New York Anime Festival and ICv2 Conference on Anime and Manga
State of the Manga Industry
by Mikhail Koulikov,
The second of New York Anime Festival's two industry wrap-up panels looked at the state of manga in North America in 2007 and the prospects for manga publishers going into the next year. Anime journalist Patrick Macias, editor-in-chief of Otaku USA magazine, moderated the session, which brought together speakers from six different manga publishers: Tokyopop's Jeremy Ross; Frank Pannone from Media Blasters; Del Rey Manga associate publisher Dallas Middaugh; Go! Comi CEO David Wise; Curt Hassler, co-Publishing Director of Yen Press; and Ioannis Mentzas, Vertical Inc.'s editorial director. All six had also hosted their own companies' panels throughout the convention.
Macias launched the panel by asking the participants to describe how their companies performed in 2007, whether there were any major surprises, and how the year affected them on a strategic level. For Tokyopop, the biggest challenge is to continue to serve the core base of manga fans in the U.S. while also finding ways of introducing the medium to new readers. In pursuing this goal, the company is increasingly turing to technologies such as online distribution of manga and making its titles available for download to cellphones. Media Blasters characterized its performance in 2007 as being concentrated on publishing yaoi, but also moving into more titles that are "fan-oriented" or can speak directly to anime and manga fans, such as Akihabara @ DEEP and Mōsō Shōjo Otaku Kei.
2007 was a good year for Del Rey, North America's third-largest manga publisher. It released about 100 books, with Negima and Tsubasa selling the best, and picking up sales numbers with each new volume. Of the manga that first appeared this year, Kitchen Princess has been a particular success, and the company is on track to continue to grow even further in 2008.
Go! Comi's output for the year was approximately 40 volumes, with a minimum of 60 slated for the coming year. 2007 also marked the publication of its first original comic, Aimee Major Steinberger's Japan Ai: A Tall Girl's Adventures in Japan. Unlike Tokyopop, Go! Comi is not yet ready to embrace cellphone distribution of manga. In Wise's opinion, the technology to support this is not yet available in the United States because the screens on American mobile phones are generally smaller than they are in Japan. He hopes, however, that Apple's iPhone will be a major influence on the design of new phones that yield themselves better to reading.
Having launched its first title in September 2007, Yen Press was the youngest of the companies on the panel. Hassler is quite happy with the level of success his company's releases are seeing, and believe that despite the number of publishers that are already in the market, Yen Press has been able to establish its identity and carve out a viable space for future development.
Of the companies participating in the panel, Vertical is the only one that brings out manga while being known more for publishing Japanese novels and non-fiction. This has affected both the type of comics it has been licensing so far and the way it has been released. According to Mentzas, the reason why Vertical has tended to package together manga that originally appeared in Japan in several volumes into single books is because that makes it easier to secure reviews from critics who may not be familiar with typical manga publication patterns. As a smaller publisher, Vertical is particularly dependent on reviewers to increase awareness of its books. Nonetheless, plans for 2008 include launching a more typical manga imprint that would acquire, translate and publish titles aimed at the tween and teen markets.
The moderator's follow-up asked the six speakers to share their views on the kinds of issues the manga industry is likely to face going into next year.
Hassler sees the North American market as approaching maturation. Not all of the new titles that are being released will work, but capacity is potentially exceeding actual demand for both new titles, and for manga as a whole. Drawing on his experience as a buyer, Hassler noted that the first volumes of popular series such as Naruto and Tsubasa are still selling strongly, which demonstrates that the overall size of the market is still growing. However, manga publishers need to pursue different strategies to capture different areas of the overall readership.
Media Blasters' Pannone supported Hassler's view. As a smaller publisher, Pannone's company sees the need to stand out by finding titles that are popular enough not to be dismissed as catering to a niche, but unusual enough to be noticed amid all the other new manga that is being released.
For Tokyopop, a major issue in 2008 will be how to treat its original titles. Some, such as the frequently cited Dramacon, have helped the entire category to start "getting respect," but those are probably exceptions. One strategy Tokyopop is considering is to begin moving its "experimental" original comics online, which will lessen the market pressures it has to deal with. The company is also looking to continue taking advantage of readers' interest in its best-selling titles by creating more hard-cover, collectors', and other premium editions. It is also interested in rescuing more titles that other publishers had previously brought out parts of but have since allowed to stay dormant.
Middaugh approached the question from the standpoint of presuming that what it was really asking was whether the manga industry was in a bubble, and whether that bubble is about to burst. To him, the answer to both questions is no; growth in the manga field is slowing, but it is still at about 10% a year, significantly higher than what other categories of publishing are experiencing. In Middaugh's opinion, manga is a solid platform, and it will be around for "decades."
Much of the discussion about the present and future of the anime and manga industry has recently centered on the effects of the Internet on the content business. When asked for his view on how Tokyopop approaches the opportunities and challenges of online availability of manga, Jeremy Ross mentioned that it greatly encourages sampling. The main difficulty right now is figuring out how a pay-per-view model for online manga would actually work, which then would lead to it being possible as a product in of itself, rather than as merely a promotional tool. He does not think this will be accomplished in 2008, but is optimistic about a longer frame of around the next three years. As an example of one potentially viable technology, he mentioned Amazon's Previews service, which gives customers who buy a physical copy of a book access to a digital version for a small additional charge. At the same time, to raise one of the potential issues with online distribution, Ross noted that many manga readers are under 18, and thus, do not have access to credit cards. Any company looking to offer manga online would have to find a way to serve these customers, such as via pre-paid cards. When asked about illegal distribution of manga scanlations online, he stated that interdiction, or "being better police" is not going to defeat piracy.
Pannone thinks that regardless of online availability of manga, customers in the U.S. are still interested in owning actual physical books, complete with professional translations. He thinks that the majority of the resistance to online distribution of manga will come from Japanese creators and publishers, rather than from the American licensees.
Go! Comi's Wise supports this view. If readers are not interested in buying manga to begin with, there is nothing a company can do to entice them, he argues, while if they are interested in owning an actual item, the availability of free scanlations will be equally irrelevant. One problem he notes is that currently, there are still "five hundred" different business models for making money for content online, and none of them have proven to be particularly better than the others, or even more appropriate for particular settings and markets.
Middaugh also voiced his support of online distribution as a major opportunity for the manga industry because at its heart, the book-reading experience is drastically different from watching movies or listening to music.
Given the general optimism about the state of the manga market, Macias then asked the panelists if they had any advise for their colleagues in the anime companies.
Answering, Wise implored American anime companies to make sure their business models actually make sense in the U.S., to lower prices, control delivery by bypassing middlemen, and strongly pursue pirates and illegal downloaders. Pannone, who has worked in both manga and anime, believes that success for any American anime company is going to lie in embracing digital delivery and being able to satisfy "impulse buying and instant gratification." Dallas Middaugh's contribution to this question was to suggest that American anime distributors seriously consider cutting production costs by releasing most of their anime in subtitled-only versions.
Once the floor was open to questions from the audience, the first asked the panelists to comment on how they respond to issues surrounding adult or age-inappropriate manga, and whether they feel "bulletproof" from criticism and controversy.
Go! Comi's view is that loli-themed manga or titles with "excessively young characters" will persist on being a danger point, but that at this point, it would be unlikely that any controversy would be broad enough to affect the entire range of manga publishers. In fact, Wise noted, the same controversies about content that manga publishers may have to deal with are the ones that publishers of young adult fiction are now facing quite frequently.
Tokyopop's Ross views content-related controversy as inevitable as manga becomes more and more popular. Pro-active steps like developing a rating system may mitigate the effect of any eventual collision, but they will not totally ensure against it.
Going directly back to what some perceive to have been a close call for manga publishers, the planned and cancelled release of Nymphet earlier in the summer, Middaugh reminded the panel that even if that manga had been released and led to controversy, it would most probably have no effect whatsoever on sales of other manga as a whole. "Is the crisis coming?", he asked. "Sure it is. Am I going to lose any sleep over it? No."
Another question from the audience asked the panelists to talk about the potential of manga anthologies in the U.S. market. All of them agreed that generally, this is an effective approach for promoting lesser-known titles by pairing them with others that are well-established or by putting them under a label that implies a standard of quality. Pannone thought that to work, any anthology needs at least one "killer" title. In Tokyopop's experience, while they have tried the anthology format, what works better are collections of related short stories, such as the Star Trek manga. For promotional purposes, Tokyopop's general approach is to use chapter previews, rather than anthology placement.
The final question had to do with manga publishers' approach to light novels, in particular to whether they treat them as literature (shelved accordingly) or as manga. Ross and Middaugh both mentioned that most of the Japanese light novels that have been released in the U.S. so far are very closely related to specific established anime and manga, and appeal primarily to those audiences. Putting them into the fiction section may make sense from an organizational point of view, but it may have the effect of hiding them from their most likely audience.
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