animefringe february 2003 / editorial
How Domestic Manga Publishers Can Take Over the Western World

Disclaimer: The contents of this column are solely the thoughts and beliefs of Patrick, and thus have no relationship to reality (let alone anyone living in said reality) whatsoever, save by incredibly lucky coincidence.

Let's face it - any respectable company should have a long-term goal of eventually taking over the world. Some, such as Sony or Microsoft, are already well along the way. "But Pat," you may be saying, "how can my small company become the industrial powerhouse it needs to be to make the inhabitants of Earth my servants?" Well, whenever there's a tough question (like that one) that needs an answer fast, there's only one source to turn to - Excel Saga.

You see, the trick here is to start small, then work your way up. It would be nice to take over a whole continent at once, but it's far easier to begin with a single nation. And really - let's be honest - nations are a little daunting even to the most sinister entrepreneurs, so it's much better to start off with a small city. The key to winning over a city is, naturally, the people who live in that city. These are the minds you need to win over with your skills in order to begin your journey down the path of domination.

Now, I realize that what I'm suggesting may be a little hard to swallow. How is it possible to train someone in the ancient art of conquering the world in a single essay? That's crazy-talk! After all, many infamously evil dictators have taken years to write multivolume texts on the subject (see the works of A. Hitler or the Olsen twins (TM) for examples). In truth, these so-called "brilliant" forces of Darkness are nothing more than hacks; otherwise we'd all be their unwilling servants already, purchasing their products whenever they dole them out and following their every movement as if our lives depended on them. Wait...maybe the Olsen twins have succeeded already. Well, in any case this should be short enough to print out for a trip to the John, but if you use it as toilet paper, then I hate you.

Thus, in the interest of potty-worthy brevity, let's begin! The steps manga publishers need to take in order to seize control of the market is actually quite a bit easier (in some ways) than what many of them are doing right now. And, before I anger anyone (if anyone's still reading this, that is), I have quite a bit of respect for every company out there working its hardest to bring manga over here. I am not trying to suggest that the entire industry is a bunch of talentless jerks trying to make a quick buck. I'm actually writing this in order to make them more successful, not to point out "flaws" in their methods.

The first factor I'd like to posit here is respect. Publishers need to have as much respect for their fan base as possible, striving to think of what the fans want most. This can be tricky, as there are many camps of fans with extremely different preferences. There are also a huge number of people who are indifferent, either way. The way to succeed here is to create a compromise that will please as many fans as possible, and to simply accept the fact that you can't satisfy all of the people all of the time.

Of course, there's still more that can be done to increase the level of mutual respect publishers share with their fans. The Internet is a wonderful place for exchanging ideas, and it seems like it would make sense if there could be a forum for fans to interact with companies in order to submit preferences before titles even begin the domestication process. Though it's not a manga company, the practices of the guys over at KFSS Studios' Project Majestic Mix (www.kfssstudios.com) are a shining example of how to do this correctly. Years before their product went to press, they hosted various polls and maintained a message board in order to tailor-make a music compilation that strived to please as many people as possible.

While it would take effort, time, and technical knowledge, I believe the establishment of a forum for manga domestication would more than pay for itself. Publishers could get a feel for the market before diving into unknown waters, and potential buyers would know exactly what was going to ship when the time came. There is the downfall that many people either don't have access to or don't bother checking the Internet for such activity, but I think it's safe to say an increasingly large number of manga fans are rather Internet savvy. Heck, if you're reading this, then chances are, you know a thing or two about the 'Net.

Perhaps a good way to plan for success would be to examine those who have already achieved it. I've worked at Waldenbooks for more than five years now (hooray), and in the past two, our manga section has increased exponentially in size and sales. A little more than two years ago, the only title we carried was Magic Knight Rayearth. But with the inception of TOKYOPOP's "100% Authentic" line-up, we suddenly had a whole shelf...then a few shelves...then 20 shelves dedicated solely to Japanese comics. Manga is doing so well at my store now that we even carry anime titles. It's making enough money for our company that Borders/Waldenbooks has decided to become the sole distributor of the English version of the Di Gi Charat manga. The funny thing is, I live in St. Louis. Traditionally, Japanese goods are expected to sell well on the coasts, but never in the middle of America. Yet here we are, going through scores of Chobits, Love Hina, and GTO manga as if there were no tomorrow. It's a good feeling.

I don't think I can honestly say TOKYOPOP's success comes from the fact that it has titles of higher quality than other publishers. Some of the best manga I've ever read (such as Battle Angel, Vagabond, Oh My Goddess) are put out by other publishers. Really, I think the main attraction to TOKYOPOP's lineup is threefold. First of all, at $9.99, they're cheaper than most other books. Secondly, their development cycle is far shorter than practically every other publisher out there, with new volumes coming out monthly for many of their titles. And finally, many of them are very true to the original source material, reading from right to left (rather than being flipped) and maintaining the original sound effects. For the most part, they aren't nearly as Westernized as other titles, and I'm only speaking for the hundreds of regular customers I have and myself when I say that respect for the source material is always attractive.

I'm not sure how it performs outside of our sales region (that is, from Chicago, Illinois to Nashville, Tennessee), but the poorest seller of TOKYOPOP's lineup is Initial D. It features plenty of action, strong characters, and neat cars, but after TOKYOPOP changed the names of the characters and decided to edit some content in order to make it friendlier to our culture, many people have snubbed it. Even though it was one of the first titles to arrive in our store, we've only sold two copies of each volume, and I bought one of those each time. For other series, it's not uncommon to sell more than thirty copies of each volume in a year, so there is an undeniable difference in sales there. Of course, correlation does not necessarily imply causation (that is, there could be other factors that make people shun Initial D), but there's a heck of a lot of correlation occurring here. Maybe TOKYOPOP should reconsider its decision to alter Initial D.

If I've heard any other complaints about TOKYOPOP's lineup, it's usually about their smaller-than-average size. I'd have to agree with that, as well, for it does get rather hard to read some of the text sometimes, and with beautifully illustrated series like GTO, I'd love to see the images as large as possible. Personally, I believe the most perfect manga would be the size of Dark Horse's Akira books, at the cost and authenticity of TOKYOPOP's "100% Authentic" lineup, with the generous color illustrations and sound effect translations in the back of the book that Viz's Vagabond and Neon Genesis Evangelion: Special Collector's Edition contains, respectively. For the time being, I'll just have to keep hoping for such a development.

One of the reasons price is so important is because of the primary demographic group that is interested in manga. That is, young adults. While fans of manga range widely in race, age, and gender, I'd have to say that eighty-five percent of our customers are still in high school, and many of them do not have much of a steady income. The gap for some of these people between a $15.95 title and a $9.99 title can be monumental, and that will make the difference between what series they choose to start. Additionally, it may be easier to convince parents to buy one $10 book once a month instead of a $16 book in the first place. It's hard for parents to fork out $16 for a black and white comic book, but $10 can be far more appealing.

It's extremely important to price manga so that kids can afford it, because children that start reading manga as they're growing up have a good chance of continuing to support such media as adults. In fact, as manga becomes more popular, it'd be ideal if the prices could drop almost to the same level (or below) the cost of a paperback book. Of course there's not a large enough demand yet to cover the potential losses that would incur (translating and publishing manga can be expensive work), but there's a good chance sales would increase even more with lower prices. Perhaps a value-priced lineup of manga would be a good way to see if lower prices help sales. That's certainly something I'd consider in the future if I wanted to work my way up to taking over the world. And, let's face it, I do.

Authenticity is important not merely to satisfy diehard fans, but to help the general public realize that manga titles are not simply American comics. These books aren't going to read like our comics do. They may have nudity, they may have violence, and they may have odd little fuzzy creatures that look like pillows with eyes but are really God in disguise. Ignoring the origin of manga is dangerous because it makes it easy for people to write it off as just another comic book. I'd like to think that there is a significant difference between Nausicaa and Archie Comics, for better or for worse. For me, at least, part of the draw to Japanese comics is the fact that they are different, products of a culture not my own, attractive at times simply because they're exotic.

I say embrace those differences rather than pave over them with Western traditions. So far, it seems like this is a successful way of approaching things, and with luck, other companies will take the hint. As far as I'm concerned, the order in which we read is incredibly arbitrary and it doesn't take much practice to figure out how to read from right to left instead of left to right. Many people find it hard to read any comic book because of the panel layouts, but as they become more and more popular, people will adapt and learn how to get through the books in time. Some of these titles are good enough that people will want to learn how to read them just so they can experience the fantastic stories told within.

I'm a big fan of staying true to the source material, but really, authenticity has more benefits than keeping fans like me happy. Flipping manga, editing the content, and rewriting the visual sound effects is a time-consuming and thus costly process, and so it would seem that keeping things authentic would also keep prices down. For me, that's a fringe benefit. For others, that may be the benefit. Either way, it's positive support for keeping works unchanged.

While success will come from selling the most books to the most people, I'd have to say I'm against censoring a work in order to make it appeal to some artificially chosen target group. Lately, there's been quite a bit of fuss over "mature" content in our media. Apparently people don't read very much anymore, because most of the focus has been on television, video games, music, and movies rather than books. Most mainstream books (including many titles in the unassuming "Romance" genre) would be rated X if they were made into a movie exactly as they were written. Yet, are these censored? No, because first of all, their graphic nature goes only so far as the imagination of the reader will take them, and second of all, because they assume that the reader is mature enough to handle the content.

Just as some movies are not for children, so are certain manga titles. Rather than adapt manga to appeal to the lowest common denominator, however, publishers should just put things out the way they are and let the readers decide. If there's fear of some sort of public outcry against "mature" manga, then it will most likely just help the popularity of the work rather than kill it. Look at Mortal Kombat. It wasn't that great of a game, despite its then revolutionary digitized graphics. And yet, thanks to incessant media prattling on about its over the top violence, it became a mega-hit that is still spawning sequels to this day. I'm not suggesting that companies put out racy titles to offend the public and garner unwarranted attention, but if it happens, then it's good to recall that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

I'd like to think that I'm suggesting the obvious here. That lower prices, increased frequency of releases, heightened authenticity, and mutual respect will increase manga sales. And of course, I realize that there are far more factors ranging from the political to the financial to the ideological that have had an undeniable effect upon the way the English manga industry operates. The only true judge of the validity of what I'm saying here is time, for eventually, we'll see what methods prove the most successful.

The important thing to remember is the decisions made now are shaping the future of Japanese comics in our language, so they'd better be made with quite a bit of careful deliberation. I couldn't be more pleased if the sudden boom in manga sales was nothing more than a precursor to a much larger explosion in popularity in the near future. So far, the industry hasn't been able to print these titles faster than I can read them, and nothing pleases me more than having more books to read than I know what to do with. Maybe that's the primary explanation for my continued employment at a bookstore.

In any case, the future looks very bright for manga in North America, and companies that take the right steps today may find themselves in an excellent position to compete for world dominance with Microsoft or Sony. That is, if the Olsen twins don't own us all by then.