although manga gets much of its appeal from cultural differences, some issues also rise from appropriateness. Yaoi may be considered "outlaw" and "edgy" by some, but the genre is much more readily accepted now; the recent Seven Seas controversy may have been the final line in terms of what is "outlaw" (the relationship depicted was essentially illegal). Also, manga needs to be more carefully rated than American graphic novels because of parents assuming that all Japanese comics are for kids.

Explicit yaoi titles provide a useful case study in how to sell mature-rated works; they can still be sold in stores as long as they are correctly rated and shrinkwrapped. Abraham felt that a yaoi backlash would never emerge because the genre is hard to explain to mainstream audiences and publishers are careful enough to avoid what truly crosses the line (pedophilia, incest).

On the subject of digital distribution, Wise felt that cell-phone manga would not work in the US because of cultural differences from Japan (the Japanese take the train and have large-screen cell phones; Americans drive and use less advanced phones). Chung noted that license acquisition also made this difficult, as Japanese publishers often draw up different contracts depending on which media their work is distributed through. Sasahara felt that digital distribution would be a natural outgrowth of Japanese media popularity in America, from karaoke to anime to manga. Abraham cited Netcomics' model as leading the way in digital: they have proven that readers will pay to read high-quality manga PDFs on their home PCs.

Despite the growth of digital distribution, however, the physical product still has its appeal (Megatokyo, for example, can be read anytime online but still sells strongly in graphic novel form). There is also the collector mentality that motivates readers to have every volume of a series on their shelves.

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