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This Week in Anime
Does It Pay to Read Manga on Manga Apps?

by Monique Thomas & Nicholas Dupree,

Official manga apps like Kodansha's K Manga and Square Enix's Manga UP! are plagued with issues such as in-app purchases and currencies that could deter manga fans and readers alike from accessing their favorite series. Can these apps find the golden means to cater to all audiences in a world where manga piracy persists?

Kodansha's K MANGA, Square Enix's Manga UP!, and Shueisha's MANGA Plus are available on the App Store and Google Play Store.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @BeeDubsProwl @NickyEnchilada @vestenet

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For those of you who missed the memo, the powers that be have decided that since social media is dead, we can now fund all our hot takes through gacha pulls!
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Don't worry, folks. This website will remain microtransaction-free (for now). I mean, can you imagine trying to monetize the act of reading so badly, that you have people gambling for mere access? That'd be crazy.

Well, I have bad news! This is exactly what many comic apps have been doing. I'm sure there are a few readers who do or have attempted to read webcomics, and have dealt with some form of currency for chapters. Webtoons has a coin system, and many international apps use currencies. The apps themselves are generally free, but currency is either earned through time, and some even ask you to pay straight-up cash. It seems like webcomics have made it work for them, but does that mean it'll work for manga?
Well, at least two companies are damn sure trying to find that out. Last year saw the ill-fated Manga UP! released by Square Enix. And just last week, Kodansha launched their long-awaited app—easily mistaken for a breakfast cereal—K MANGA.
Well, first, I should disclaim that we're only going to examine official apps. We are aware that manga piracy is still alive and well even today. I saw many "unofficial" manga apps recommended to me on the app store, but in comparison, some of the official apps provided by publishers were either too new or had significantly fewer downloads. While we encourage the use of official sources, ultimately, the most important aspect of an app or website for many users is its convenience.

And I can think of nothing more inconvenient than making your app stingier than a free-to-play MMO!

I mean, piracy is essentially the driving force behind these apps. With a million illegitimate apps sitting in the Play Store, it becomes imperative for official publishers to ensure the convenience of accessing their content from the right source for potential consumers.

That's why it's even more baffling that Kodansha decided to release a comic reading app that starts with a tutorial.

It's a contentious relationship. There are a lot of different reasons why people resort to piracy. Some stem from lacking expendable income to afford an entire series, or access to the latest chapters. Having an app with a free option is a great alternative, especially considering that Kodansha has been simulpubbing chapters through other services for years, including the neglected CR Manga.

What's worse is that if you're super excited to just binge a whole series, you have to go through three different systems, which significantly slows down the progression through chapters.

I mean, having looked through K Manga, calling it a "free" option is exceedingly generous. In theory, someone with unlimited time could eventually consume most of the app's content for free. However, every single design choice is very visibly motivated by a desire to funnel anyone using it to spend money to gain access. You can read, at best, two chapters of any given series through the regenerating currency. You can do small things to earn minimal premium currency that usually isn't enough for a single chapter a day. Or, most egregiously, you can do this:

Yeah man, lemme just download Top War and play that for 18 hours so I can unlock enough Funny Money to read a volume of Witch Hat Atelier.
Sometimes, you're not even paying for a complete chapter, as certain series may have their chapters split in half! I believe the ones purchased with premium points don't expire, but it'd be better to buy through a much more user-friendly service. It might even be cheaper if you bought it during a sale or as part of a bundle. The app store is also restrictive about content, so you never know if you might get a version that's censored.
That's the other thing. I'm not opposed to paying for my entertainment. I've been purchasing volumes of Kodansha manga for years! The difference is that I don't have to trade real money for bespoke Barnes & Noble credit just to get a volume of Witch Hat Atelier. I just chafe at the way K Manga is designed to obfuscate how much I'm paying for what I'm getting.
It appears intentionally confusing and predatory to me. Nick and I, who have been closely following the industry for a long time and have a significant investment, have no issues exploring alternative options, but a hypothetical random high school or college student might not. They could unknowingly make a purchase like this and end up with a poor deal, which seems to be the intention behind it. Though it's more likely they would switch to another app they perceive as better. Many people aren't even aware or concerned that the competitor apps they use are unofficial, so they won't feel a moral obligation when you undermine goodwill with practices like these. The app store reviews are filled with similar criticisms. At the time of writing, K Manga has a well-deserved star rating of 1.2/5.
At worst, it's scummy. At best, it's a decision made by executives who are clearly out of touch with the U.S. market for... well, anything, really. This model might have gained traction in Japan, but I don't see it working here when there are not only illegal means but also competing services that are way more straightforward and convenient.
I honestly expected more from Kodansha, given the number of titles they own. It's especially amusing, however, that after using K Manga, going back to Square Enix's Manga UP! does not feel as bad. It's not even close to being a good or the best app, but I was shocked that someone managed to create something even worse.
I mean, Manga UP! was also out of touch, but its points system and comparatively lackluster value for money were overshadowed by the hilariously amateur censoring they pulled to avoid the all-seeing eye of the Apple Store.
While I can't really challenge Apple, Manga UP!'s censorship seemed hastily done and litigious. Safe-for-work images featuring fully-clothed adult women would suddenly be declared inappropriate over something as trivial as wearing jeans. Many suspect that they utilized some sort of cheap automated AI system to handle the bulk of the content, instead of properly reviewing the content for their product. The whole thing gives me flashbacks to Tumblr's initial crackdown. A fiasco that forever burned into my brain the idiotic phrase "female-presenting nipples."

Also, as a reading experience, it's just unpleasant and ugly. Those bars are thicker than those found in most R-18 doujinshi.

Regardless of how it happened, it basically guaranteed nobody would take the service seriously. Especially so, since they didn't tell you that you might purchase a chapter of My Dress-Up Darling that looked like it was released by the CIA 20 years later.

Granted, they eventually redid some stuff and now the censorship is definitely less egregious, but the points system is still there to keep me from ever bothering with it. I have too much else to deal with to play accountant with fake money, so I stick with services that just tell me their price up-front.

They also have a thing called XP for participating in events or something, but all that is too complicated, and the basic freemium model is still pretty stingy. It's not that I don't think a freemium model is possible, but not in the way Square Enix or Kodansha does it. Compared to another official app, MANGA Plus! (Shueisha's international app and website) uses a free ticket model as well.
Well, sort of. MANGA Plus actually approaches things from the other side. Everything on the app is free, and the "tickets" keep track of the chapters you've read since most chapters can only be read once. That's largely because the service is mostly directed towards people reading simulpubs of the latest chapters of Shonen Jump/Jump+ rather than perusing back catalogs.
Simulpubbing is another aspect that we haven't touched on. For some people, it's really important to be up-to-date on the latest chapters. While most of what I read on MANGA Plus consists of exclusives and originals, I also like to keep track of them once I finish reading. After using the service for a while, I find the interface generally tolerable but still in need of some improvements. I mentioned earlier that there is a website, but the ticket-gated chapters are only accessible through the app.
It's also an odd duck because it doesn't even attempt to monetize itself. There are no points, no currency, no purchases, or subscriptions involved. You simply download the app and start reading. And hey, if you're someone without much expendable income, that's a great way to keep up with big titles like One Piece or My Hero Academia. I can tolerate the occasional inconsistencies and restrictions when I'm getting hundreds of dollars worth of entertainment for absolutely nothing.
It's designed for the broad international market interested in reading Jump titles, which is why I cite it as a middle ground. K Manga only serves the U.S. market, so there's even less justification. They couldn't even try to bank on my Canadian pals, who would've been willing to spend their sweet, maple leaf-scented dollars if they had bothered to create a viable service.
I'm at least a little forgiving on that front. I don't pretend to know the complexities of international licensing, and given how much K Manga and Manga UP! try to nickel and/or dime me, I can only imagine they would gladly accept pesos and pounds if they had the opportunity.
Going back to my point about MANGA Plus, while free is great, I personally would prefer to have the option of paying for a subscription. Although most MANGA Plus series are also accessible through Shonen Jump, there is still a significant number of titles that are exclusive to the app. This can be challenging if you don't enjoy reading on a small phone screen.
Yeah, most of the Jump+ titles are exclusive to MANGA Plus, which is a pretty big hassle. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that a lot of their exclusive titles have...questionable translation quality. Shueisha relies on budget-conscious companies like MediBang and Media Do to simulpub anything that Viz Media doesn't handle, and that really shows in certain titles.

I swear to god, that is an actual translation that's on MANGA Plus right now.
That's not even the worst of it, in terms of Bad Simulpub translations. Pretty much every company that does simulpubs has a least one example where the translation is so poor, the translator might as well have just put it through Google Translate and called it a day. It's a big reason I haven't mentioned something like Mangamo, another manga app that does offer subscriptions but frequently relies on outsourcing. Kodansha uses them as well. For context, MediBang was even accused of paying as low as 120 yen per PAGE.

Hell, even some digital-first manga has been getting extremely poor translations—and some don't even get corrected for print.

It's not a great look! It's bad for the consumer, bad for the industry, and bad for basically everyone except the most skinflint suits imaginable. It's also a big part of why I don't use MANGA Plus all that much outside of a couple of exclusive series. I'm typically better off waiting for another licensor to pick up the volume releases and give them a better translation, like with Oshi no Ko, or just sticking with series released via Viz Media's Shonen Jump app.
I'll go first and say that the Jump app makes a gal feel downright spoiled. Not to be a shill here, but Jump's catalog is a juggernaut. The magazine itself has made so many hits, they might as well be Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star. Before the SJ app, anyone looking to JUMP in on a long series like One Piece still had to camp in their local library for months to catch up. Having lived through that, three dollars a month for the entire "vault" is insane.
To be fair, Jump was way ahead of the game when it came to simulpubs. They started with select Shonen Jump titles as early as 2013, packaging them into weekly digital magazines. It wasn't until 2018 that they launched the current version, offering individual chapters for each series. It did allow them to build a huge catalog and develop the infrastructure required to simulpub dozens of series every week. The only serious drawback was the selection itself. If you aren't into big shōnen megahits, it wouldn't have a ton to offer you otherwise.
I'm also showing my age since I am a peak example of someone who was roped into anime of the Big 3 "battle manga" in Jump. They're a big comfort food for me, and I can read chapters like potato chips. I've hit the 100-chapter limit on a few occasions, but that's practically calling me out for being a glutton. However, the current Jump is a very different era, and now the vault includes even more classic series and a few titles from sibling magazines too. Most of the series I keep up with these days aren't battle manga.
For sure, there's a much more varied lineup now, and the fact that most of these things run for hundreds of chapters makes the three bucks for a month of access an absolute steal compared to buying them outright. It just makes you wonder if maybe there could be another service out there with equally solid quality that isn't restricted to a single magazine's branding...

Oh. Huh.
That said, I'm pretty omnivorous. I read battle manga, but I read other things too as do many readers. There's more to manga than Jump, and while we all hope for other manga to receive similar treatment, not all of them will fit under the Jump brand. I always remind myself to read some shōjo manga to balance things out, but then I remember that they can be just as epic as their shōnen brothers, and they tend to have a greater scarcity in terms of physical copies. I'm looking forward to finally reading Kimi ni Todoke aaaaaall the way through, years after I watched the anime.
I knew a lot of people who were craving a version of the Shonen Jump app that included shōjo and seinen titles. Conveniently enough, Viz just happened to launch exactly that, about 24 hours before K Manga came out. Whether it was intentional or not, it was the most ruthless tethering of a competitor I've seen in this industry in a good long while.

Cuz, let me tell you: if my options are to fork over two American dollars and read the entire How Do We Relationship? in a day, or spend a week pulling for Manga Money on this:

Buddy, I promise you, I'm going with the service that doesn't make me watch ads to play a lousy slot machine.

It's a big improvement. There's a lot of work from big names like Rumiko Takahashi, Junji Ito, and Taiyo Matsumoto. They also feature some artistic indie stuff. I was really surprised to see the only volume of the quirky autobiographical The Girl That Can't Get a Girlfriend mixed in there.
From what anyone on the outside can tell, it's essentially a version of the SJ service but with primarily Shogakukan titles. One reason it's a separate app and subscription is probably thanks to them and Shueisha not wanting to mix the brands too much. However, the combined cost is a whopping five dollars a month, which grants me access to damn near everything Rumiko Takahashi has made in the last four decades. So, I'm more than willing to sacrifice the extra space on my home screen for that.
Just like how many of us don't just read one genre of manga, it feels equally restrictive to be tied to a singular publisher's library. Viz sets a great example that other publishers should follow, but it doesn't fully address the huge gap in the availability of English-translated manga, especially in a large country like the U.S. Digital libraries are really important because they not only cater to what many of us are accustomed to but also provide access to manga for those who may not have the same infrastructure. I was fortunate to have a good library, but it's still less than if I lived in Japan where I'd have the option of magazines, libraries, and cafés everywhere—people there don't have to purchase personal copies just to read something for the first time.
In that respect, it mostly comes down to the restrictions that come from having to, well, make money off these things. While apps like Hoopla and other digital library services can help bridge the gap, it's unlikely that there will ever be a completely legal and sustainable way to translate and distribute even the relatively small portion of manga that makes its way to our shores for free.
Maybe not for free, but one recurring sentiment I've been coming across in response to poorly executed freemium models is that many individuals are willing to pay a flat premium. At US$15, an English manga volume is more expensive than most major streaming subscriptions, offering very little discount for digital versions. A sub where you can read 10 volumes for the same price as a single volume could be seen as a huge profit loss. But I believe that labeling libraries, streaming services, or apps—whatever we call them—as direct obstacles to the purchase and enjoyment of manga fail to recognize the significance of online reading in terms of discovery. People won't buy a series they didn't know existed, and they won't hear about it if no one is talking about it.
Oh, I'm sure that's part of the strategy for these companies. Shonen Jump and Viz Manga even offer the latest three chapters of everything for free, which is almost certainly a loss leader. But making these series available, easily and immediately, is invaluable for retaining an audience and building word of mouth.
Speaking of word of mouth, one of the lesser-known apps we haven't mentioned that's not owned by a publisher is the independently owned start-up called Azuki. I'll disclose that I am acquainted with some people who worked on it. Despite being a smaller, more expensive library than VIZ offers, it's a genuinely good alternative. Azuki features titles borrowed from several publishers, including many Kodansha titles. I really enjoyed their selection of indie titles from small publishers like Star Fruit Books that I wouldn't have found otherwise. You can also read everything on both their app and website.
Azuki's cool. Being independent means it's got a much larger and broader selection, and there are some neat titles you wouldn't otherwise see among the publisher-owned ones. It's a simple, straightforward subscription with a solid reader and UI. That's why it was extremely infuriating when Kodansha removed almost all of their simulpubs off from there to put them behind K Manga's Olympic obstacle course of free-to-play BS.

Sorry, did you expect to pay money directly to read Edens Zero every week? Well, not without going through a middleman or giving your personal information to a shady debit card "survey," you won't!

Even so, they still have a decent selection of Kodansha titles, and they even have pages dedicated to browsing titles by publisher. While some of these titles are still available on CR Manga, I appreciate that Azuki has a more modernized interface and provides actual support. In fact, I would go as far as saying that Azuki has the best reader experience, and I've been using it to slow-burn through Chihayafuru.
Let's be real: if there's any alternative to Crunchyroll Manga, you should go for it. As much as Squeenix and Kodansha screwed the pooch, they are miles more functional than that aborted afterthought of a service.
Ultimately, what these companies need to understand is that even if they offered the entire Library of Alexandria at the cost of a crummy app—nobody would read it. There's a huge appetite for manga right now, and I'd rather starve than consume it in a convoluted manner. Not everyone has the financial means to pay a premium, but I would be more forgiving if apps at least straight-up asked me to pay a simple recurring fee instead of wasting my time. On the other hand, I have come to appreciate manga much more when it isn't all guarded.
Yeah, just respect my intelligence to make an informed purchase up front. If I'm going to read manga, the only thing allowed to rob me of my precious time should be the author of Rent-A-Girlfriend.
Well, maybe it's better if that one stays locked up...

Anyways, don't forget to rate us 5 stars and leave a review on the store! Make sure to mention your reading preferences. Would you be willing to pay a premium? Do you have any ideas about how we can better approach free options, or create a hybrid instead? I can assure you that your feedback holds more worth to us than any in-app currency could.

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