Fun With Numbers: The Decline of US Print Manga Sales and Who Might be Buying into the Digital Manga Boom

I’ve been over this before, but it bears repeating – print manga in the US is a lot more like anime in Japan than it is manga in Japan; it’s expensive, with a relatively small customer base. Manga in Japan only costs anywhere from 400-900yen, small enough that marketing to elementary school kids with their weekly allowances is a plausible strategy. In the US, the cheapest print manga start from $9, and can cost quite a bit more. This makes manga in the US a smaller, more exclusive market. At that price point, the proposition of just buying a $60 anime box set (there’s a pretty understandable overlap between the fanbases) starts to look a lot more appealing.

In more practical terms, manga was perpetually being walloped by anime in the US market. While the total gross of all manga tracked through bookscan in 2007 was just a hair under $109 million (all gross totals from that article unless otherwise linked), the total gross of anime DVDs in the US in that same year was over $300 million, a number surpassing not just the manga total, but the $183 million gross of the entire US comics market that same year. While more recent statistics regarding anime are hard to come by, that still speaks to a huge contrast in US sales potency for an industry where the 2013 annual gross of One Piece by itself (18,151,599*500~9 billion yen) tops the total of the top two averagers of the post-Evangelion era (Bakemonogatari and Madoka sold about 6.5 billion yen worth of disks between them).

What do those US manga figures look like currently? The president of Viz europe pegged the current value of the US manga market at $120 million just after 2011, while Brian Hibbs pegs it at $63 million for the same year. That’s a *huge* contrast. But there’s also a pretty readily available explanation as to why that’s the case. What might an executive at Viz have access to that skews the numbers so seriously away from print sales data? The numbers from their emanga store, the biggest digital comic service in the US outside comixology might fit the bill.

The business argument in favor of digital manga as a distribution method is simple. First of all, the price, for most of the lifetime of the service, has been way lower than in store; until a price increase to $7 this Fall, a volume only set one back $5. Though you don’t get a physical stack of paper, the price for supporting a series every other month is suddenly half of what it used to be. Second, there’s no wait time for shipping or a bookstore to get its shelves in stock. Third, the lack of hardcopies means the publisher doesn’t have to worry about printing too much and getting a bad rap for tons of unsold copies; just replicate some data when the money changes hands and you’re done. And there may well be additional plus points I missed here due to my unfamiliarity with the service (and e-readers in general).

Perhaps most importantly, a lot of English-speaking manga fans grew up on the internet, and are used to reading digitally. Cheap, instant-access digital manga might actually be able to lure traditional non-customers into the fold. Given that, there’s a respectable chance that perpetual 50% off could lure in more than twice as many customers. Digital manga markets certainly behave differently from print ones; I’ve written about the jazz-ridiculous rate of turnover in Viz’s emanga toplists. Viz VP Gagan Singh is even on the record commenting on the differences between the two fanbases; “Sales of our digital manga don’t cannibalize those on our print side. We anticipate the same trend moving forward. In fact, we’ve noticed that the crossover between print and digital readers is relatively small, and that many of our digital readers prefer digital editions exclusively.”

Too, the progression of the timeline argues for an expanded market. Viz introduced its manga app in late 2010, a year when the industry as a whole was putting up a total gross of $67 million. In 2012, that gross was down to $41 million. In other words, you can’t close the gap to the projections at $120 million simply by people who were buying print buying more stuff (or even spending the same amount of money).

It is possible that the $60 million bookscan figures cited above are somewhat incomplete; not all stores report to bookscan, and their estimates were only 65%-75% of total sales circa 2003. Still, a $60 million gap is a lot to make up even with the more significant fudge factors. Though the percentage of stores reporting is said to have increased to 80% since then, if the bookscan estimate were a worst-case 65% of the total, that would work out to an actual gross of about $96 million, leaving a more modest, though still significant, $25 million gap.

So I still wouldn’t read too deeply into these numbers without another set of hard figures to corroborate, but there are more than a few indicators to suggest that the US manga industry is, between Viz, Yen Plus, and Kodansha via CR Manga, currently catering towards a larger and notably different base of paying customers than it was at the peak of the print market in 2007.*

If anime is a decently healthy guy who works out weekly and maybe eats a little too much sugar, manga as an industry is Usain Bolt. It’s just hard to see that because, even with scanlations a-plenty, there are still many Shogakukan/Kodansha award winners with zero pages of scanlations available. Which is one of the reasons I’m so excited for the potential future of digital localization.

*A bit of an emotional tangent point: the manga medium’s breadth lacerates anime’s ass. That’s been true for decades and it’s still true today. It’s easier to take risks on and the portion of the public it caters to is much wider. In my personal opinion, the practical advantages of that combined with manga’s innate advantages (irregular storyboards, reader-adjusted pacing) outweigh anime’s higher ceiling (via motion, color and sound) and make it the better medium. It doesn’t help that many of the most prestigious anime-manga adaptations are what boils down to vomics with coloring and a soundtrack in terms of creative effort. I could blog weekly for a year just about all of the well-loved anime that are borderline cutpaste jobs.

8 thoughts on “Fun With Numbers: The Decline of US Print Manga Sales and Who Might be Buying into the Digital Manga Boom

  1. I’m doubtful that digital sales make up much of the gap. Digital currently account for less than 10% of total comic sales, according to ICV2:

    Moreover, the gap between BookScan and market size existed before digital was ever an issue. JETRO’s last white paper for the manga market pegged 2007 at $210 million, while the BookScan data only account for $109 million sold. When you compare the two set of numbers, BookScan’s had always had less than half of JETRO’s, even before the digital transition:

    Year | JETRO | BookScan
    2007 | 210 million | $109 million
    2008 | 175 million | $82 million
    2009 | 140 million | $67 million
    2010 | 112 million | $63 million

    Click to access us_animation_comic.pdf

    • While those numbers do supplement the argument that the estimates might not tell the full story, there are a couple of points in the data that you cited which would point towards a very strong growth in the digital manga market.

      First, the JETRO data you linked to indicates that the the digital manga market grew by a factor of 8 from $.5-1 million in 2009 to $6-8 million in 2010, immediately after Viz’s digital business went into operation for a single year. Comixology has been around since 2007, and used the iOS since mid-2009, and while improvements in that service could have been a factor, the strong, sudden growth would indicate that digital manga might make up a very significant fraction of the total growth in digital comics in the US (specifically due to Viz’s digital rollout).

      Also, I think you forgot to insert the 2008 data for bookscan ($100 million) into the comparison sample. By my tally, the progression goes 109/210, 100/175, 82/140, 67/112, which means the typical bookscan estimates are about 60% of the total (especially in the two most recent years). That means we would expect the 2011 JETRO data to be on the order of 63/.6=105 million, which leaves a $15 million gap in a year when the total digital market was $25 million. I find it at least plausible that, given manga’s long history with scanlation, those readers were particularly eager to buy into the digital market. If something like 40-60% of that digital boost is because of manga, then digital manga could conceivably have been making ~$35 million to 41/.6~$70 million print manga in 2012, or a third of the total business (before counting the gains from cutting out the middleman). I’m not arguing that all of the losses from 2009-2010 were necessarily made up with digital, but the numbers are by no means in opposition to a very significant increase in digital and thus a less significant dropoff in the industry as a whole.

      Edit: The 2012 data was 41 million, so the print total would likely be around $68-70 mil rather than $105 mil. My bad.

      • Looking over these two sets of data again, Digital could explain why ICv2 saw 6-10% growth for US Manga between 2012-2013 while BookScan’s remained flat.

        If that’s the case, then digital Manga would be worth $5-10 million atm of a $65 million market. That 10% number are roughly in-line with quotes from this recent Publisher Weekly article:

        “Almost all publishers report steady sales growth, though many concede that print is still the primary source of revenue. “[Digital sales] vary according to title, but at the most, it would be one-tenth of total sales,” says Michael Gombos, director of Asian licensing at Dark Horse Comics. “Often times, it can be seen as more as a marketing vehicle than a way to generate revenue. Our licensors recognize this. One licensor who is very involved in [getting] digital publishing licensing fees lowered, said, ’It’s not like this is a way to make lots of money.’ ”

        Another interesting point from the same article:

        “The other downside to working with digital publishing partners is that the publisher and creator get a smaller cut of the cover price. For DMP, “We are now in the stage where our own publishing platform,, will be our primary #1 platform, and all other platforms, apps devices, become secondary,” says Tanigaki. “Another factor for many publishers is the big cut that platforms like Apple, Kindle, and Comixology take, so it makes sense to try to find ways to counter that.”

      • Vertical’s marketing director maintain an active ANN forum account with a lot of juicy fodder worth digging through:

        “Also in the manga world, while BookScan provides around 55% of sales, it doesn’t include Diamond sales (20-35%) or International Canadian (5-20%) and library sales (2-5%). Definitely doesn’t include digital sales (2-10%). ”

        Currently the standard is around 45% for eBook. While approx 15% for paper.
        Generally speaking for manga royalties MSRP. There are exceptions, but in Vertical’s case those exceptions are when we work directly with the author.
        Exactly. eBook only has all the original overhead (translation, lettering, advances), higher royalties and then their is distribution which is 10% to 50% based on the service IE Comixology asks for 50%, Amazon takes 30% if you work direct, if you work with a distributor like MacMillan or HarperCollins the distrib takes 10% and the vendor gets wholesale prices, Apple takes 30% off all in App transactions…

        • So the middleman still appears to be mostly involved in the process. Guess that makes sense, especially in Apple’s case. Running WSJA off their own hosting probably makes a big difference for Viz.

          The testimony from people at Vertical and Dark Horse is interesting, but might not be indicative; they have 6 manga in the print top 750 between them, and publishing is a top-heavy market. What I’d really like to see is testimony from Viz/Yen/Kodansha (153/76/37 in the top 750, with Alice in the Country of Clover being the first manga not published by one of them at #46 overall), since they get something on the order of 3/4 of the total manga industry print gross between them. It’s one thing if publishers that market more towards smaller collector markets still show print dominance, but that might not hold for more casual fans who just want to have some form of the series to reread.

  2. Pingback: Fun With Numbers: Dragonball, Naruto, Love Live, and the Importance of Second-Tier Hits | Animetics

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