Interview: Kodansha Advanced Media on the Future of Manga
by Deb Aoki,
DOES DIGITAL IMPACT PRINT SALES?
Where does digital fit into Kodansha's overall strategy? As I understand it, print books still accounts for most of your sales in North America.
Kohei Furukawa: Kodansha is still primarily a print business, and we license our content out to print publishing companies worldwide. But there are partners we have to deal with when it comes to distribution in bookstores, comic shops, distributors and so on. Sometimes, those partnerships put restrictions and limitations on what we want to do, and those restrictions slow us down. Right now we have the ability to release a digital tankobon on the same day and date as the print edition, but the restrictions have held us back from doing this more widely.
Kana Koide: From a Kodansha USA Publishing's point of view, we need to keep good relationships with our booksellers and distributors because over 90% of our book sales are from print books.
Sometimes there's some conflict between the needs of our print book retailers and distributors and our ebook distribution partners too. Sometimes, buyers at physical media retailers, like bookstores and comic shops worry that if we do digital first, it'll negatively impact sales of the printed books. Of course, since that's what they sell, they care a lot about that sort of thing.
Sometimes, these sorts of considerations mean that we can't do simulpubs at the same time as Japan of some titles. So with this in mind, we felt that the best way to divide our print and digital publishing divisions, so we can try different strategies to expand each side of our businesses.
Kohei Furukawa: It's not like we split ebook and print books as two entirely separate things; what we see is an ecosystem. In order to reach many people quickly, digital is a good way to go. People might get the digital book first, but then maybe some people decided to buy the print book, they become fans, they may communicate with other fans on forums. So then they buy merchandise. It's a whole ecosystem, where sales of ebooks and print books complement each other.
It may look like we're working separately from our offices in Tokyo, San Francisco and New York, but in reality, we work together as one Kodansha company, coordinating our efforts toward reaching the same goals.
So back to what Koide-san said, about retailers tend to worry that the availability of digital comics would negatively impact sales of the print editions of the same titles. Do you find that to be true in your experience?
Kohei Furukawa: I can't say there's zero cannibalism as far as how digital affects print sales of manga (laughs), but I don't know the actual number!
What I see from our experience in Japan over the past six years, there are more and more people just reading digital and not reading print at all. Some people stick to print books. But it doesn't mean that if we don't offer digital manga that those digital readers will buy print books. They'll just stop reading it. We need to make sure the audience that only wants to read manga digitally will have access to our manga legally.
I used to think the cannibalism would happen between print and digital, but now it's clear that digital readers are taking in other entertainment media like music, video games, animation, on the smart device. So now we're competing with those other kinds of entertainment.
Sam Yoshiba: The difference between (manga) in printed and digital format is totally meaningless. We're mostly concerned with competing with games, social networking media, or any kind of digital content to reach readers/customers. We have to deliver comics in a digital format to compete with other digital entertainment.
DIGITAL OFFERS HOPE FOR MANGA THAT'S NOT AVAILABLE IN ENGLISH (YET)
Morita-san, as Editor-in-Chief for some of the best selling manga magazines in Japan, I'm sure you see a lot of manga. A lot of it tends to look the same, are inspired by other manga. But do you still have moments where you see a new manga come across your desk and you can say “Wow, I've never seen something like this before!”?
Hiroaki Morita: For me, it was Parasyte (by Hitoshi Iwaaki).
I know we get to see only a tiny fraction of what's published in Japan here in N. America, but from what I've seen, it sometimes it feels like manga that's truly original is very rare.
Kohei Furukawa: (laughs) I've been in manga editorial for 30 years. Within that time I've seen less than five that fit your description!
Hiroaki Morita: The editors and the editor-in-chief of manga magazines have a different way of looking at manga than readers do. An Editor-in-Chief can't just make decisions based solely on their personal preferences in manga. Even if they personally like it, if it doesn't sell well, then the Editor-in-Chief shouldn't push to publish it.
For example, with the Seven Deadly Sins, or Fairy Tail, I was happy with these titles because I thought they would sell well! (laughs) Meanwhile, a manga editor can look at manga based on whether they like it or not. They can have an individual perspective.
Do you have an all-time favorite manga that really influenced you as a child or as and adult?
Hiroaki Morita: There are many manga that have influenced me. One I really remember is Black Jack by Osamu Tezuka. I was in elementary school at the time, and seeing how how sinful the people described in the manga were scared me a lot every week I read the series.
Kohei Furukawa: When I was a kid, it was Ashita no Joe, and after I grew up, Parasyte. From reading manga like this, I learned that manga is a great expressive art.
Are there any manga now that you feel very passionate about? Anything you love?
Kohei Furukawa: I was editor on it, but Giant Killing, I'm a big fan. (Giant Killing is a soccer seinen manga series by Masaya Tsunamoto and Tsujitomo. It's currently serialized in Morning magazine in Japan)
What do you like about it?
Kohei Furukawa: It's just a fun manga! The potential of the artist (Tsujitomo) is unlimited. He keeps growing and improving. I'm excited to see how much he can improve.
Hm. I really enjoyed watching the Giant Killing anime when it was streaming on Crunchyroll, but as for Giant Killing the manga, well… that's a title that is not available here in English.
Kohei Furukawa: (laughs) That's true!
Do you think KAM will make it possible for Giant Killing to come out in English?
Kohei Furukawa: Yes, there's a possibility that we publish it digitally first. That's the kind of title we should do at KAM, because it's very hard to make a case to publish it in print in English. It's available in Spanish, though!
That's true! So many manga series are available in French, Spanish, and German that aren't available in English…
Hiroaki Morita: A Silent Voice is another one. I really like that one. It's a very good story and has so much depth, but what made me surprised was that it was so accepted by American readers. Previously, we thought only stories like Akira or Shonen Jump-type manga were what people liked in the States. A Silent Voice isn't an action series, but it's been well received here, so that changed my perspective toward bringing those types of stories to N. American readers.
Kodansha has a deep catalog of new and classic manga, but up 'til now, the focus in the US market has been largely on current titles that have been released within the past 3-5 years. Now that Kodansha is putting more effort toward digital publishing, can readers hope to see more older, classic Kodansha titles like the recently announced Queen Emeraldas in English? If not, what factors make this difficult at this time?
Hiroaki Morita: It's same thing in Japan. The titles that sell well are always the most recent titles. Republishing of classic titles is not doing so well.
In overseas markets, manga sales are influenced a lot by animation, so older titles that don't have a contemporary anime adaptation behind it is hard to sell.
It might be because the look of contemporary manga is evolving so fast, the artwork in classic titles tend to look outdated by comparison. So when we publish older titles, it's important to look for a title that doesn't give an "old-fashioned" impression. For example, Parasyte was created 20 years ago, but it's doing great. I'd love to know if there are any specific classic manga titles we should publish in the US.
I asked this series of questions at San Diego Comic-Con to a group of US manga publishers. For each of these statements/assumptions about manga publishing in the US, tell me "true" or "false" and if you can, explain your response.
1) Sports manga doesn't sell in North America
Hiroaki Morita: Yes, in the US. But in Asia, sports manga are popular so I don't think there is a culture barrier.
2) Josei (women's) manga doesn't sell well in North America
Hiroaki Morita: There is some potential. In Japan, the market grown from shojo to josei manga. The US market needs to mature a bit more, but I think it has a chance.
3) Long series (10+ volumes) are a no-go
Hiroaki Morita: No. Actually, Attack on Titan is already over 10 volumes.
4) Anime drives sales of manga
Hiroaki Morita: Yes. I think this is a universal trend.
5) Scanlation hurts sales of manga
Hiroaki Morita: Yes. I want to clarify that the damage caused by scanlation is not just from lost sales of any particular manga. In case of Japanese publishers, profits gained from hit manga series are re-invested to nurture aspiring artists to create next generation of great manga. The next hit manga will come from these young artists. Anything that negatively impacts this healthy ecosystem of publishing and reinvesting in nurturing up-and-coming talent is the more threatening to the manga publishing business than just lost profits from sales of books.
DIGITAL PUBLISHING TODAY: A RESPONSE TO ONLINE PIRACY?
Can you share any plans for expanding, offering more titles more quickly to English readers around the world?
Kohei Furukawa: Digitization has great impact on publishers. At Kodansha, we see this as a favorable opportunity. Digital media allow us to publish wider range of books, some which we considered to be risky to offer in print, and to deliver manga to readers faster. This is why we established KAM.
From a N. American readers' point of view, Japan's adoption of international digital publishing seemed to be quite slow to offer manga in English online in a legal way. Are you playing catch-up now?
Kohei Furukawa: In Japan, we're moving very quickly. Almost all manga magazines and tankobon are released digitally at the same time as the print version.
For international releases of our titles, it takes time to translate and localize, so we've had to make adjustments regarding our publishing processes with our overseas print publishing partners too.
It's been kind of slow, but now we're setting up Kodansha Advanced Media, which will allow us to focus on doing more digital first publishing here in the US as well. I believe offering digital content as soon as possible – before it gets pirated – would be the best approach to combat piracy.
Alvin Lu: This is a debatable comment (regarding how fast/slow Japanese publishers have been to adopt digital publishing). Some would disagree, but a lot of people on the Japanese side would say that Kodansha is actually probably been out in front of digital for the last 5 years compared to their competitors, which is maybe something that's not as apparent when you're looking at it from the North American side.
SIMULPUB: KODANSHA'S RESPONSE TO FAN DEMAND AND ONLINE PIRACY
With the advent of the Internet, manga has reached readers all over the world, in many cases, faster than print books could ever reach these readers. While it's great that more readers are discovering manga, a lot of this discovery is happening because of online piracy. What is Kodansha's stance on this? How will you address the unauthorized content that's already out there?
Kohei Furukawa: It's been said that damage of online piracy is about $10 billion USD in North American market. Right now, Japanese publishers and Japanese government is establishing a committee to take a large-scale action against online piracy. Of course, Kodansha will give this our full cooperation.
We are also putting a lot of focus on delivering the latest chapters of new titles via official online simul-publication before it gets pirated. Currently, we are running 20 simul-pub series and aim to increase this to 30 series by the end of this year.
In a way, you could say that Crunchyroll Manga's "all you can eat" streaming manga and simul-publication of the latest chapters from Japan format kind of does what has made scanlations so appealing to many readers: it gives new readers a chance to read an extended preview of a manga before they decide they want to buy it.
Kohei Furukawa: Yes, that's true.
As you mentioned earlier, conventional wisdom was that if readers were able to read manga in digital format for free, that would lead to fewer people buying the print edition. But as you've explained with the examples of A Silent Voice and Yamada-kun, that wasn't the case.
Hiroaki Morita: A Silent Voice and Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches are two titles that maybe would've never come out in print if we didn't offer it on Crunchyroll Manga first. With Crunchyroll Manga, we were able to see how online readers respond to these titles first, and get a sense that maybe these series can sell well (in print). It's now one of the factors that goes into how we decide to make a print edition of a new manga series. This is a big advantage of publishing manga in digital format first.
Sam Yoshiba: Originally we wanted to do that same thing, with J-Manga! The concept was the same anyway…
Yeah, that makes sense. It's too bad that didn't last very long, but it's been good to see Crunchyroll Manga and other digital manga websites pick up where J-Manga left off, kinda.
Kohei Furukawa: KAM plays a role in the bigger picture of our publishing strategy. We want to bring manga to more people outside of Japan, give people more chances to read it. There are people who don't know about manga… we want them to read and enjoy it too. In order to do that, we need to raise more awareness of what manga is and what it has to offer. This can be done through publishing print books and digital books, and promoting our comics – like Hollywood movies, so more people will know about it. We want to raise awareness of Japanese manga up to the level of Marvel, DC, and Hollywood movies. KAM takes care of the digital part of that goal.
Manga in the US is still largely perceived as sci-fi/action/fantasy entertainment, but in Japan, there are so many different kinds of manga that can appeal to and reach many different audiences. Every single person knows manga in Japan. It touches literature and mainstream media world in Japan, not just the "comics" fandom. That's what we want to see outside of Japan.
Back in the day, one of our senior officers came to the US. He was the editor for Akira and Ghost in the Shell. He went to an American sci-fi convention, and he noticed that at the time, Japanese sci-fi novels have no impact on American culture, but Akira and Ghost in the Shell have had a huge impact here. So that's the potential of manga. That's the anecdote that inspires us today.
Many thanks to Yae Sahashi, Misaki Kido, and Alvin Lu for assistance with this interview.
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