Anime Expo 2008
Industry Roundtable: Manga Showdown
by Mikhail Koulikov,
The second industry roundtable of the 2008 Anime Expo was billed as an "ultimate manga showdown." Moderated by former Viz editor Jason Thompson, author of the Eisner-nominated Manga: The Complete Guide, it brought together speakers from five different manga publishers for an hour of intriguing questions and enlightenign answers. The industry leader Viz was represented by Kit Fox. Go! Comi and CMX heads David Wise and Jim Chadwick spoke for their companies. Michael Gombos was the speaker from Dark Horse, and Rachel Livingston presented the perspective of Digital Manga Publishing. Trulee Karahashi, chief executive officer of the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation, also joined the panel to bring in a manga consumer's viewpoint.
Noting that "it's been a crazy year for manga," as the market has matured and the accelerated growth rate of the previous several years has began to level off, Thompson asked the panelists to reflect on the current state of manga in the U.S.
Chadwick answered by reminding the audience that any trends in manga sales will be tied to the trends of the economy as a whole, and that the current recession absolutely has an effect on manga sales. Karahashi agreed, arguing that manga fans will be reluctant to spend their money on as many books as they would have earlier. A silver lining, though, could be a potential increase in manga sales to libraries. Go! Comi's Wise was more optimistic. In his view, since most manga readers are teenagers, their incomes will not immediately be affected by any wider economic trends. Nonetheless, in his view, even in the last several years, the growth of the manga market has been concentrated in the books published by Viz Media, while the other, smaller companies did not benefit as much. They will continue being affected by the intense competition for bookstore shelf space, and a "shake-out" of the industry, leading to less diversity in the kidns of manga that will be published in the U.S. is not impossible to consider
In particular, it is already becoming harder to get initial orders for non-brand-name books, while the speed with which unsold volumes are being returned from bookstores has increased. One effect of this kind of situation, where any new manga volume has a finite shelf life will be that unless a new series is an immediate hit, it will probably not stay on shelves long enough to be discovered through word-of-mouth and reviews.
Unsurprisingly, Viz Media's Fox did not see any cause for worry about the manga market, either for his company, or for the others. And Livingston argued that for all the talk about the difficulties facing Borders, it is not the only bookstore chain around. Publishers of manga simply have to be smarter and more open to novel ways of getting their books into readers' hands. Direct sales to customers, for example, have been one approach that so far, has worked fairly well for Digital Manga.
Thompson's next question to the panel had to do with whether manga oriented at a male and female teenage audience will always make up a majority of sales and the market. "It feels that manga has moved into the sales niche formerly occupied by young-adult paperbacks," he noted.
Answering the question, CMX's Chadwick posited that there are currently two types of manga readers in the U.S.: those interested in Japanese books because of their origin, and those that are attracted to manga because of genres that are not well represented in U.S. books and comics. Dark Horse's Michael Gombos repeated his company's basic belief that manga are just one type of comics, and should be marketed as comics, to comics readers. Dark Horse editor Carl Horn, was was in the audience supported him by mentioning that there are many fans of traditional American comics who will buy manga books that more hardcore manga fans may not even consider.
Wise has a more complex view. Go! Comi's core audience is girls between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Although manga readers, they do not consider themselves otaku. This age group is not served particularly well by American comics; at the same time, manga aimed at older readers would have to compete with comics and books. In addition, in his view, while fantasy and high school romance are fairly universal topics, the more culturally-specific themes of many manga aimed at older Japanese readers may not be as relevant to Americans.
Fox, whose company, of course, publishes the mega-hit Naruto, sees its success as a boon for all of the manga publishers in the U.S. Naruto's popularity has even helped sales of manga titles that are oriented at totally diefferent audiences. Livingston also thinks that the future of manga in the U.S. lies in "edgier, sexier" titles.
Thompson presented the next several questions in a similar format, by mentioning several possible types of manga products and strategies, and soliciting the panelists' feedback on how feasible those would actually be. He started off by talking about anthology magazines like Viz's Shonen Jump and Yen Press's upcoming Yen Plus. Livingston is actually somewhat pessimistic about how successful any of these would be in the U.S. Licensing several different manga from different publishers is harder than working with a single one. Acquiring the rights to republish a given Japanese anthology can also present problems, since many of them collect manga that vary greatly in terms of reader age ranges and levels of explicitness and violence.
In his answer, Wise took direct aim at the Viz Media representative sitting down the table from him. In Go!Comi's experience, even considering an anthology magazine is impossible unless a company has extremely strong ties with Japanese publishers - such as being owned by the three largest ones. Chadwick agreed. Karahashi again drew on the consumer perspective and argued that manga companies may be better off treating any anthologies they publish as promotional items for the actual books, rather than relying on their sales for revenue.
An emerging topic in the entire American publishing industry is the feasibility of digital distribution of books and other print media. Here, the five speakers and their companies are taking widely divergent approaches. Dark Horse firmly believes that reading a book should be an experience that involves all five senses - an experience that can only be given by an actual physical object. For CMX, digital distribution to computers and cell phones presents simply another way to get manga to readers, and should not be thought of as replacing actual books. Wise brought up the point that the screens of many cellphones that are available in the U.S. are still too small to serve as effective devices for reading. As the iPhone and its clones continue to become more popular, though, that may change. Of course, in his words, "online digital manga already exists - it's called scanlations," and rather than spending time and money exploring the potential for manga on mobile phones, some of the industry's companies could be served far better by figuring out ways to take control of the scnalation space Viz, probably the largest and most successful manga publisher in North America has no current digital distribution projects, but some initiatives in this area are being explored.
Thompson's next question had to deal with original manga-style graphic novels, how the five publishers handle those, whether they are being accepted by the market and whether they had any effect on the difficulties that Tokyopop has been facing recently.
The reactions that all of the panelists had to this topic were actually fairly similar. Digital Manga is of the opinion that generally, American manga-style creators are simply not yet able to draw art that is as sophisticated as what is coming out of Japan. For this reason, the company strategy is to commission original comics from Japanese creators rather than turning to submissions from U.S. artists. Viz currently has no plans to publish any American comics, though research in this area is being undertaken. Dark Horse, as would make sense for a company that is primarily known as a traditional comics publisher does not differentiate by national origin in what it publishes. And for CMX, the concept of "OEL" (Original English-language) manga is something to be thought of as a marketing tool. There is no pre-defined market for such books, and attempts to foster one are not a good strategy.
After talking about manga in America for the majority of the panel, Thompson asked the participants to reflect on how manga is doing in its country of origin, phrasing the question as whether the Japanese market for manga is being "tapped out." Chadwick and Wise, along with the speakers from Viz and Digital Manga, agreed that exciting new manga are coming out every week, many of which would be quite successful in America if and when released here. At the same time, Wise feels that many of Japan's longer-running series are simply not as interesting any longer. Dark Horse's Gombos was the contrarian. He feels that while certainly in no state of crisis, the sheer vitality of the Japanese manga market has been decreasing over the last five or so years.
The final several questions of the panel, submitted by audience members, asked the participants to comment on how manga can best bring in older readers (answered by Wise, who suggested that publishers need to carefully select books that may appeal to adults, who themselves carefully consider what to spend their money on), Another audience member asked how manga companies can take advantage of readers' other interests, such as American comics and fiction. Here too, Wise noted that publishers should be aware of the young-adult books that are currently most popular with the primary audience for manga in America and consider either publishing Japanese titles that are similar to these American books, or creating manga-style adaptations of them.
The final question of the hour addressed the feasibility of selling merchandise based on manga. With the exception of Viz, none of the other companies participating in the roundtable are currently considering producing such merchandise, and in Go! Comi's experience, the one time they attempted to create a line of t-shirts based on Her Majesty's Dog, the project was difficult, time-consuming and expensive, while sales of the shirts were almost nonexistent.