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.