Saturday, August 16, 2008

Digital Distribution of Manga

Okay. So we all know that digital distribution is the way to go for anime and that almost all companies are experimenting with various platforms, but digital manga...? I have mixed feelings about how well this will work out. Unlike anime, the format of reading a book doesn't translate as neatly as the format of watching a show on a screen. Manga sales haven't lagged as much as DVD sales partially because many people still prefer holding a physical book in their hands as opposed to reading on a computer screen (the other reason might be because they're cheaper). It's a strain on the eyes too, especially on computers with lower resolutions. This is the main argument against the idea of digitalized manga distribution, and I think it's a very valid one.

But there actually seem arguments in favor of the idea now that I think about it. After all, people never thought e-books would ever catch on, but they're now rather widespread with many people carrying digital books with them everywhere on the Amazon's Kindle, iPhones, other smart phones, and even their iPods. Manga for cellphones has been available in Japan for years, though of course, their cellphone technology and usage is quite a step up from the US. Besides, plenty of manga fans read their weekly dose of new, scanlated chapters on the computer, and quite a few of them will read through the entirety of some series online, including titles that have already been released domestically. "Strain on the eyes" is no match for the free and convenient. Manga sales have been declining, if all the TOKYOPOP restructuring hubbub was any indication.

I'm not sure if scanlations have as much an impact on manga sales as fansubs do on DVD sales though. Various experiments conducted by both fiction and nonfiction authors suggest that the availability of an e-book actually boosts real book sales. None of them were manga so I guess their target audiences are very different, but they're interesting studies all the same. Still, even if scanlations aren't robbing distributors of real book sales, there are plenty of incentives for putting manga online legally. For one, it's a new avenue of business that has tried potential, so why leave it unexplored? Any new customers they might gain from the venture would help, especially considering it wouldn't take much investment. Marvel has already experimented with the digital comic subscription, and as far as I know, it's doing pretty well.

The pricing model Digital Manga is using is kind of interesting. It's cheaper than buying the physical thing by more than 50%. The experiment I mentioned above had the people release their e-books free, which spurred their real book sales. TOKYOPOP already hosts chapters online for some of their manga, and some other companies like Broccoli are starting to do it as well. But if they're going to charge for digital manga, it seems unlikely that that will translate into any increase in book sales since customers would have to pay for it twice. But for the digital copy to be worth the money, it will likely need to step up on quality. Testimonials here describe various bugs and things needed for improvement -- I wonder if they'll follow up on those? If I won't have the manga in my hands and I'm paying for it, then I want sharp digital images, an easy way to adjust size, the option to view pages one at a time or two at a time, etc. Mimic the oldschool reading experience as much as possible.

I wonder if anyone will try to release digital manga by chapter shortly after release in Japan though. For long-running shounen series like Bleach and Naruto, it seems like it would be much easier than any attempt to release anime concurrently (though Crunchyroll and partners seem to be doing reasonably well). Viz already has the license. It doesn't take nearly as long to translate a chapter. It would be gold. Just figure out how to price a chapter. A dollar? Fifty cents? Seems like a good model to me. Four chapters a month. Two to four dollars a month per customer. Multiply by the number of rampant Narutards. Gold! I think the main reason scanlations have little effect on manga sales is because those that read scanlations are often those that keep up with current manga in Japan, which is often volumes ahead of the current domestic releases, especially for series like Naruto. If you could get even a percentage of those people to buy something, wouldn't that be great? Think of the revenue!

The only issue would be that a chapter of manga is much easier to find online than an episode of anime, or at least, they're easier to access. No having to deal with torrents. You don't even have to download anything! Just pop over to Mangashare or Onemanga and you're set. Then again, if Viz did create a legal way for readers to have timely access to Japan's newest manga, I feel that many scanlators would hang up their work hats in good faith.

(PS - meanwhile, anime movies on the Japanese DS. Think we'll see any of that Stateside?)
(PPS - Whoa. Now this is groundbreaking!)

2 comments:

Ravi said...

I think that the success of sites like onemanga proves that this sort of thing could work pretty well. That said, Flash-based rentals? Eeew. :/

Also, cellphone manga? I've been thinking for a little while about how that could work, so the fact that it already exists is encouraging. :3

Kiriska said...

I hate Flash-based anything, lol. But yeah, the only thing I think they may have issues with is a proper pricing model, but I guess if they have a subscription service in addition to stuff like $.50/chapter, it could work out well.

I'm pretty sure that cellphone manga has been around in Japan for at least two or three years, though I couldn't find proper articles on it any later than this year. I'm not a big cellphone user, so I'd prefer a web-based subscription service, but with the more and more widespread use of smartphones, etc, I think cellphone manga is a pretty viable distribution model.