Rocket Bomber - article - business - publishing - I've more optimism than the situation deserves.

I've more optimism than the situation deserves.

filed under , 22 May 2010, 09:08 by

[image credit Ape Lad, from his Laugh Out Loud Cats, non-commercial CC licensed]

The original title of this post was “Recent bad news not new; just fallout from the Manga ‘Market Correction’ of 2009”

Yes, it’s grim. By the time I’d waded through years of backstory and got to my conclusion, though, I’d changed my tone: still cynical, still worried, but hopeful.


ICv2 produces some lovely charts and numbers, which go back to 2001 (Dec. of that year for graphic novels) and while the data is limited to estimates of Diamond sales through local comic shops, it’s better than nothing and I for one appreciate all the hard work they’ve done. (I only wish I’d thought to track something similar, using my methods, that far back.) (and that I had time. Maybe I should rethink being a store manager and settle back into something less demanding at the bookstore)

In fact, if you look at ICv2’s Dec ’01 GN Chart you will in fact find manga already on it. Later volumes of manga (Inuyasha 10, Dragonball Z 7) and also at $12.95, $14.95, and even $15.95 price points. (the third book charting that month was Dark Horse’s Dirty Pair)

So at the dawn of manga (or at least as far back as I’ve reputable sources) manga was a niche, it was expensive, it sold through the direct market, and while not a chart topper yet, Viz and Dark Horse were doing well enough with manga that each could put at least one volume into the Top 25.

Numbers from Feb. 2002 show Ranma 1/2 almost breaking into the top 10 (and already, at that point, at 19 volumes) and [I’m going to wear out the [em] tags in this post] the 6th volume of shojo staple Fushigi Yugi coming in at #20 — out of all graphic novels, mind, it outsold Blade and Spider-Man volumes that month — and this is a $15.95 shojo manga (and likely flipped, at this early date). It’s also worth noting that ICv2 bases these numbers on Diamond’s sales to the direct market, which were and are non-returnable — so your Local Comic Shop guy was seeing enough movement on shojo manga in 2002 to order it in quantity.

Mind blown yet?

In March of 2002 the number one graphic novel was Dark Horse’s Lone Wolf & Cub, already in it’s 20th volume — and number one. (Also in March ICv2 expanded it’s Graphic Novel Chart from 25 to 50 — and later extensions have followed over the years — so the picture becomes a little less fuzzy as time goes on. As the market expanded, so did their coverage. Thank several gods (and some eldrich powers) that Milton Griepp & his fine staff were on hand to think of this stuff 10 years ago.

With an expansion to a top 50, we also get to see how the first Tokyopop volumes were managing in the direct market, #38 Cardcaptor Sakura vol 6. Already $9.99 at that point, but also still flipped? as I recall, since unflipped 2nd editions of that series went on sale later.

And early shades of Naruto Nation are also in place, as new volumes of Lone Wolf & Cub each take the #1 slot on these GN charts until November 2002, when a couple of Justice League volumes finally knock LW&C (then up to vol 28) out of number one. It only managed #3 that month.

Eight months at number one. Not bad for those dinky little paperbacks.

By December of 2002, Tokyopop was cracking the top 10 (with Love Hina, not surprisingly) and the manga market, as we knew it, was well under way.


I could do play-by-play commentary on a decade’s worth of charts, but I’ll spare you.

If one was a fan back then, or if you knew your history — or you forced yourself to learn it — then taking an afternoon (say, a Saturday afternoon) to click through charts at both ICv2 and (The Comic Chronicles is kinda like Five Thirty Eight for comic books) then there’s a lot to learn — like, how far Graphic Novels have come in 10 years, with manga being a part of that but also the expansion of the ‘literary’ and biographical end of the GN market, and the collection and reprinting en masse of the whole 20th century newspaper comic strip corpus…

My point is, it’s a bigger pie — in fact, there are lot more pies out there these days — and so a slightly smaller slice of pie is still a feast compared to what was available 10 or 8 or even 5 years ago.

In April of 2005, again according to ICv2, Manga accounted for 29 of the top 100 titles, with estimated combined sales (in that market) of 53,000 volumes.

By April of 2010, manga seem to have slipped with only 15 titles in the top 100, and sales of a scant 20,000 or so units… via comic shops. The bookstore market is the new home of manga. But even ICv2 numbers can still provide insight: expanding from their top 100 to top 300, manga takes up 50 slots and total sales of 37,000 units — yes, in this one market it dropped, but still not bad for a format that has expanded well beyond the LCS, and is diluted by the wealth of other offerings available.

Those Fushigi Yugi Fans who bought enough copies to put shojo into the top 20 of an LCS sales reckoning in 2002 have long since moved on to Borders and other chain bookstores, and they were followed by a “generation” (I use quotes because, 3 maybe 4 years, c’mon) of manga fans who didn’t know there was any other way to read manga besides plopping down on the floor and clogging up the aisle at the local Borders or B&N. It certainly didn’t occur to a lot of these folks to buy it — which is of course part of the problem, and why quite a few stores are cutting back on the voluminous manga offerings that seemed our Tezuka-given right just three years ago. And we’re in a recession besides.


The total pie is a lot bigger; there are many more publishers interested in Graphic Novels these days:

in addition to stalwarts Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, and Legacy Houses DC and Marvel, and long-time syndicate reprinter Andrews McMeel, and long-standing dark horse Dark Horse, and creator-initiated Image — we’ve added First Second, Top Shelf, Boom!, Dynamite, IDW, Devil’s Due, SLG, HNA Abrams’s Amulet and ComicArts, and Scholastic Graphix —

and a mass retooling of some older imprints — Random House’s Pantheon, Three Rivers Press, Villard — and of course Del Rey; Disney’s Hyperion; HarperCollins’s Harper trade-paperback imprint and Collins Design; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt adding Comics to it’s “Best American” anthology series; Tintin via Little Brown & Co.; Macmillan’s Hill & Wang, Metropolitan Books, and St. Martin’s Griffin; Penguin’s Philomel, Plume, Perigee, and others; Simon & Schuster’s Alladin, Touchstone, and others — that now carry graphic novels as a matter of course, in addition to & alongside their other offerings —

and Last Gasp and Heavy Metal are still truckin’ and still putting out the weird and wonderful, just like they have since the 70s —

And while a number of manga publishers came and went in the past decade (ADV, Aurora, Broccoli, CMX, ComicsOne, Central Park Media, DramaQueen, DrMaster, Go!Comi) and a few seem on the ropes (Udon, Seven Seas, Netcomics, Media Blasters) and at least one seems like an anime co. afterthought (Bandai) we still have 5 viable manga publishers: Dark Horse, Del Rey, Tokyopop, Viz, and Yen Press. [edit: 5 large publishers; there are at least two smaller viable manga houses: Vertical and DMP. See the comments]

  • Dark Horse was first, they will be last [in my opinion]. DH has a care for the material, a cautious business sense, an adventurous creative sense, and other things (Hellboy, Star Wars) to keep the company going even after a manga title tanks underperforms.
  • Del Rey has the backing of Random House for marketing and distribution, a relationship with Kodansha that has survived thus far and looks safe, a reputation amongst fans built on Genshiken and other great titles, and a backup plan: a deal with Cartoon Network for things like Ben 10 and Bakugan — and yes, we scoff, but that TV-to-comic-book fluff sells like hotcakes and keeps my Shugo Chara in print.
  • Tokyopop was about to go under, I feel — or at least be so far gone the brand would be sold to someone who wouldn’t mismanage it — but it looks like one lottery ticket bought: a massive bet on Priest and the heavy involvement of Stu Levy in same, might make enough money to not only save a lot of collective bacon, but to revitalize the brand, provide operating capital for at least 2 more years, and make Tokyopop relevant again (at least for the span of one media news cycle). Not all underlying problems have been fixed, but T’Pop is leaner, smarter; still has a marketing, distribution, and content deal with HarperCollins; and just seems meaner these days, though their rah-rah-cheerleader-bubblegum email updates need to retooled or scrapped. Seriously. And I’m not all that big on the Tokyopop Tour idea either, but that’s because I’m old and crotchety and I don’t buy into the ‘fan’ thing, I Buy Books. (I would say we’re an untapped market, but no, I’m close to tapped out, so yeah, go get some new fans.)
  • Viz. is Viz. I can’t even begin… well, I’ll try. Viz has a longstanding arrangement with Simon & Schuster for bookstore distribution and marketing support — not that they need marketing support since Shonen Jump, the occasional cable TV anime, and established brands like Pokemon pretty much sell themselves. To its credit, Viz takes that money and returns with more product: Shojo Beat, SigIKKI, Viz Signature, the Ghibli Library, and massive extensions of almost-there-but-otherwise-wouldn’t-make-it properties like One Piece and Pluto. —no, really: who else would print dozens of volumes of One Piece after the initial sales fell flat? And who would have published Pluto at all? The VizKids line (Zelda, Pokemon) even without Naruto or Bleach would generate enough cash to run a manga publisher; Viz has an embarrassment of riches, but also the grace and poise (and massive available catalog) to pull it off with style.
  • And Yen. Yen has the full backing of Hachette, who not only fronted enough cash to bootstrap Yen Press from nothing to 6 out of the top 10 NYT bestsellers in a scant two years, they paired that with the hire of Kurt Hassler (who in later years will be known as the [insert title here] of manga) and the commitment to at least two years of Yen Plus, an anthology magazine. Though the recession killed off Yen+, the imprint bravely soldiers on with an expanding catalog of manga and manhwa and begs the question: what if this kind of company had launched in 2004, rather than 2006?

In a decade: five manga publishers where there used to be two (just Dark Horse and Viz back in the murky pre-history of manga fandom)

I’d say, even given the current climate, that ain’t bad. It’s a 150% increase, in fact.

In the interim, a lot of product was put out — some of it great, a lot of it marginal, at best — and a lot was made of the inroads to ‘major’ markets (though 4 whole bookcases of manga in one of the major chains, while nice, do not constitute the mass market) and double-digit sales growth and the ‘sudden surge’ of manga — but I think, in retrospect, we can frame it thus:

  • 1992-2005 saw a major expansion of comics (under the guise of ‘Graphic Novels’) — into new genres, new markets, new fan bases, and new appreciation of the form. I pick 1992 because of the Maus Pulitzer – though it was also the year Scott McCloud presumably started work on Understanding Comics [which actually first saw print in 1993] which has since become the primer and first source for a “generation” of both artists and critics (again, generation in quotes, and I don’t mean to slight Eisner in this context; it’s just that Eisner didn’t have the internet) (and I think the critics love to cite Scott more often – artist read it and take it to heart, critics [alas] use it as a framework to judge, to our loss) (that digression aside…)
  • 2003-2007 saw Kurt Hassler, and other bookstore buyers, buying manga. Yep. They bought it. It wasn’t a “major expansion” as no bookstore had ever really bought it before. (feel free to tell me about your obvious outlier: I’d love to know which bookstore stocked manga before Tokyopop) Here’s the thing: from zero to one guy at one chain showing an interest, to other chains matching to compete in a new market, and suddenly you go from a Diamond direct market also-ran to thousands of volumes shipped and shelved in the course of a year. This was a good time to sell manga. A lot of folks saw a good thing and thought they’d pile on. No one really understood the underlying causes, though, and few thought of the realities of selling to the bookstore market — sure, it’s fine when volumes turn (it’s a money machine) but as soon as demand slacks, for whatever reason, the stores use the returnablity of volumes (it was in the distro&sales agreements you didn’t read) to their advantage, and when the economy turns south, they use it with a vengeance.

The Manga market didn’t fail in May of 2010, the writing was on the wall after the Christmas of 2007. But publishing does not react quickly. Titles on sale for 25 December 2007 were in the pipe a year earlier, and after those tanked there remained other titles still in the pipe for release over the next 6-12 months. Manga publishers could see the problem but translators had already completed work, license fees were paid long-ago, and contracts with printers had been signed.

And the two past recessions had only lasted 8 months — the smart business move was to borrow cash, keep moving, and rely on the fact that things would be better next year. Then 2008… wasn’t kind.

We as fans didn’t see the immediate results of the recession, because contractual obligations meant books were made, printed, shipped, and shelved even after we had actually stopped buying them. Not only did this mask the coming market correction, it exaggerated it, as books shipped-but-not-sold weigh more and more heavily on the balance sheets of publishers.

The eventual backlash of massive returns from retailers shouldn’t have been a surprise coup de grâce but no one was planning for a downturn; all the graphs pointed Up Up Up… but the graphs only started in 2001-2002, at the very beginning of the last rebound. Some basic assumptions were quite wrong. Even given the two ‘minor’ blips (the eight-month recessions of 1991 and 2001) there was a 25-year trend of nothing but blue skies, with the occasional cloud, and even clouds seemed to have silver linings. No one planned for credit-default-swap-fuelled meltdown; no one knew what CDFs were. 2008 hit us in the back of the head like a lead pipe. In retrospect, yeah, we can kinda-sorta sort things out, but there was no way to plan for how consumer markets reacted.


So manga was a ‘thing’, a consumer trend right at the tail end of 25 years of an over-performing US economy.

Consumers would buy anything, and one of the coolest anythings around were manga and anime DVDs. In this overheated consumer market, a lot of companies tried anime and manga, a lot of product was licensed and released, and almost all of it was unsustainable.

Damn, it was a great time to be a fan. But companies were (even at these levels) just scraping by, borrowing money, making bets, & waiting for that Next Big Thing. If the next big thing had been something like Pokemon or Naruto, all bets paid off and the cycle started again. Unfortunately, for so many, the next big thing was the Great Recession.

We’re back to a baseline. Yes, of course I miss the market of 5 years ago. Those were heady times to be a fan, so many choices that you could afford to pick and choose the very best, and let the merely good rot on the vine. But it was never sustainable.

The legacy of the anime boom is that several major publishers (slow turtles that they are) decided to get into the manga business, and so in 2010 we have not two but five major players in the manga market, and all but one (the first, the last, Dark Horse) are backed by major book pubs or have longstanding agreements with them. And a number of imprints (or new start-ups!) are just waiting for the economy to improve, and for the fans to start buying again.

2009 was a market correction; in retrospect inevitable; regrettable but given the larger economy unavoidable.

May of 2010, when Viz announced layoffs, Go!Comi faded into that good night, and DC finally realized they owned CMX and then suddenly didn’t want to anymore — well, it seems like it all took place overnight but this has been building for years.

My hopes reside in not what happened then, but what happens next. When the economy does improve (and it may take 2 years for publishers to catch up) then what can the new, expanded manga base do for us? With a decade of experience, what can the anime localizers finally put out?

[*fingers crossed*]
(And here’s hoping Japan pulls out as well.)


  1. Re publishers: What about Vertical and Digital Manga? They’re not operating on the scale of the others, but they’re still out there and viable.

    Comment by Johanna — 22 May 2010, 14:31 #

  2. No, really, how should we refer to Kurt? Godfather of American Manga?

    drop a suggestion in the comments.

    Comment by Matt Blind — 22 May 2010, 18:53 #

  3. @Johanna

    Thanks for mentioning Vertical and DMP (which also puts out June and 801) — there was only so much column I could write in 4 hours and I had to rush a bit to get it posted before heading into work (and I didn’t get the typos fixed until my dinner break)

    I’m glad to have both, and love quite a bit of their product.

    Vertical is also distributed by Random House, if memory serves, but isn’t owned RH so doesn’t get as much sales support. Their catalog is smaller (but what a catalog) and their goals are also more modest.

    I gave DMP a good write-up here and I’m going to have to leave it at that, since my dinner break is now over.

    But yes, I like both pubs and regret the omission.

    Comment by Matt Blind — 22 May 2010, 19:02 #

  4. So you’re saying we’ll see an improvement in a couple years. Does this mean more licensing, cheaper prices, and/or new publishers?

    One person told me web is replacing print. Is this what were starting to see, or are flagging sales only recession-based?

    How long does in-print manga have? And how bad IS scanlations hurting book sales, if at all?

    Comment by Oliver — 24 May 2010, 23:30 #

  5. One minor quibble… Both Viz and Dark Horse started publishing in 1986. Since Viz is a pure manga publisher, they probably precede DH by a few months. (Of course, Eclipse probably predates both.)

    Both Viz and Dark Horse had bookstore distribution from almost Day One. Viz was available via Publishers Group West (along with Marvel) while DH had a distribution deal with Putman/Berkeley (along with First and WaRP).

    I attended BEA back in LA in 199…7? when Spawn was being published by Random House, and Fantagraphics had just started book trade distribution. At that show, Viz premiered their Pokemon titles, which were mostly licensed books, not actual manga (remember, even Sailor Moon barely had any manga titles back then, and what manga was available was issued as comic books).

    I think it was Pokemon which saved the American comics industry. Until then, manga and anime had been a subculture niche of science fiction (remember when the Sci-Fi used to screen manga movies?). Pokemon hit across so many fronts (cards, videogames, cartoons, comics) and with that came the flood.

    Once that happened, most of the American publishers finally figured out bookstore distribution.

    According to ICV2 figures, 2009 is at the level we last saw in 2004. Will it go lower?

    In BookScan numbers, manga is still dominant.

    Comment by Torsten Adair — 25 May 2010, 09:53 #

  6. @Torsten:

    Your quibble has teeth! You should keep that thing on a leash, even if it is small. ;)

    And yes, I do remember when sci-fi cons showed anime — my first exposure to anime was at Dragon Con in ’88. And your other points are well taken.


    You ask six questions which not only frame the debate, they’d require a whole essay to answer in full (and if I had solid, bankable answers to half of them, I’d be starting a manga publisher)

    I put forth that the economy would likely improve in two years, and as such would also likely mean good things for publishers of all stripes, manga and anime included — but my wording was not meant to auger the rebirth of manga in a scant two years. The future of the industry depends on what publishers do when the economy improves.

    To answer your other questions (and to poke at your pseudo-strawman) —

    Web is a new publishing model, like paperbacks in the 30s. The paperback did not stop the printing of hardcover books, or leather-bound collector’s editions, but the availability of a cheaper alternative did change the way book publishing & retail were done, and the cheaper paperback is now the dominant format.

    Web will follow the same path, and may eventually be the main format — but book publishing and retail will adapt, and physical books will still be printed.

    It’s not Digital vs Books. Digital Books are books, but it’ll take a while for the new business models to appear, gain acceptance, compete, and for both consumers and companies to figure out what they really want, and economic (and economically viable) ways to deliver it.

    To answer your final 2 questions: Manga in translation will survive as long as manga in Japan does. Whether 20 years from now it is a bookstore-staple or merely a niche fandom is a different question.

    And scanlations hurt. But piracy is nothing new; once upon a time, all books were ‘pirated’ copies.

    Not that I’m accusing Oliver of anything, but many people want to focus on specifics (what makes me money today, or next week?) while in this post and others I tend to look at the big picture and the long view. (What is culture, and how reliably is it transmitted?)

    Comment by Matt Blind — 25 May 2010, 22:31 #

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