If in 2007, manga was like a foreign movie star who had arrived on American shores to make it big, the last four years have been like watching that star run out of roles, run out of money, sell their house, go into rehab, and end up barely limping along in infomercials.
Manga sales in America have dropped 43% since 2007, an even bigger drop than domestically produced comics and graphic novels, suggesting that more than the bad economy is to blame. A few doomsayers like Toren Smith had claimed for years that the market was headed for a bust since publishers were glutting the market with too much junk.
Maybe the reduction in the amount of anime shown on American TV from the heights of 2003-2005 was another factor; licensed shows like Sailor Moon, DBZ and Pokémon planted the seeds of fandom in millions of minds, but as American TV producers saw all the money they were making, they decided it was more profitable in the long run to create their own anime-esque TV series like Voltron Force and Speed Racer: The Next Generation, so they get all the rights and don't have to censor panty shots.
Certainly the collapse of Borders didn't help, since Borders made up between 1/3rd and 1/5th of manga market dollar sales; Borders graphic novel buyer and manga fan Kurt Hassler, who later left the bookstore business to co-found Yen Press, was the trend-setter who turned chain bookstores into the #1 manga destination (as opposed to traditional comic shops, many of which never sold manga anyway). The past four years have seen company after company go out of business: Central Park Media, Go! Comi, DC's manga imprint CMX, Tokyopop, and recently the manga arm of Bandai Entertainment.
But the problem isn't just about fickle Americans — the Japanese manga market is hurting too. Sales of manga magazines, the traditional delivery medium for manga in Japan, peaked in 1995, and have been falling ever since. Graphic novel sales remained steady longer, but have also declined.
Manga is hurting the way that all print media is hurting — but in some ways it's worse, because manga is ill-equipped to adapt to New Media. Like American comic books, manga started out as cheap entertainment for kids, but while American comics faced their dwindling readership by turning into an adult collector's item with color, thicker paper and higher production values, manga magazines (and to a lesser extent, graphic novel collections) still use cheap ink and cheap paper to cram in as much pages-per-yen value possible.
This makes them an anachronism in an era where newspapers, phonebooks and pretty much any disposable printed media seem inconvenient at best, and environmentally irresponsible at worst. No matter how cheap you make it, you can't get people excited about grimy newsprint anymore: in 2007 the Japanese company Digima founded the first free weekly manga magazine, Comic Gumbo, which they hoped would be funded by advertising, product placement and graphic novel sales. But like free weekly newspapers everywhere, they discovered it was hard even getting readers to pick them up, and both company and magazine went out of business after 48 issues.
No Digital Strategy
And yet, manga is still popular: it's just all being pirated online. A Google search for "manga" returns seven "scanlation" aggregators and zero manga publishers in the top ten, while searches for "comics," "books" and "graphic novels" turn up stores and publisher sites, and even a search for "anime" turns up mostly legitimate sites, apparently thanks to FUNimation's aggressive use of DMCA Cease & Decist notices.
The distance between the US and Japan may make scanlation seem less piracy-like than uploading a comic drawn by someone who speaks the same language and lives in the same country. And scanlators often claim to be 'helping' the artists by translating them and 'making their stuff more popular.' But scanning is a problem in Japan too, so much that #1 bestselling magazine Shonen Jump actually ran an editorial begging people not to scan their stuff, and the artists themselves certainly don't like it.
Alas, technology isn't on their side. Perhaps the fact that manga has a younger audience than American comics, which has always been considered a strength, is now a weakness: older collectors have money and like to spend it (and in fact, art-house manga publishers like Vertical and Drawn & Quarterly have weathered the storm better than most), but many teenagers don't have credit cards or paypal accounts to pay for things online, and for really young kids, free-to-play is what they know.
But manga publishers, both in the US and Japan, are also to blame for their fear of New Media and their bungled attempts at digitizing their stuff. Most Japanese publishers have no coherent digital strategy, and the extra step of licensing them in America makes them even slower to react to change. Perhaps wary of creating an iTunes-like behemoth which could drive prices down, publishers haven't united in any reasonable way to create a consistent digital newsstand/bookstore format for their titles.
Although the Japan Digital Comic Association can agree that they hate scanlators, they can't agree on anything else, judging from last summer's clumsy mislaunch of jmanga.com, touted as the ultimate legit online manga site but ultimately consisting mostly of manga from second-tier publishers like Futabasha.
Although big JDCA publishers like Shueisha and Hakusensha hinted that they would make their titles available on the site, their sole contribution so far has been letting jmanga use their characters in advertising, giving the misleading impression that you can read Vampire Knight and One Piece on jmanga, whereas actually those manga are only available at VIZ's iTunes manga app.
Never mind developing a common digital playing field with their Japanese rivals, Japanese publishers can't even play ball with their American licensing partners: Square Enix's online manga store sells VIZ and Yen Press versions of Square Enix titles like Fullmetal Alchemist and Black Butler, using VIZ and Yen's translations, for half the price of the still-in-print print editions.
While American licensors are responsible for a lot of censorship and mismanagement of manga, nitpicking and control-freakish demands from Japanese publishers-i.e. you can't advertise in this publication because it's too "niche" or because they have ties to a rival publisher, you can't say this in an ad because it's disrespectful, etc.-also make it hard for American publishers to market their wares. Japanese publishers can't decide whether to go after the the international digital market in a serious way, and while they've dicked around, scanlators have taken things into their own hands.
Just putting a few mid-list titles online isn't enough; no matter how nice the reading interface is, VIZ's shonensunday.com and sigikki.com can't compete with thousands of titles on scanlation aggregators.
A Few J.K. Rowlings
One problem is that Japanese manga publishers still rely on magazines to launch new titles, and the magazine model itself is obsolete. If you're buying songs on iTunes, you don't need to buy an entire album when all you want is one song. And there's no way I'm signing up for Starz network when I only want to watch Torchwood: Miracle Day.
In the same way, manga readers can't be expected to buy an entire 400-page manga magazine anymore when they only want to read their one favorite title. It seems like the obvious answer is just to skip the outdated magazine format altogether and focus on the higher-quality, buy-to-own graphic novels. Unfortunately, as veteran manga artists Kentaro Takekuma and Ken Akamatsu pointed out in a fascinating seven-hour discussion on the future of the manga industry, the magazine format always helped midlist artists by giving them spillover readers from kids who bought Shonen Jump to read Naruto but ended up reading the whole thing on the john later.
As a result of the decline in magazines, in mainstream manga publishing, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. While the overall manga market declines, fanboys looking for a silver lining like to point to record-breaking high sales of the biggest titles, like One Piece, which sold six times as many copies in 2011 as the nearest competitor, Naruto.
But this concentration of manga fame into a few J.K. Rowlings and James Pattersons is an untenable situation, since it means there's too much money riding on their manga for them to end their series or try anything interesting. Kentaro Takekuma even suggested that big publishers could emulate American comics by turning Naruto and Bleach into publisher-owned properties like Batman and Superman, so they can keep running indefinitely, a truly horrifying suggestion.
The truth they don't want you to know, perhaps, is that publishers are unnecessary; Japanese self-publishing is booming. The traditional model of manga success, as promoted in Bakuman, is all about getting picked up by a big publisher and enduring harsh hazing and having your manga ripped up by your editor in front of you to teach you humility and so on. (What do you expect a manga in Shonen Jump to say?)
But the Japanese market for dojinshi (self-published manga) has grown massively over the last 20 years, even while the mainstream has stagnated, and although most dojinshi is porn, there are also big original hits like Onani Master Kurosawa, which started out as a not-quite-Death Note parody with lots of (off-panel) masturbation, but became so popular it's been adapted into a voice drama.
And self-published online comics are starting to become hits and get turned into anime, such as Kyo no Nekomura-san, Boku Otaryman, Tonari no 801-chan, and of course the most successful of them all, the megahit Hetalia.
Though of course time spent self-promoting and talking to readers is time away from the drawing board, artists who publish their own stuff are probably going to have more street cred and have less problems with piracy, as opposed to the traditional big-publisher model of secretive artists guarded by their publishers and working in isolation from their fans.
Legitimizing the Bootleggers
On the other hand, if you are a big publisher, you can try to turn crowdsourcing from an enemy to a friend. The big scanlation aggregator sites are blatant pirates (some also sell bootleg merchandise), but most small scanlators aren't actually trying to screw over their favorite artists, and manga publishers don't have to be stupid, like Paramount in the '90s trying to stamp out Star Trek fansites.
Ken Akamatsu, that crafty Negima creator again, has spent the last few years working on j-comi, a website devoted to legitimately digitizing out-of-print manga and making a profit from advertising, the same way many scanlation sites make their cash. In addition to inviting Japanese manga pirates to give their scans of OOP manga to his site and "legitimize" them, he's also opened the site up for foreign readers to add their own translations.
In the West, the biggest experiment with legit manga crowdsourcing is DMP's Digital Manga Guild, which invites fan translators and letterers to help them localize select titles in a profit-sharing agreement. It's a great idea, although the key is getting bigger publishers to participate, since j-comi mostly carries old OOP manga and the Digital Manga Guild seems to only have the rights to some obscure yaoi manga from smaller publishers.
Nor will Digital Manga Guild translators ever rake in anything like the $30 a page that manga letterers and translators used to make in the early '90s…but hey. That's what happens to translation rates when everyone wants to translate manga and when machine translation is getting better and better every year. (Although for now at least, j-comi's experiments in machine translation leave something to be desired.)
For the moment, manga publishers are pursuing a shrinking, aging market, but that's just a temporary solution. Again, just ask American comics fans. In the early 1980s in Japan, the greying of manga fans who had grown up in the previous decade was a good thing that gave birth to new types of manga like Morning magazine (manga about cooking! Golf! Fine wines! Lawyers!) and other jôsei and dansei (women's and men's) manga.
Since then, other new magazines have also targeted older and older readers, such as Comic Ran (a magazine of samurai-era manga) and Comic Ryu (a revival of an early '80s sci-fi magazine, which was sold in some stores with the advisory "recommended for ages 30 and up"). Seimu Yoshizaki's Kingyo Used Books, a manga about a used manga store, shows the shift in cultural perceptions: the whole focus is on nostalgia for the '70s and '80s and the manga which were popular then, as if manga were a generational thing like pogs or breakdancing.
But if you don't cultivate a young readership, your audience will simply die off, like Weekly Comic Bunch, the 2001-2010 magazine whose biggest draws were sequels to '80s manga Fist of the North Star and City Hunter. Big Gold, another magazine specifically targeted at older readers, was canceled in 1999; a Japanese editor joked to me that it had been canceled "because all the readers died."
Of course, some people point out that an aging audience is inevitable because of Japan's declining birth rate: as the characters in Bakuman say, there simply aren't enough kids in Japan anymore to make a children's manga as popular as Dragon Ball was 25 years ago. A certain amount of adult edginess is good, since if anything manga in America has always risked being categorized as "kid's stuff" since the Pokemon boom 10 years ago, but I'd hate to see manga fade out into something for middle-aged fanboys and fangirls, even if the greying market comes with some really great Grant Morrison and Alan Moore style nerdy intertextual narratives.
The New Wave: Yon-Koma
People's tastes change; for one thing, four-panel manga might be the wave of the future. Long thought to be unmarketable in the US, yon-koma (four-panel) manga started turning the heads of American readers with the success of Azumanga Daioh. In recent years, the field has gained ground at the expense of conventional story manga, with recent titles like K-On!, Lucky Star, Sunshine Sketch and Hetalia all being adapted into hit anime.
Combining the traditional blandly heartwarming gags of newspaper cartoons with geekiness and fanservice (the typical formula is four cute girls and one ditzy adult woman doing adorable things), it's a very different genre from melodramatic shojo and shonen manga; but it's also easier for casual readers to get into (since it lacks the long storylines of Drag-On Ball etc.) and, with its four-panel structure, it's perfect to view on computer screens and smartphones. Four-panel comics are by far the most popular types of webcomics, after all, despite Scott McCloud's predictions to the contrary. And despite the difficulties of translating humor — particularly the kind of daily-life and pop-culture geekery popular in yon-koma manga — Americans generally like yon-koma too.
As manga moves digital, I predict simpler art and more color. If manga creators' pay goes down, they won't be able to hire as many assistants to add screentone, take reference photos, draw backgrounds, etc. There will always be an audience for crazy detailed art, but for many artists who aren't in the top pay tier and can't pour that much time into the pages, lower page rates (or working on spec) may mean simpler artwork. There's even a certain stylistic trend this way, like in yon-koma manga and the minimalistic work of Natsume Ono, whose first professional work was in the webmagazine Comic Seed. On the other hand, although this goes against the idea of spending less time on the art, if you're working digitally, people are going to want color.
And if you're going that far, why not just do it as anime? Like color vs. B&W, animation has the disadvantage of taking longer to make…but there's so many people out there who don't read, even if it's comics. The self-paced, book-like experience of comics has different strengths than the scroll-like linearity of video, but there's clearly a wish among some fans that every manga could be an anime, as demonstrated by people who scan and upload manga onto youtube in the form of iMovie videos.
While experiments with low-budget Flash anime like Haiyoru! Nyaru-ani and Neko Rahmen have had less than stellar results, and there's going to be a lot more stillborn creations before the first successful online single-creator self-published anime is born, perhaps it's just a matter of time before some manga creator uses simple software tools to create an animation (or inanimation) that's as successful and individualistic as Zero Punctuation or Brad Neely's Creased Comics.
As digital media inevitably takes over, the two big questions are (1) whether the big publishers will survive, and (2) what essential "manga-ness" will survive in manga itself. Perhaps the expectation of free content online will mean that publishers spend even more time courting licensing opportunities, like with Broken Blade, an anime based on a manga from Flex Comix's online magazine Comic Blood.
But digitization definitely empowers individual creators, even as the digital format pressures changes to the detailed B&W artwork and long-running melodramatic narratives that produced manga's Golden Age. Still, maybe the future won't be so different after all; the dominance of scanlations does show that there's a huge audience for poorly scanned, low-res JPEGs of B&W art designed for print. The manga market is still much bigger than the American comic and graphic novel market, so don't count it out yet. While One Piece, Bleach and Naruto stagger along on their creaky geriatric legs, new manga are waiting to step out of their shadows.