Q: I remember when Shonen Jump first launched an online manga initiative for Japanese readers. They previewed it at San Diego Comic-Con a few years ago, and made it available in English to readers online. But one thing that I recall is that in order to read this Shonen Jump online manga, readers were required download a special player, and it was something that was only compatible with Windows PCs.
Will the Crunchyroll manga viewer require that readers download a plug-in or special software, or will it be a more straight-forward web-based experience?
Kun Gao: We definitely want to lean away from a browser-based plug-in because that's something the really hinders the user experience, at least in the North American market. We want to provide the most seamless solution for the American market.
Q: Is this manga player purely for displaying static, 2-D content? I've seen some cellphone manga in Japan that is presented as "motion manga." So by "motion," I mean that the panels are animated or the story has multimedia elements built in, like sound. Will your platform accommodate both types of manga content?
Kun Gao: We're thinking about all possibilities. To begin with, it will be existing 2-D/static manga content, and we'll move to more interactive formats down the road.
IPAD, CELLPHONE, KINDLE: SUPPORTING MANGA ON ALL DIGITAL DEVICES
Q: So what, in your opinion, are the key points of improvement that are needed in the online manga reader market right now?
Kun Gao: I think one aspect, of course, is supporting devices. Users aren't just reading on PC anymore, they're reading on Kindles, iPhones, and iPads. It's very critical that, if you are purchasing a product online, that you can share that experience among all your devices.
Another aspect to consider is seamless reading. For example, one reason why scanlations are popular is because there's very little friction between the reader and their ability to access the content they want to read. In two clicks, you're reading.
We want to make sure that our manga reading experience is as seamless as possible. As more and more people plug into the Crunchyroll online manga platform and more and more users are trying out that experience, then these readers are going to expect, and they're going to want that level of experience across the board from all sites for reading this kind of content.
Q: So will this be like a digital rental (with access to manga for a limited time), or an outright purchase (unlimited access to the comics after purchase, including direct download of a file)?
Kun Gao: In terms of what the platform can support, we're basically going with all possible options, from ad-supported viewing - basically, you can view the content for free, and we show ads - to rental, to purchase. So we want to enable all sorts of monetization options. It's really up to the publishers and distributors to figure out which ones they want to support.
Q: There was a Japanese company called MangaNovel that basically offered an online manga rental service. They were backed by Toshiba, and had a few Japanese publishers on board with them, but when they went out of business, anyone who paid for access to that content wound up with nothing. Everything these customers paid for went 'poof' once the MangaNovel service went offline.
Will people who purchase these manga from the Crunchyroll-powered online manga platform be able to print them out to archive or save their online purchases to protect against this kind of thing?
Kun Gao: That's really a local business decision. I think that's best left to the local distributors and the publishers to negotiate and decide how they want to handle that.
I think it's the same for Kindle. If Amazon goes out of business, it's going to be difficult for you to access that Kindle-formatted book. Content is still DRM'ed (Digital Rights Managed) through the Kindle access.
But I think that what we can do our best to assure the customer is that our company is financially sound. We already broke even a few months ago. Plus, this initiative is supported by Bitway, which is a subsidiary of the largest publishing company in the world, Toppan, and it has the support of a consortium of publishers in Japan. In terms of venture, we're very solid.
Q: I know that in a lot of ways, America is behind the curve with digital publishing. In Japan, people read on their cellphones a lot more than they do in America. Is this sort of online manga publishing you're envisioning here already happening in Japan?
Kun Gao: In Japan, the big place for digital publishing is on mobile. The US market is not as mobile-savvy, but that's due to a number of reasons. The primary why manga on mobile devices are so popular in Japan is because of public transportation in Japan - people commute on trains an average of 1-2 hours a day. So they are on the train with not really much else to do, so they entertain themselves with their mobile devices. That's why reading manga is so popular on cellphones, just like it is reading physical manga on the train. In the US, everyone is driving to work or home, and it's kind of difficult to read and drive at the same time.
However, I think with the new media consumption devices like the Kindle and iPad, we're getting to the point where users are getting used to the experience of reading on a mobile device. I think that's really going to help generate a lot of business for this industry.
THE JAPAN CONNECTION: BITWAY, TOPPAN, JAPANESE PUBLISHERS AND CRUNCHYROLL
Q: Did Bitway explain why they decided to work with Crunchyroll on this sort of online manga publishing initiative?
Kun Gao: I think the primary reason is that our core competency is the technology. We understand consumer-facing websites and products. Our core teams have been building those websites for a long time – for example. We’ve worked on sites such as Hot or Not, and have worked at companies like Slide and Skype. We actually have a fair amount of experience building consumer-facing product. Local distributors, they’re focused more on marketing and more on the core competency of distributing the product to the end user. But our core competency is building technology to enable that. So I think that’s really a great marriage of skills.