One of the biggest differences between manga and western comics is the format in which it runs. While both are eventually released as collected volumes, most western comics will be first distributed in single-chapter releases, whereas manga will be first distributed in various magazines together a number of different series. The magazine model works out nicely for publishers – people pick up a magazine to read a series they’re massively into, and all of a sudden tens to hundreds of thousands of people have a chance to get a look at whatever new artist you’ve just debuted. Occasionally, that young artist ends up becoming a smash hit themselves, and you’ve got more people reading your magazine and more chances to develop more hits (while at the same time hopefully being nice to the rest of your authors).
In order for this model to work, though, you need to have people buy your magazine, and in order to buy your magazine, you need a hit series. This was a problem for manga industry mainstay and Weekly Shonen Sunday publisher Shogakukan. In 2010, they were shut out of Oricon’s top 10 manga series, and had only one series (Detective Conan, 3 times) even make the top 50 volumes that same year.
Flash forward to 2013, and they had 2 of the top 6, Magi and Silver Spoon. It’s a really impressive turnaround, even given that simple top-whatever lists fail to capture the beautiful breadth of the manga industry. How it happened is worth taking a look at, not in the least because parts of how it happened are fairly intriguing in and of themselves.
First of all, it has to be understood that even moderately large hit series are rare relative to the sheer volume of manga available in Japan. From 2009-2013, only 149 series sold 100,000 copies in a single week (list is here). Of those 149 series, 6 were based on previously successful non-manga franchises, leaving a total of 143 original manga hits running over that period. 48 of those hit series have ended (and not continued with a changed title/spinoff). Among the authors of those 48 series, 34 continued to work with the publisher of said hit, though 3 (Obata Yuki, Ninomiya Tomoko, and Nishi Keiko) branched out and are working with multiple publishing houses currently. 6 more have yet to put out a new serial. That leaves 8 series (about 15% of the total) whose 7 authors were “signed away” from their current publisher after concluding a hit series:
Clamp (Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle) – from Kodansha to Shueisha
Hiromu Arakawa (Fullmetal Alchemist) – from Square Enix to Shogakukan
Kanno Aya (Otomen) – from Hakusensha to Akita Shoten
Naoki Urasawa (Pluto) – from Shogakukan to Kodansha
Nisioisin (Medaka Box) – from Shueisha to Kodansha
Oh Great (Tenjou Tenge) – from Shueisha to Kodansha
Oh Great (Air Gear) – from Kodansha back to Shueisha
Oku Hiroya (Gantz) – from Shueisha to Kodansha
Of those authors who did switch, Oh Great, Naoki Urasawa, and Nisioisin all had previous ties with the publishers they were swapping out to. Of the four that remain, three (all except Clamp) had been with the publishers they switched from for their entire career up to that point (sans a 3 volume side-project of Arakawa’s with Shinshokan). What I’m getting at is this: it’s fairly rare for authors who have just come off a huge success working with one publisher to switch to a new one. The reasons why are fairly straightforward; publishers endeavor to build good working relationships with their authors, and one successful author can support dozens of up-and-comers trying to make their break with the same magazine.
And, putting aside Urasawa’s and Clamp’s impressive runs prior to this period, nobody was coming off bigger success during those 5 years than Hiromu Arakawa in 2010. Fullmetal Alchemist hit 50 million copies in Japan in 2010 before it even finished releasing tankobon. Authors of 50mil+ series don’t often switch publishers, partly because they’re rarely on the market and partially because nobody wants to be the guy to let one walk (this may have a good deal to do with why Yoshihiro Togashi is allowed to keep a very laid-back work schedule). You have to go back to Vagabond in 1998 to find the last time the author of a more successful series switched publishers that quickly after the series ended (and even then, Takehiko Inoue started working with Shueisha again a couple years later). I don’t know the details as to how things went down, but the fact that Square Enix wasn’t able to keep the creator of their most successful non-rpg franchise is a significant failure on their part, and, though Inu x Boku SS and Kuroshitsuji have been strong properties for them, they have failed to really replace it, putting zero series in the top 10 charts in the 3 years post-FMA. Meanwhile, Arakawa took a one-year hiatus from the top 10 before Silver Spoon landed her and Shogakukan right back on there.
The funny part is that Arakawa isn’t even the only successful author Shogakukan has jacked from Square Enix who now draws one of their top-10 duo. In 2009, Shinobu Ohtaka saw the final volume of Sumomomo Momomo sell over 75,000 copies only to leave them for Shonen Sunday the same year.
Granted, there are a lot of differences between the two series. Magi took a fantastic anime boost to make the top 10 and is about magic and fantasy politics. Silver Spoon was charting well in advance of a fairly modest anime boost and is about a high-schooler learning about agriculture. It remains to be seen whether Shogakukan can use the popularity of these two franchises to build a third hit around an author who started out with them (becoming a hit takes as much luck finding the right audience as it does skill in creating a strong product), but they’re definitely in a stronger position now than they were 3 years ago, and they didn’t get here by sitting on their asses. I would love to know why any specific successful author decided to swap publishers. Not like I can’t think of possible reasons, but the actual cause might be none of them.