More than a few brave souls came out to Sunday morning's "State of the Manga Industry" panel at New York Anime Festival 2008 to hear what representatives from Yen Press, Dark Horse Comics and Del Rey Manga had to say about sales trends, industry buzz about relations between Japanese and American publishers and their uneasy relationship with manga scanlation sites.
There was a lot covered at this panel, so I'm breaking it up into two parts. This first part covers questions about manga's sales, its relation to the anime industry, digital distribution, scanlations and manga magazines. Part 2 will cover strategic alliances with Japanese publishers, defining global manga, and different strategies for introducing new audiences to manga.
Anime News Network Editor in Chief Christopher McDonald moderated the panel, which included Michael Gombos, Director of Licensing for Dark Horse, Kurt Hassler, Co-Publishing Director for Yen Press, and Ali Kokmen, Marketing Manager for Del Rey Manga. When asked to describe their responsibilities, Gombos replied that he handles all of the acquisitions, licensing, contracts and translations for Dark Horse's Japanese manga and Korean manhwa (such as Gantz, Blood+ and Shaman Warrior)
Hassler explained that he handles much of the business decisions regarding license acquisitions, the Yen Press' general direction, some editorial work and "I yell at people... that's what I like the most!"
Kokmen then added with a laugh, "In my job, that means I get yelled at alot." Kokmen then explained that he "gets the word out about our books, moving bits of information from the creators to the sales force and publicity department."
Missing from the panel was Frank Pannone from Media Blasters, who was a no-show, but the rest of the panel carried on and answered most of the usual array of questions posed to publishers at these type of Q&A events.
Show Me the Money: Can Manga Sales Continue to Grow or Will It Slow Down?
While the American anime industry has been suffering in the sales department (for various reasons which I really can't get into here), the manga publishing business has been enjoying phenomenal growth. Some figures thrown around have cited 150% improvement year over year. But all good things must come to an end -- or must naturally slow down.
Hassler: "I definitely see growth over the next five years. Manga has enjoyed some rapid growth, but you can't expect to see 150% growth year after year. What you're seeing now is a mature market that will enjoy steady growth. More readers will discover manga and stick with it. You may see one book really catch on and galvanize the market in a big way (e.g; like how Harry Potter and the Twilight series invigorated the Young Adult fiction segment), but that's still yet to happen."
Gombos: "Too often manga and anime get lumped together, as if the problems of one industry directly affect another. But (Dark Horse's manga line) has done better in the last year than any other year in our 20 year history. I definitely see growth year after year, so I'll have a job for at least two more years." (laughs)
Kokmen: "The fundamentals of our economy, uhr, our INDUSTRY is strong" (laughs all around at John McCain's expense) Over the past five years, Del Rey Manga has enjoyed strong growth, sales-wise. The rate of growth as slowed by necessity, but I still see growth ahead."
Is Manga's Strong Sales and Popularity Going to Overtake the U.S. Anime Industry?
Hassler: "Animation tends to be more high profile, but manga came into its own as an industry a few years ago. But the growth of manga had very little to do with anime -- it was only tangential. What really helped manga sales and popularity-wise was getting into the big box stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble." (Something that Hassler had a major role in, as the graphic novels buyer for Borders, and the person who is largely responsible for introducing more manga onto this major retailer's shelves).
"Manga and anime have very different business models and distribution channels, so you're not seeing the same kind of problems that the anime industry is facing now. I've never perceived manga as a secondary industry to anime."
Gombos: "Well, most people were introduced to what we do through anime. For example, Vampire Hunter D was a very successful anime series in America before the novels caught on with fans.
Kokmen: "Manga and anime has been different for so long, the connection is natural but largely irrelevant."
Online Manga Delivery or Raise Your Kindle in the Air and Wave It Like You Just Don't Care
Cell phone manga. Online manga, Digital reading devices. Are these digital distribution options the future of manga publishing? Hassler and Gombos were, at best, skeptical.
Hassler: "The system of delivery hasn't been nailed down into an easy format. Anime works naturally as something that can be viewed online and on cell phones. And everyone is exploring their own way to present manga in a digital format, but no one has found THE way to do it in a way that everyone (manga creators, publishers and readers) agrees works best. If someone can create a delivery system that works, then fine. But I don't see how it would supersede print; I don't see print falling by the wayside."
Gombos: "Everyone, hold up your Kindle and wave it in the air." (no one does, crickets chirp for a few seconds) "I've never seen an actual Kindle! I hear alot about digital delivery, but theres just something special about reading a book."
"If you create manga and design it to be read on a phone, that's different. But manga is created to be read as an entire page. How the panels flow and how the sound effects are presented are a big part of how the story flows. I don't want to read manga on a cell phone."
But What About Scanlations? Do Unauthorized Online Fan Translations Hurt or Help Manga Publishers?
Gombos: "Gantz is available on every scanlation site in the universe -- but we get irate notes from people saying that how dare we take (these unauthorized online translations) down?! But look. We went through the legal means to get this license. We're not doing it to be hostile -- but it's about preserving the creators' rights."
Hassler: "There's no way to really stop (scanlations), but it does help expose people to properties. A lot of material that is now published was first scanlated. But there's something to be said about preserving the intellectual property rights of these manga artists, authors and publishers."
"You can't say it's a wholly positive thing; that scanlations have no affect on sales. There are good things that it does, and there are bad things that it does. I don't think it will ever be eliminated --but you have to come to a consensus on how you'll deal with it."
Kokmen: "Every case is unique. Every property is unique and every scanlator is doing it for different reasons. It's a fool's errand to try to make a grand sweeping effort to judge them all on the same terms, much less try to get rid of it entirely."
Gombos: "Most scanlators do it because of love -- they love the series. But there's a point where there are legal measures that you have to abide by."
"It's kind of disappointing when you watch a fansub and it's better than the official version. You can see how their heart is in their work. We want to put as much love into what we do as fans do with their scanlations."
Is America Ready for More Manga Anthology Magazines?
Dark Horse launched and then folded their anthology magazine Super Manga Blast years ago. Several others came and went like VIZ Media's Pulp and Animerica Extra, Raijin Weekly from now defunct Raijin Comics and TokyoPop's Mixxzine.
Fast forward to Summer 2008, when Yen Press launched their anthology magazine Yen Plus and Del Rey Manga published the first issue of their manga-lit anthology, Faust. So is America ready to read and buy more manga magazines?
Gombos: "(Dark Horse) did put one out, Super Manga Blast, which was canceled a few years back. You can put out an anthology, but I don't think it'll be profitable, or at least that's been our experience. For VIZ's Shonen Jump, they treat it like an advertising expense."
"I can only speak from Dark Horse's experiences, but it only made enough to pay for the translations for the paperback editions. There's a burst of energy when something starts, but its hard to sustain over the long term."
Hassler: "The question is, what's the function of an anthology? It's a marketing vehicle. It's how you get people excited and aware of various manga series. An anthology is a great way to get your title stand out with consumers. If you get a few titles that have consumer interest and toss in a few (stories) that people don't know about, then you have marketing that you'd be hard pressed to match in any other way."
"We're happy about Yen Plus' performance. (Publishing a magazine) was part of our plan since Day One. The fan response has been beyond our expectations and we're thrilled with how it's performing."
Kokmen: "(Del Rey Manga) has published Faust, an anthology of prose and light fiction as a way to present authors that we have a commitment to for larger projects. There's some manga, some prose by Nisioisin who did the Death Note novels and a few for us. Faust is like a short story collection, and it gives us an opportunity to present these works to a new audience."
"The key is to know what your expectations are and what your strong point are. (Faust) is very much in our book world, which is where we are comfortable. There are others who are comfortable in the comics market and in the magazine market."
NEXT: Part 2 of the NYAF '08 State of the Manga Industry Panel, where Gombos, Kokmen and Hassler talk about strategic alliances with Japanese publishers, the quality of Japanese comics today, and the future of global manga.