If you know anything at all about manga, you’ve probably heard the name Weekly Shonen Jump before. Armed to the teeth with megahits like One Piece, Naruto, Bleach, and Toriko, it stands undisputed atop the manga industry. But did you ever wonder how that dominance came to be, or why it’s been largely unchallenged for upwards of 20 years? Here’s a hint: it’s no accident.
Just look at that diabolical stare
Note that for most of this article, I will only be comparing the serialzations in Shueisha’s Weekly Shonen Jump (WSJ) with those in Shogakukan’s Weekly Shonen Sunday (WSS). Kodansha’s Weekly Shonen Magazine is the third major shonen manga magazine, and is (Kodansha’s recent international child-porn legal scandals aside) considerably better-managed than WSS. I’m using WSS in particular to draw a clearer contrast in results.
The essential strength of WSJ as a megahit manga factory will be something familiar to anyone who ever wondered why Mx0 had to end before getting to a large portion of the plot or why Double Arts needed to die before doing really anything. Namely, the strategists at WSJ have instituted a rigid popularity-based ranking system in their magazine’s table of contents. Each week, every issue of WSJ contains a postcard with 3 empty slots, which readers can use to vote for their favorite series. 8 weeks later, the Table of Contents is entirely (excepting color pages, cover pages, and series less than 8 weeks old) determined by the contents of that vote. New series usually have less than half a year to grab the attention of readers and make it out of the bottom-half doghouse before they get canned. Even senior writers fear landing the bottom 5 positions on that list.
So what does the resulting high rate of series turnover do for WSJ economically? It weeds out the weak pretenders and leaves only those with the potential to become real megahits, selling over 100,000 copies of each volume. Even one of these Kuroko’s Baksetball-tier hits could carry a lesser magazine solo, and together they make WSJ’s position virtually uncontestable.
In contrast, WSS does not employ a rigid ranking system, and instead relies on a combination of editor opinions and popular vote to build its Table of Contents. This allows less-popular series to last longer, and one can see it lead to sub-optimal results in the long term.
To see what I mean, let’s dive into the sea of numbers for a bit. First, here’s some first-week sales figures for the latest volumes of some recent WSJ and WSS manga:
One Piece (v68, 1,555,724)
Naruto (v63, 574,373)
Bleach (v57, 399,278)
Toriko (v23, 243,168)
Kuroko’s Basketball (v20, 429,883)
Gintama (v47, 233,890)
Hitman Reborn (v41, 204,155)
Hunter x Hunter (v32, 619,604)
Medaka Box (v19, 108,070)
Kochi Kame (v184, 44,081)
Nisekoi (v5, 98,833)
Assassination Classroom (v2, 200,626)
Koisome Momiji (v4, 53,302)
Detective Conan (v78, 352,174)
Silver Spoon (v6, 414,297)
Magi (v15, 136,782)
History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi (v50, 118,575)
Hayate the Combat Butler (v35, 52,834+49,478)
The World God Only Knows (v20, 89,698+42,877)
Nobunaga Concerto (v8, 66,315)
Zettai Karen Children (v32, 53,407)
Denpa Kyoshi (v5, 42,520)
Rin-ne (v15, 23,653)
Be Blues (v8, 27,329)
Kunizaki Izumo no Jijou (v12, 18,433)
King Golf (v18, 21,785)
2 fundamental non-administrative costs go in to the production of manga: materials and artist salaries. This means the number of pages available to the major magazines is a scarce (if flexible) resource, and one author getting or staying in means another being left out. And because of this, it’s easy to point out that WSS is doing a shoddy job of managing their magazine.
Some of WSS’s manga are in decent shape, and it makes sense to keep stuff like History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi or The World God Only Knows. But King Golf, manly as it is? It’s selling 20,000 volumes, one-tenth of Assassination Classroom’s total. Quick rule of thumb: one can expect an average weekly manga to come out with 4 or so volumes per year. That means it takes Assassination Classroom roughly a month to do what King Golf can do in 2 years. Factor in the fact that, in those 2 years, WSJ’s typical half-year slots would give no less than 4 new artists a chance to showcase their work to the nation. Factor in that a lot of artists would kill for such a chance (even in decline, WSS is one of Japan’s top 10 magazines by circulation); they’d have their pick of the litter. Factor in the chance that one of those artists makes a hit on the scale of Silver Spoon or Kuroko’s Basketball, which they could then milk for years, or even something like Nisekoi. Factor in all that, and it’s easy to see that, amazing as the series itself is, King Golf is wasting space in WSS. The same accusations can be levelled at Rin-ne, Be Blues, and Kunizaki Izumo no Jijou, all series >2 years old with sales figures in the 20,000 range that aren’t going to get more popular with age. In WSJ, these all would be past dead by now. That’s WSJ’s evil genius; they mercilessly kill good-to-average existing manga to gain the chance of producing a great manga in the future.
So what’s stopping WSS from implementing such a strategy? This is admittedly speculation on my part, but I have to wonder if seniority is playing a role and making it harder for the editorial staff to dismiss more veteran authors, or even put pressure on them to wrap series up within the year. I know WSJ has no such compunction, except maybe for Kochi Kame, but that’s like accusing an 80-year-old billionaire of not being productive. It could be that there are intricacies of the manga business I don’t understand here, but I understand it’s better to sell more units than less.
To their credit, WSS did land a major coup recently by snagging Hiromu Arakawa’s Silver Spoon, and has made an effort to push their current manga by producing a slew of anime. Nonetheless, the core of their fortunes are tied to the marketability of their core product, and I expect them to struggle so long as they cling to their muskets while Shueisha invests into drone-fighter research. Also, I’m betting that landing the author of FMA cost them a lot more than what 10 equivalent rookie artists would have.
WSJ shows every sign of continuing to be a dominant evil empire. If Hunter x Hunter came out on a more regular schedule, I wouldn’t even care. Even so, I wouldn’t mind seeing other magazines achieve profit (and the resulting ability to make more manga) by trying to incorporate their successful strategies more. An industry is stronger when the competition is also strong.
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