Manga’s Role in the Digital Revolution

Through out the past several years of my fandom, I have seen a shift in the anime market from fans getting their video on TV and DVD to the underground world of online piracy and downloading. After years of ignoring this audience shift and suffering the loss of DVD revenue because of it, the anime industry has finally embraced new technologies and began experimenting with new digital distribution systems over the internet. That is why I claim that Spring 2009 will always go down as the “Season of the Simulcast” for anime.

But anime is not the only medium experimenting this season. Within the past few weeks, the American manga industry has started claiming its own stake into the digital revolution. A new series is being released in both Japan and America at the same time,  and a new manga anthology is set to be available exclusively online.

And all of these new developments have come much to the surprise of this blogger and industry analyst, because unlike anime, I have not seen the manga industry suffer at the hands of the internet.

That’s not to say that there isn’t piracy of manga. In this day and age, everything is pirated on the internet. But while I witnessed almost all my friends turn to the internet to get their anime fill,  I’ve only seen a few of my fellow fans download illegal “scanlations” of manga off of the internet. And even out of those fans, most of them still turned to legally store-bought manga as their primary source of entertainment.

In an interview from March 2008 with the Anime Today podcast, Del Rey’s Associate Publisher Dallas Middaugh noticed this difference between the two markets as well. “When it comes to watching anime, my experience is that fans are okay with a lower quality version of the anime if they could get it for free. When it comes to manga, the experience of reading manga on screen is not the same as the experience of reading the book. While for some people it’s good enough, I think for the majority of people, it’s not. Clearly it’s just a very different thing from anime.”

So Dallas wasn’t sweating over piracy, and why should he – or anyone in the manga industry – worry about it? In March of 2008, everything was looking pretty good.  According to ICv2 trade reports, the US manga industry has been a hot booming market in the 21st century. Ever since they started keeping tabs of the market in 2002, manga sales had been increasing year-after-year.

But there was trouble in paradise in 2008. In June, the once leading manga publisher Tokyopop announced major cutbacks and internal restructuring within the company. At the last New York Comic Con, ICv2 reported that 2008 saw the first ever decline in the manga market. Sales dropped 17% to bring the industry back to 2005 numbers.

So what happened? The ICv2 analysts cited several reasons for the decline. They said that Cartoon Network cutting back on anime programing was affecting the manga market. They claimed that Kurt Hassler leaving his post as head buyer at Borders to jump-start his own Yen Press publishing company lead to manga’s decline in bookstores.  Hell, they even believed that American teenage girls were too busy swooning over the pretty boys of Twilight in 2008 to be swooning over the pretty boys of manga.

But the one thing that the analysts didn’t cite in their report was that piracy was taking a bite into the market. While I have controversially come out in saying that piracy is killing the anime industry, I do completely agree with ICv2 and Dallas Middaugh that the manga industry doesn’t have to worry about it.

What saves manga from the dreaded monster that has consumed her sister? Well, along with Middaugh’s assessment that reading manga on a computer is a poor substitute to reading it on paper, I believe that the “scanlation” process of pirating manga is not as easy or well established as the fansubbing process of anime. While digitally fansubbing anime is simply the best method of distributing anime globally, scanlating manga is such a pain in the ass to do.

First, the pirate would need to physically remove the binding and then scan each page of the comic one-by-one into the computer. Then he has to remove the original text, translate it, and then go through the proper lettering procedure to ensure that the new English text will fit within the allowed space. On the reader’s side, they’re not getting a book when they download the scanlation. They’re getting a directory of image files that are hopefully organized by file name. It’s up to the downloader to find his own method of reading the image files in a legible and chronological way.

It takes more skill and tolerance to pirate manga. Add this to the fact that there are way more books being published in Japan than there are scanlators volunteering to do it, and you find that there are huge limitations in this underground system of distribution. This is much like how the hassles of fansubbing on VHS restricted that piracy’s impact on anime until broadband and digital fansubbing eased up the procedure. If piracy is not easy to do, it will not overtake the mainstream legal distribution system.

But while analysts aren’t concerning themselves with piracy in manga, the decline in sales from 2008 has apparently caused some concern within the industry. Viz Media, the largest manga publisher in America, has taken it upon themselves to experiment with some new distribution methods that could best be described as ways to combat piracy.

Viz has already been dealing with digital distribution with many of their Shonen Jump anime titles, most notably with their active simulcast of the very popular Naruto series. But at the start of April, Viz began the first ever “manga simulcast” with Rumiko Takahashi’s brand-new manga series Rin-ne. The same day that a new chapter is released in Weekly Sunday magazine in Japan, an English translated version appears on their website for American audiences to read.

I found that the Flash-based manga reader that Viz was using for their weekly Rin-ne chapters to be very easy to use and read on my computer. Their method of translation and online presentation is far more organized and professional than scanlated manga. And then last week, Viz announced that it was ceasing publication of its Shojo Beat anthology and replacing it with a new online anthology, Ikki, using the same Flash reader they used with Rin-ne.

Why Viz is doing this is beyond me, but I must say, I am glad to see one company taking some initiative in adapting the medium and embracing new technologies. That was a lesson that the anime industry failed to accept until companies started dropping like flies. Viz is taking a preemptive strike, and I’m glad they are doing it.

Where is this technology heading? What role will manga hold in the digital revolution?

Personally, as a member of the “internet generation”,  I’d be okay with giving up paper for electronic manga viewing, especially if it comes at a much lower cost. My bookshelf has gotten way overfilled with all these comic books, and it’s a nightmare to move my collection from one location to another. But I want to still be able to read manga in bed right before going to sleep, or on a long bus ride into the city. That is why I wish Viz or any manga publisher would seriously consider putting their Japanese titles onto a portable electronic device.

The Amazon Kindle would be an excellent place to start. The device uses a black-and-white “e-ink” screen that doesn’t glow like a computer or cell phone, so it is easier on the eyes like real paper. The blank-and-white nature of manga makes it ideal for the e-ink, and when Sony was showing off its own e-reader device years ago, they used to demo the unit with the Tokyopop OEL manga Peach Fuzz. And with Amazon introducing the new, extra large Kindle DX unit, it will be even easier to read these comics on the electronic device.

Another feature that Kindle specifically brings to the table is its wireless delivery technology. The device doesn’t require a computer, it uses cell phone signals to download its content from the internet. Not only does this make it easy to browse and buy books right on the device, but it allows you to “subscribe” to any kind of periodical and have it regularly downloaded onto the Kindle. Hell, even this very blog is currently available for wireless delivery on the device.

I think this new technology is the direction that the industry should be embracing and promoting. Wouldn’t it be nice to subscribe to a service that delivers new chapters from Viz’s Ikki or Yen Press’s Yen+ anthology right into your hand every week? It eliminates the cost of printing and physical delivery. And because the Internet is global, a Japanese company could just translate new manga in house from Japan and sell it in the US without worrying about working with a US team.

But this is all just a dream of a tech-savvy manga fan. In reality, manga doesn’t really need to reinvent itself in the modern era as paper has done quite well for itself so far in the 21st century. But a hiccup in sales this past year has provoked the leading publisher in the industry to test out the waters of digital distribution. I believe (and hope) that these innovations will bring with it a brand new way for us all to enjoy one of our favorite mediums.

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