Observations on the American Manga Market

by Aliena Shoemaker

July 20th, 2010

manga1There was a time when the local Borders was the only store in my city that carried manga (Japanese comics) in the trade paper back format. The titles the store carried were limited to a grand total of about five. The titles included had either been readily available to the North American audience for multiple years via their on-screen adaptations (such as Dragonball Z) or they were the most popular titles in Japan at the time (mostly titles by the group CLAMP such as X and Chobits). Selection was limited, and if you did not live in a large city with a China or Japan Town, it was practically impossible to find anything other than what was available for mass market purchase. Some random paper issues could be located in specialty comic stores from time to time but they were often badly-translated and hard to collect due to bad distribution.

Rise of American Manga

Fast forward ten years.

Now one may walk into any bookstore of a decent size and find a manga section that takes up from one to four rows. Some comic stores have whole floors dedicated to the translated comics. Some sci-fi and fantasy fans had been watching badly subtitled VHS tapes of anime (Japanese animation) such as Gundam that they dug up in Chinatown since the 80’s. So why the (relatively) sudden boom in anime and manga in America?

Cartoon Network had been showing Speed Racer and Battle of the Planets (70’s and 80’s anime) for years on late late night television. It slowly began to show other anime titles such as Tenchi Muyo and Candidate for Goddess in the late 90’s. With the advent of Peer-to-Peer programs such as Napster, WinMX, IRC, and torrents; major uploading sites such as Mediafire, MegaUpload, and 4shared; and the later online streaming video sites such as Veoh, YouTube, and Crunchyroll, the ability to share foreign media became increasingly effortless. People began to realize that anime was popular in Japan and there was a reason for it. Fan subtitling began to grow quickly and become available online for international viewing.

As this was happening, larger North American media companies slowly picked up on the trend. Warner Brothers started to play anime that weren’t series like the largely popular Pokemon or Digimon on Saturday morning cartoons around 1999. Then came the anime blocks on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, starting in around 2000. It could be said that the English dubbings of series such as Cowboy Bebop, The Big O, and Inu Yasha were the catalysts for the sudden boom in anime distribution and purchases by North American consumers. Anime aimed at audiences over twelve years of age was no longer being shown at two in the morning, but receiving prime air time. This popularity brought attention to what, for a lot of anime, is the original format or story source–manga.

Within the last seven years, manga licensing and sales in the United States had soared. What started as an increasingly booming niche market being monopolized almost entirely by two or three publishing companies (Viz, Tokyopop, and sometimes Dark Horse) soon found itself to be a large market with incredible potential. All volumes were already created–companies merely had to license and translate them instead of finding new writers, artists, and forming contracts–and consumers were lapping up everything they could find. Becoming a fan of one series on the Cartoon Network television channel translated into discovering three new manga titles by easy browsing at a local book store. According to Diamond Comic Distributors Inc., in 2007 graphic novel sales went up 33% in the first quarter and 48% in the second quarter. While most titles on the top-selling list were still “American” comics, manga was a very large contributor to that huge growth, with random volumes of lead titles selling more than twelve or thirteen thousand copies, and with a more rapidly increasing list of overall titles than the American comic market. Unlike many one-volume trade paper back comics like Watchmen, however, many manga titles are extremely long running with up to hundreds of volumes per series. The potential for gross profit for each series is very large and companies began to pick up on that fact.

Predicting, and sometimes observing this growth as an afterthought, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and other large publishing tycoons began to create their own offshoot companies or divisions for comics and manga. However, they were late to the game as things began to change again.

Fall of American Manga

manga22Within the last year, a number of manga companies or comics divisions have either pulled out of the market or gone bankrupt. The previously very profitable Shoujo Beat manga magazine (Viz) ended this year, along with the announcement that the fairly recent Yen Plus magazine (Yen) would stop circulation and transfer their titles to digital format for online availability. Several other companies are doing badly also, including CMX, DC Comic’s manga franchise, and some smaller publishers like Drama Queen never even had a chance to dip their foot in the pool.

While many would like to blame it, the reasons for the downfall of these companies are not solely dependent on the notably bad economy of today, however. There are several factors that contribute to the sudden failing of manga companies in North America:

1. Age of Readers
Like “American” comics, the general consumer for manga is a younger one, of that between the ages twelve and seventeen being the major target audience. However, with the decline in airing of anime on prime television (due to licensing issues and low DVD sales), and the very poor advertising the two markets have, new manga readers are difficult to capture. When a target audience reader does start to consume, they are generally under the typical age for working and do not have a large expendable income. With the economy as bad as it is, they also do not receive as much money from parents and family.

2. Cost of Manga
Not only that but, as stated previously, manga series are often long-running, and the books are much more costly than buying typical American comic issues. A typical volume can range from $8.99 up to $15.99 in some cases. Manga is meant to be a cheap, disposable form of entertainment. In Japan, a typical volume is smaller in dimension, but contains the same number of pages and sells for usually half the price or less of its North American equivalent. If a consumer wishes to buy the entirety of a series that runs 50 volumes, they will on average spend $500 on that series. At that rate, a sixteen-year-old reader cannot afford to purchase more than a few series, and if they do, they often leave the older series for the newer one. This leaves the publishing company with up to 30 volumes of a series that half the readers no longer purchase, but which the company cannot afford to not put out for credibility purposes. This would not be a problem if there were a limited number of titles. However, with the numerous late-starting companies ringing in for the market, the market has become completely over-saturated with product.

3. Over-Saturated Market
While manga tends to be far more expensive in North America than it is meant to be, companies cannot drop the prices unless they print more units and printing more units leads to more saturation. It would be possible to cut back on printing if the volumes were printed in smaller sizes, like many of the most popular titles in Japan, but that would not solve the issue entirely.

4. Little Marketing to New Readers
Not only is the price per unit relatively expensive, but new readers are not being produced, as companies are only marketing to those already purchasing from the market. Manga is kept in “graphic novel” sections of book stores where it is not seen by shoppers that aren’t looking for it, advertising is almost exclusively done at anime and manga conventions, and DVD releases are only promoted on the media companies’ websites or in manga magazines. While those that read manga tend to remain consumers for over five years at least, new readers are not being produced, rather, the pre-existing readers are being advertised to in very limited ways.


The readers are increasing at a slower rate than the titles are being released, and the readers cannot afford to invest in new titles. Instead, groups of fans have formed on the Internet, scanning and translating manga titles and subtitling anime titles into English and various other languages. This creates a community where manga can be read for free, in English. For the readers, it is only logical. If they are going to invest so much in a series, it should be one they like, and they want to be able to sample it or read it entirely before buying the series from a North American book store. However, because so many titles are now available online, consumers are only purchasing their only their very favorite and very select titles, if any. While the “scanlation groups” are a form of free publicity, they also hurt sales due to the sheer amount of selection they make readily available without purchase. A reader can read an entire series and jump to a new one, or find one they like better, without having invested in the first. While it is wise for the consumer, this combination is deadly for a physical publisher.

While the number of consumers continues to increase, it is not doing so in parallel with the market. Between the combination the economical situation at the moment, the high price of a supposedly “disposable” form of entertainment, the aging of consumers, and the untimely saturation of the market, it is not unfeasible that the “manga bubble” may pop within the next five years if the situation continues as it is.

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