Fun With Numbers: Crunchyroll Manga’s Uncertain Future

Roughly one week ago, on January 23rd, Crunchyroll announced it was licensing a Shonen Sirius-run manga adaptation of the Persona Q game. Beyond the series itself, this announcement was significant for a pair of reasons. First, it broke what was a near-record dry streak for the company’s service since it announced the Maga-Tsuki license on November 25th of last year. This dry streak is the second longest in the history of the service, short only of the 71-day gap between its launch on October 26, 2013 and the addition of three Futabasha titles on January 6, 2014, a period presumably taken up by serious negotiations on the business side. Since that first additional partnership, the service has expanded to include titles from Shonen Gahosha, Leed Publishing, and Cork, and new licenses had steadily rolled in through the first three-quarters of 2014 as a result (you can check which series were announced when here). However, since then, the service has cooled down a bit; only 3 titles (Maga-Tsuki, Days of the Dam, and PQ) have been added in the past 4 months, and the gaps between those licenses were 56 and 41 days. Without Maga-Tsuki in the middle, it’s CR Manga’s longest dead interval by about 20 days.

The second item of interest that can be found in this announcement is that it comes on the heels of Crunchyroll restructuring how the subscription model for manga would work. Instead of being a separate service costing $40/year or a $40/yr upgrade from a $60 anime membership to a $100 to all-access membership, it became a complimentary feature of the anime membership. This was followed by another announcement that the service would be losing all of its K-dramas, cutting its drama offering down to a third of what it was.* There are a lot of ways to spin these moves, but one definite effect is a sharp decline in the value of a CR all-access membership, one that will likely see the majority of those who have all-access dropping down to less-costly anime subscriptions. That doesn’t necessarily mean less money for CR as a business; theoretically, the added value of manga *could* result in additional subscriptions from people on the fence about subscribing who needed a little extra motivation to make the decision to buy in. The more worrying thing is that this could be something of a desperation/stopgap maneuver, which could be a bad thing both for CR and, more importantly, for the future of simulpub manga.

There is reason to believe that crunchyroll may not be in the best of shape at the moment. The company has faced serious competition from two fronts this season; Funimation gobbled up A-list shows like candy and began offering a cheaper, sub-only subscription plan, while Aniplex is leveraging their ownership of properties in an attempt to make Daisuki a more attractive option, resulting in delaycasts as well as the hilarious list of regions CR’s Dog Days: Second Derivative streams are restricted to. If a streaming service has less to stream, they very likely run the risk of losing customers, and this is the situation Crunchyroll found itself in this winter. Making their manga offerings more available may not be a direct response to that particular bit of pressure; the move was likely being discussed as early as mid-November,** so while bids for shows may have been being made at that point, the process may not have yet been over. In any event, it’s possible that manga was appropriated into the anime service as a means of propping up the anime, rather than enhancing the manga experience. If so, that’s a potentially dangerous development for what was, at one point, a fast-growing simulpub manga library.

To connoisseurs of manga, official simulpub is a highly attractive prospect, largely because of how incomplete the field of translated material is, even when counting fan-translated material. The majority of manga published in Japan in any given month goes untranslated, and much of the translations that exist run on far slower schedules than the official Japanese releases, even when the series is relatively high-profile. Defining an “active” translation as any official ongoing one or any unofficial one that updated in the past 90 days, roughly 30% (22/65) of the manga adapted into non-sequel anime in 2012 and 2013 had no active translation project, official or otherwise.*** This is even being generous, as it gives credit to series where translations are 10+ volumes behind the source material so long as the translators are still working on it. One reason for this is that manga is proportionally less popular than anime in the West, where both costing virtually nothing makes the colorful media more attractive. Another is that manga can require sharper language skills to translate; the Japanese language is less difficult to decipher when spoken than when written, doubly so when working on seinen/josei series that don’t use furigana. Whatever the reason, the availability gap between translated manga/novels and their anime adaptations does a number of things to the understanding of anime out west. For one thing, it causes many franchises and staffers to be judged primarily by incomplete adaptations, something usually beyond any of the makers’ individual control (it’s much more efficient to animate a series during the peak of its popularity, which almost never coincides with the original’s ending). I personally have little sympathy for people who refuse to explore a multi-part franchise before condemning it based on a single, visible piece, but there’s no denying that in many cases people simply can’t do the exploring because of the lack of any kind of available translation.

One of the reasons manga doesn’t have the same broad reach in the west as it does in Japan is the difference in how series garner eyeballs – few in any market have time to look at every single manga coming out in a given month, so putting a large faction of people into a place where they will try a series out for one chapter is a big-ass hurdle. In the west, where a crowded field is a real problem for native comics as well, manga that attract the most eyeballs tend to be ones which are either adapted into anime or created by an already-famous author. In Japan, manga is a package deal. Want to stay current on One Piece? You’ll have to check out the latest chapter of Weekly Shonen Jump… And by the way, it comes with a double-digit count of other series, sorted in order of awesomeness by readers not unlike you. If you’re a Yozakura Quartet devotee, picking up Monthly Shonen Sirius this month will also put free samples of 28 other series, selected for your pleasure by the editorial staff, within easy reach. Most recently, Shonen Sirius was reported to circulate a little over 12,000 copies around the country per issue, and while a good fraction of those don’t end up being purchased, a legit chance with even 5000 dedicated readers is a much better deal than most no-name young authors are going to have right off the bat.

Barry Schwartz has talked about the phenomenon of paralyzing choice, where people offered a large enough number of retirement plans from their employers will often choose none of them, literally passing up free money simply because the choice becomes complicated and they fear picking a less-ideal option. Ken Akamatsu, meanwhile, has stated that a full transition from magazine to a la carte publishing could end up boxing out new authors, a happening which would hit the industry like a ton of bricks if it ever came to pass. Akamatsu also makes the point that one could use established series as part of package deals by sticking a preview chapter at the end of digital-print volumes, and there likely other ways to avoid an apocalypse-tier loss of young blood. Publishers in Japan have an edge in pushing that sort of idea, if only because consumers there are somewhat used to the idea of bundled manga.

There have been attempts in the past by western companies to bring the magazine model over (Viz’s Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat, Yen Press’ Yen Plus), but it never really caught fire as a method of distribution. Figures are available for how many eyeballs these mags had, and some of them are in line with those of the more popular Japanese anthologies. Shojo Beat was cancelled in 2009, it had a circulation total of over 35,000, with Jump posting a figure of around 200,000. Yen Plus’s first issue, meanwhile, circulated 90,000 copies. Other anthologies, such as Pulp and Animerica Extra, enjoyed 5-year-long runs around the peak of the US manga market. Yen Plus and Shonen Jump even survived as online anthologies, with the latter being a simulpub endeavor.

A key point of the magazine model is that it’s not really effective in farming new titles when a company doesn’t have a first-tier hit to toss into the mix. Packaging a bunch of no-namers into one big box attracts the same people who would probably be almost as likely to try them if they were 4 separate issues on four different parts of a shelf. In general, if people don’t have a specific reason to buy an anthology, that’s a problem. The obvious and necessary draw, popular running series, is something CR definitely has; Twin towers Fairy Tail and Shingeki no Kyojin are the third and fourth most popular among actively publishing manga on MAL. To boot, CR streams the adaptations of each, thus allowing for some healthy cross-promotion.

The more popular series a service has to draw people in, the more it can expand its diversity and hope to generate interest in some of its quality-but-not-blockbuster titles. There are a number of currently unlicensed popular manga, but the odds of CR getting a third anchor to give the service some additional security are fairly slim. The really obvious juicy steaks among the present field are owned, if not by Viz’s parent companies, than by Yen Press or another competitor who would presumably rather keep as much of the market in their hands as they can. Square Enix’s Horimiya is the most popular unlicensed active title on MAL, and has less than half the member total of Shingeki no Kyojin. Watashi ni XX Shinasai, Sukitte Ii Nayo, and Vinland Saga are the most popular Kodansha titles within that group not currently on CR, and may therefore be logical targets. Assuming Kodansha is interested in more simulpubs of series they’re releasing hard copies of, those three are definitely ones to keep an eye on. While there’s no first-tier hits on the present market, Kodansha having those titles opens at least the possibility of them adding a second-tier slugger capable of supporting a little more diversity.

I have zero insider access, and don’t know a lot of what’s going on at crunchyroll internally right now, but the context of the price cut makes me a blend of nervous and hopeful that shakes and juices its way into general curiosity. Less manga-specific pricing means less money from a same-size userbase, and it’s unlikely many people who weren’t sold on CR in general will now be willing to chip in for what is (sadly) seen as a minor perk to the average fan. But, like any other phenomena in anime, CR manga doesn’t exist in a vacuum where it has to finance the cost of acquiring and translating manga entirely through dollars paid by the user. Kodansha USA, by far their biggest partner, gets a real benefit out of the relationship. Namely, they get to put manga, some of which are already being released and some of which are young and promising, in a place where it will be prominently visible to a group of fans who, unlike the hulking majority of scanlation/aggregator users, are not 100% averse to ever spending money to look at manga. A price drop also opens the doors to a much larger group of western fans (at last count, crunchyroll had 400,000 paid subscribers), many who, while they prefer anime, will be spending a small amount of time on the manga app. It’s entirely possible some users may come off an FT marathon charged up and curious about new content and hey, that Sun-Ken Rock biz looks pretty cool. CR may not benefit much directly in that respect, but it may lead to Kodansha respecting the effectiveness of the service. Best-case scenario is that in 6 months they’re using CR manga to experiment with titles they considered bringing over, and are trying to simultaneously gauge and drum up interest in, and CR’s smaller partners follow suit. Worst-case scenario is that the service shatters its own record dry streak. So yeah, curious is the word I’m looking for.

*While the same K-dramas still available at sister site Soompi, it is my understanding that the subscriptions will be separate and separately paid for in the long run.

**When they uncharacteristically offered no Black Friday discount on all-access membership.

***As of January 23, when PQ4 was licensed. Numbers fluctuate a bit depending on how one defines an active translation and when you do the counting.

1 thought on “Fun With Numbers: Crunchyroll Manga’s Uncertain Future

  1. Oh yeah, one thing to note: I bet Crunchyroll would be doing better if they streamed more shows worldwide without “gaps”. Right now, some of their shows can be watched in obscure African countries, but not in anime hotspots like Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia. I know that licensing issues is the cause of this (licensing series worldwide would probably be a business nightmare), but the thing is, outside of North America/Europe/Australia/NZ, there are many people who are willing to pay for an official, legal, streaming service, they just don’t have access to one.

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