In the Summer of 2010, when numerous popular manga scanlation websites began to take down their copies of unauthorized versions of translated Japanese and Korean comics, fans all over the world howled in dismay. A common refrain heard in the online forums? "Why can't there be a Crunchyroll for manga?"
For the uninitiated, "Crunchyroll" refers to Crunchyroll.com, a US-based website that streams video of Japanese anime and Asian drama shows. Crunchyroll offers over 100 anime series, including simulcasts of popular shows like Naruto and Bleach minutes after they air on Japanese TV.
Nowadays, Crunchyroll works closely with various Japanese anime studios to bring subtitled versions of these shows to online fans legally - but that wasn't always the case. When Crunchyroll first started out in 2006, it was the brainchild of a group of University of California - Berkeley students. The Crunchyroll website offered fans a place to upload fan-translated and subtitled anime, and made these shows readily available to other fans - albeit without the animation studios or creators' permission.
But in 2008, Crunchyroll began making moves to "go legit" - they got venture capital, pulled down all the unauthorized, fansubbed shows hosted on their site and made deals with various Japanese anime studios to post episodes on Crunchyroll.com. Now fans can either watch shows for free on a one-week delay, or pay a monthly membership fee to watch the latest shows in higher-resolution video format as soon as they're posted. After about a year and a half since launching their "legit" version of their service, Crunchyroll recently announced that they broke even in May 2010.
While Crunchyroll has posted a few manga titles on their site in the past, including titles from Eigomanga (which seem to be no longer available on the site) and "motion manga" versions of Phoenix, Black Jack and Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka, their online manga offerings have been pretty slim.
So when Crunchyroll announced that they got an infusion of capital from Bitway, a leading Japanese publisher of cell phone manga, followed by a somewhat vague press release mentioning plans to launch an online manga platform in late 2010/early 2011, many manga industry watchers (myself included) were intrigued. Would this mean that Crunchyroll themselves had plans to create a "Crunchyroll of manga" website, to offer a variety of online manga titles, from various publishers direct from Japan?
Well, kind of yes... but mostly no. I spoke with Kun Gao, the CEO of Crunchyroll and he pretty much explained what Crunchyroll really had in mind when they announced plans to "create a definitive solution for the transition of manga to the digital age." We also discussed the various technical, legal and logistical obstacles that must be overcome to publish manga online and how Crunchyroll's plans just might give more publishers even more reasons to publish more manga online for more readers around the world.
PLATFORM, NOT PUBLISHING: CREATING THE TOOLS FOR ONLINE MANGA
Q: The first question I'm going to throw at you is pretty basic: why go into publishing manga online? You've got this anime streaming on your website, you've got a little online manga publishing on the Crunchyroll.com website, but not much. Is this manga initiative part of your plans to add more comics content to your website?
Kun Gao: I think that's a little bit of a misconception. Let me clarify exactly what it is we're trying to do. As you may know, we received a small strategic investment from Bitway about a month or so ago, totaling about $750,000. The reason Bitway is working with Crunchyroll is because we are an Internet company - our core strength is technology. So, we really are working with Bitway not to distribute manga, but to figure out a way to build a platform to enable monetization of manga online.
So what I mean by that is, we're trying to figure out a distribution platform, to build a platform enabling the digitization, distribution, and monetization of manga. We want to provide these tools to existing local distributors in each region, leverage and use those tools and use the platform to create and enable others to create a business online.
Q: So you're basically saying that Crunchyroll is acting as a technology partner, not a publishing partner to Japanese and North American publishers?
Kun Gao: That's right.
Q: I see. So as a technology partner, Crunchyroll is basically creating a program, software and tools for presenting manga online that other publishers can use. But you're NOT publishing the actual comics content on Crunchyroll, right?
Kun Gao: That's right. Crunchyroll is not licensing manga for distribution on our site. What we're doing is we're building the actual tools for readers, that is, the online manga viewer, as well as the systems for readers to subscribe to read this content, as well as how to manage online advertising; in other words, monetization mechanisms to enable other publishers, local distributors to add these features into their business by turning a key.
We basically want existing distributors to say, 'Oh, I want to start distributing digital manga on my website - potentially my own content or other content - and all I need to do is hook into the (Crunchyroll-developed) platform and start making money immediately.'
Q: So what do you mean by 'hooking into your platform?'
Kun Gao: What we're providing is tools and platforms to enable them to basically take all tech we build - such as readers for manga - as well as enabling monetization. So for example, will these publishers or distributors make money off advertising? Will it be by subscription? Is it price per book, price per chapter? We'll provide all of those tools. They can effectively handle white label manga distribution.
(NOTE: e.g. by "white label," Gao refers to online manga sites that would be launched and managed by each publisher using the tools and software platform developed by Crunchyroll, but not branded as a Crunchyroll product)