Fun With Numbers: Scarce Demand for Simulmanga

This past year, viz media pulled off a first for the non-Japan manga industry. I’m referring to Shonen Jump Alpha, a digital “magazine” offering same-week release of the chapters of some 11 Weekly Shonen Jump manga. It’s pretty cool, and at 26$/year for 48 issues (and a buck per back issue), it’s not a totally unreasonable subscription fee. But that specific business model, one of same-week releases for official translations, is unfortunately not something that’s likely to be transferable to the majority of manga. Especially seinen and josei series with smaller fanbases. If you’ve ever wondered if the manga translation industry will catch up to where the anime industry is now with simulcasts, this article discusses the depressing reality of the situation and why such an outcome is relatively unlikely.

The biggest problem with bringing over all the manga in Japan is that there are a lot of them, and not just because manga has a longer history. The demand curves for manga and anime are basically flipped while crossing the Pacific. Here, manga is a niche offshoot of anime fandom. There, manga is by far the more popular (and commercially superior) medium.

Consider this: the best-selling TV anime in the Blu-Ray Era, Madoka Magica, sold about 70,000 copies per volume over 6 volumes, each costing about 7000 yen. That works out to a total gross profit of roughly 2.94 billion yen. A fair chunk of change. But compare the most recent volume of One Piece (v71, as of this writing) has sold over 2.6 volumes over 5 weeks, and will probably sell more. At a rough per-volume cost of 500 yen, that’s 1.3 billion yen on a volume that still has yet to exhaust itself. It takes all of 3 volumes for One Piece to eclipse the sales of the anime with the highest sales mark in 15 years.

Most anime don’t sell as well as Madoka, but most manga don’t sell as well as One Piece. Let’s take a more reasonable example, with a manga selling 100,000 volumes  and a 1-cour anime (6 disks) anime selling 3000 volumes at the profit line. Assuming the same prices as the prior example, the profit-line anime grosses 126 million yen total. The decent-selling manga grosses 50,000,000 yen per volume. Again, it takes roughly 3 volumes for a respectable manga to eclipse the sales of a profitable anime, or less time than it takes for said anime to get a full home video release. That’s before factoring in the relative cost of producing 12 episodes worth of color animation compared to producing 600-ish pages of black-and-white manga. All this makes manga a much more favorable economic proposition, and is why even most modern anime (even the originals) will have at least one related manga.

More to the point, it also leads to manga being far more abundant than anime. And this inequity leads to a pretty sick imbalance when it comes to localizing the two distinct media. Even if there were equal levels of demand for anime and manga, there would be a much higher level of difficulty bringing over a large percentage of current manga because of how much more there is. And there isn’t equal demand, either. There’s been demand for subs-as-soon-as-possible anime localization for years, something observable by the sheer number of different fansub groups working on similar projects at least as far back as digital fansubs. It’s only really in the last 4-5 years, with the advent of crunchyroll, that the industry has gotten into that in any meaningful way. Consider that before crunchyroll, fansubs were still current the majority of seasonal anime. That’s not the case for manga. Scanlators today are current with a lot of A and B-list titles, but stocks an incredible amount of manga that have yet to receive any kind of translation.** 3 untranslated titles for every one translated is my lowball estimate, and most of those getting translation are far from current.

If you’ll recall the beginning of the article, WSJ Alpha costs 26$ per year for subscribers. Currently, 11 weekly series are serialized in WSJA. While the amount of money each of those series brings in is probably not equal (I’d imagine Bleach is bringing in more subscribers than World Trigger), the upshot is that a digital release of current-to-japan manga costs about $2.50 per series per year for something at WSJA’s subscriber base.

That is something I believe most people would be willing to pay for weekly current scans of their favorite manga. The main problem with generalizing those results is the size of subscriber base. Digitally releasing manga is a process where the vast majority of costs are taken up by the fixed initial costs; translating the title and getting it on the web. Hosting it afterwards takes up a much lower number of man-hours. So that’s where the makers make up the cost, getting a lot of people to buy their product to diffuse the initial cost of making it. And WSJA is hogging all the star power to make that $2.50 per series possible. Even without getting exact American sales figures for the individual manga, it’s easy to see WSJA has a lot of star power. The magazine carries 3 of the top 4 manga by popularity on myanimelist in Naruto (106,685 users), Bleach (96,071 users), and One Piece (68,181 users). There are 14 more currently-running manga in the mal top 30, and by the time you get to Kimi ni Todoke at the end of the top 30, you’re already down to less than half of what One Piece has. The overall total in mal users for the 11 titles in the magazine is 366,373, thanks mainly to the aforementioned three, a color reprinting of Dragon Ball, and Blue Exorcist. The total for the most popular 11 currently running manga not in WSJA is 366,779 users. Assuming the mal statistics are a good first approximation (it’s never trivial, but usually a good rule of thumb), that means that a manga magazine in the style of WJSA would have to procure the 11 other hottest properties among the English-speaking fanbase to produce a product capable of being offered at a similar price.

Naturally, those 11 titles are owned by several different companies together, and are less likely to get together. What remains is a business model with less popular products than WSJA that would have to charge more for a flat rate subscription service. To reasonably compete, they would have to offer something other than just pure star power; either a focus on a different demographic from WSJA (e.g. targeting female fans) or a larger quantity of material.

Fair warning: The article from here on out is mostly educated guesswork, so take it with a grain of salt.

I can roughly guesstimate how much a higher-quantity lineup, lined with a bunch of B-plus manga but no single standout, would cost. Say this hypothetical new service put out a decent selection of 20 or so of mal’s most popular non-WSJA running manga, managing an average popularity of around 15000 users per series.*** If we assume their fixed per-series costs would be about the same as WSJA’s are, we can use the average popularity of WSJA series (~33300 users/series) to convert that into costs for this new magazine:

($26/year*33300 users/series)/(15000 users/series)~$58/year

That’s actually not wholly unreasonable. Compare with crunchyroll, which boasts over 100,000 paid subscribers at 60$ per year. A service offering manga might get bad press for asking more than most anime subscription services, but I expect they could get people who wanted their manga to accept the price point the way CR did. However, there are reasons why that scenario is less than practical. Chief among them, as I already mentioned, is that after Shonen Jump’s dominant slate is cleared from the field, there’s a comparative dearth of B-plus properties owned by a single company (via licenses or by original ownership). Kodansha USA might be able to get somewhere by building a magazine around Attack on Titan, Fairy Tail, and a few other series, but it would be tough to fill out the rest of such a roster and difficult to ask more than WSJA for a magazine with similar demographic appeal. A female-targeted current-to-Japan manga subscription service might be able to carve out a niche with the right titles, but Viz already tried that with the now-defunct Shojo Beat.**** A magazine built around the type of manga that tend to get translated less often and less quickly would be nice, but I’m dubious as to whether or not enough fans would turn out to make the pricing reasonable. A magazine with less star power (i.e. not in possession of the big three) would be less able to tank the cost of a less-popular title like World Trigger without significantly raising prices. The lack of scanlation in any given genre may be somewhat reflective of a lack of demand overall.

In short, it’s theoretically possible that one or two other WSJA-style manga magazines could pop up, but it’s unlikely. On a broad scale, most manga just isn’t popular enough to warrant up-to-the-minute subscription-style translation, and we’re not looking at a CR for manga anytime soon.

*9 titles did that in a week without new Shueisha releases, so I feel it’s a fairly reasonable assumption.

**Those aren’t just the also-ran second tier stuff; recent Shogakukan Manga Award winners like Nobunaga Concerto have yet to be touched by scanlators.

***There are currently 29 such titles on mal, including 4 WSJ series not in Alpha.

****It’s worth noting that it’s still a brand name, though it may lack the fan cohesion necessary to get people to buy things in a bundle, even while discounted.

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