What a difference a few years can make. Not so long ago, some people believed that manga was poised to take over the world, and with reason; it dominated the BookScan charts, gobbled up bookstore shelf space, and became an important part of the graphic novel landscape. Over the past two years, however, overall manga sales in the U.S. have been reported to be down by one- third, eight manga publishers have gone out of business, while the two biggest players Tokyopop and Viz have shrunk as Shojo Beat and Yen Plus turn to digital publishing. What the hell happened?
I don’t think anyone can point to one thing that is the reason for the fall in sales. Some place the drop in manga sales solely at the feet of piracy, but there’s been piracy with American comics too, to the point that one illegal downloading site was big enough to attract the attention of the FBI. The site was subsequently shut down. Yet American comic sales have not dropped off as dramatically as manga. And if by some stretch of the imagination it is solely due to piracy, why were experts in manga saying just a few years ago that scanlations didn’t really affect sales of the trades. What changed in the past few years? Are people more willing to engage in illegal downloading than they were a few years ago?
Was it the recession? American graphic novels sales were a bit down, as were other trade books, but not as drastically as manga. In Japan, manga sales were also down, but the percentage drop was not as severe as here in the US. The weak economy in the US may have contributed to the decline in sales stateside but I don’t believe it was the biggest factor.
Some have attributed the manga sales drop to a change in the buyer at a major retail chain. That is the same retailer who had serious financial problems, significant layoffs and multiple store closings. Even if the buying staff had remained the same, the buying budgets were tighter and there weren’t as many outlets for the books. Sales would have been down at that chain regardless of who was placing the buys.
There is also this bizarre theory that girls, who were originally reading manga (and subsequently providing the main sales boost), have since stopped reading it because they switched to reading the Twilight series. But let’s look at the figures on that: the Twilight saga comprises four books total which were released annually over a four year period. If an avid reader bought each one via Amazon, they would have spent $13.59 per book, totaling $50 over a four-year period! Yes the movie moved a lot of books and ancillary merchandise and tie-in titles, but that didn’t ramp up until fall 2008. Manga were down 17% in 2008 and it didn’t all happen in the fourth quarter. It just doesn’t make sense that Twilight hurt manga sales to that degree.
Was there a “manga burnout”? During the past ten years, the output of manga titles was staggering. At first almost everything published made it onto the shelves. A few years later when the shelves were buckling under the weight of all the books published, I would hear sales reps for manga complain that some titles were being bought in smaller quantities than they expected. Some titles were passed on altogether. Publishers were shocked at this and they thought the answer to this problem was more shelf space, always more shelf space. Titles weren’t passed on because of a lack of shelf space; some of the books just weren’t that good. And the consumers only have so much money they can spend any given month. Not exactly burnout, I just think the fan base may have been growing at a slower rate compared to the number of titles released.
The rush to publish created a mind-set that I believe was harmful to manga, treating it more like a commodity, as if the two biggest publishers were Coke and Pepsi. I actually heard a representative of one of the two biggest manga publishers say “Well, in March we released forty-five titles and the other publisher released forty-seven titles, and that’s why they had more market share this month.” Huh? What were the titles? In bookstores you get the big buys based on the book – not because you released fifty other titles that month.
When you treat something like a commodity, you run the risk of turning it into a product. Get the new 2010 Manga! I remember one ad campaign that Tokyopop ran, where they designed ads and banners to look like posters from the U.S.S.R. – Japanese men marching in military uniforms with the slogan “Join The Manga Revolution!” At the time all I could think of was – how strange that they was comparing manga to a failed social and political system. I realize that there was a need to educate people as to what the word manga means – some people pronounced it “mangaia”, like they were at the Olive Garden. There was the same problem with the term “graphic novel.” Too many people thought graphic meant pornographic. It confused people further when you showed them a non-fiction graphic novel. I wish we could just call them what they really all are – comics.
Was manga was a fad? When I think of fads, I think of Pet Rocks and Pogs – something that is huge for a brief time and then flames out and goes away. Manga is not going away; some things have to change, but it’s not going away.
So, what is at the root of the decline? I think the core fans grew up. The early fans who started with Sailor Moon are now in their late teens or early twenties or older. If indeed most of the manga published in the last dozen years has been aimed at teens, well then… teens grow up. Just like teens age out of the YA section in bookstores and migrate over to the adult section, they also age out of teen manga books.
It’s also basic economics – when you get out of high school, your money goes toward things like tuition, books, housing, food, etc. I have always heard that there’s a drop in readership for American comics at this age and it makes complete sense. I stopped reading them when I was in college, and when I started reading again, I found that they had grown up; The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and MAUS were waiting for me. And that’s what manga needs to do – grow up.
Now, I understand that there are a lot of comics in Japan for adults, and that there are some publishers who are getting them to market, like Vertical. But the numbers they sell can’t compare to a hit like Naruto, so they have been a bigger gamble. And why buck the trend; if the teen titles are selling like crazy, what we need are more of them!
The market has evolved and the books need to reflect what the market can be, not what it was. We tried to expand it a little when I was at Yen, where our first book published was With the Light. I had hoped that this story of a young couple learning about life through caring for their autistic child might light the way for more mature fare. It got a significant amount of attention, but was not a huge hit. It was still a risk worth taking and maybe it will be one of the titles these lapsed fans will come back to read in the next few years.
What needs to be done in order to expand and push the medium into a new direction?
- Manga publishers need to start creating and publishing books that are aimed at a more adult audience. The sales won’t be there at first, but eventually one book will break out. That’s all it takes, just one book to show what the medium is capable of.
- There needs to be an outlet for the future writers and authors who have been influenced by manga – there is no equivalent of a DC Comics or a Marvel for these people to go learn their craft. An American comics fan can realize their dream by writing or drawing Batman and then go on to create their own world. The same does not hold true for manga. I am sure Viz would not let an American team work on Naruto – but maybe they should.
- Now that there are fewer publishers vying for manga licenses, hopefully the players left standing can be choosier about what they publish and in turn can create stronger publishing programs. It can’t all be about high school girls with special powers anymore.
- The manga style, the way the stories are told and the conventions of the medium have influenced a generation of fans who will want to create or read books that have those sensibilities. Outside of talent working on established titles (which I don’t think will happen) this new generation needs a home in order to create. It’s riskier to launch a completely unknown property, free of scanlations – but welcome to the world of publishing.
- As for the millions of linear feet of manga lining the shelves? Publish more down-priced omnibuses of classic works. Remember the Disney model; kids’ properties are generational and you can always reintroduce them back into the market for the next generation. While I know the rights have been an issue – it’s time to see Sailor Moon again.
Everything is cyclical. Publishers, both domestic and foreign, need to take a deep breath, survey the landscape and create a new and better way of creating, publishing, selling and marketing their books. Manga is not going away, it just needs to evolve. Let the evolution begin.