Protecting the Underdog
You know what they say about variety…
The signs are not that hard to interpret. Titles with only a single volume available show no signs of follow up installments. ADV cut back a number of their staff members when their manga release strategy didn't work as well as they had hoped. Target has recently informed distributors that they're no longer going to carry anime. They claim market over-saturation and limited shelf space were at the root of the decision, despite the conversion of all of my local Target stores into big-box megastore formats.
This doesn't mean that the party's over, but it does mean that companies are going to be more cautious from now on. After all, so long as companies like TOKYOPOP and ADV keep turning a profit, the industry will continue to expand. Clearly, slow expansion is preferable to any sort of loss. Many of the players in the domestic anime and manga scene have been around since it came into being not too long ago, and these veterans are not about to allow the industry they shaped to collapse around them.
It's not that I don’t trust these companies to keep themselves afloat, but much of the continued success of the industry will come from the group of people who created it in the first place – fans like you and me.
Aside from the obvious solution to this impending problem – that is, buy more anime than you download – there are a few things we (the hardcore fanbase) can do to keep the industry running strong. Some of it involves sacrifices, of a sort, but I think the payoff outweighs the cost.
The key to this strategy is simple – diversification. Support the quirky little series that other people pass over. I'm a very easy going fan; pretty much any series can hold my interest indefinitely. I can stomach mainstream stuff like Inu Yasha and Sailor Moon or more bizarre releases such as Cat Soup and Colorful. In order to do my part to keep the industry going, I always buy older, less popular titles before I get hotter, newer stuff.
How, exactly does this help? There is a demonstrable market for Inu Yasha. Therefore, I don't buy it. One day, I'll go ahead and pick it up when there's a good sale on the collected editions (you know you’ll be able to get a season for $60 in the near future), so, instead of paying $24.95 times 7 (roughly $175), I get something else.
I avoid releases that I know are going to be around for a long time. For example, out of my 1,337 DVDs (seriously…1337…there’s a nerd joke in there somewhere), I don't own huge titles like Ghost in the Shell or Appleseed (the new movie), and I'm not anywhere near caught up with Samurai Champloo or other (in my mind) must have releases. Out of 1,424 manga, I have gaping holes in series like Rurouni Kenshin, GTO, and Trigun. I only recently finished off Chobits and Love Hina.
Instead of picking up the stuff that I know will be around for a long time due to their popularity, I grabbed titles like Crayon Shin-chan, Brain Powered, Popotan, and Club 9. This isn't stuff you’ll see everywhere, but that's largely due to the fact that they aren't the most popular series.
By showing at least a little bit of support for fringe titles, you justify their shelf space. The trick here is to know which titles are always in stock (that is, those that auto-replenish when they’re sold) and which ones are on the fast track to the returns list.
If a book or movie doesn't sell within a specified time period, most stores ship the product back to a distribution center for redistribution, or back to the vendor for credit. These types of expenses add up, and even if it only costs a penny per item per trip, the impact is that much more significant as more and more books and movies are released, forcing the window of salability to become increasingly smaller.
There are a number of reasons why smaller series don't sell as well or last as long as their mainstream brethren. First of all, people tend to feel safer buying something they're familiar with. Given a wide selection of new manga, if a person sees the Wolf's Rain book adaptation, he or she is far more likely to pick that up than something unknown. Secondly, word of mouth plays a huge role in a given series' popularity – just look at the success of Fruits Basket and Love Hina. They weren’t exposed on prime time TV or advertised in theatres, they were simply released and embraced by fandom. The momentum of these series was captured with campaigns that enhanced their sales, but in that sense, they sold well because they sold well.
This exhibits a sort of Catch-22, the converse of which being if a book or movie doesn’t sell, it is doomed not to sell. That is, if people don't buy a release, people won't talk about a release, and it will get returned to the vendor. Subsequently, the publisher will not be motivated to release the rest of the series as fast, since there are many other series to focus on.
Now, many people will argue that both of those series enjoyed the pre-availability buzz they received thanks to fansubs. I would certainly admit that freely distributed fansubs got me into both of those series prior to their stateside release. However, it took more than just people downloading the shows for them to succeed; it was the sales of the series that made them winners in the eyes of their publishers.
Unless you have a friend in the industry, there's no way to know what titles are on their way out. All I can suggest is that we all try something different from time to time. If you see a lonely book or DVD that’s been sitting on the shelf for a while and it doesn't seem half-bad, give it a shot. Some of my favorite series were those that I picked up on a whim (such as Vagabond or Phoenix).
Perhaps there is something else people can do that is just as effective as buying a wider range of titles. It takes more than a blitzkrieg advertising campaign and marketing muscle to move a product. Nothing works better to convince people to buy into something than sincere fan-generated excitement. Look at Star Wars. Sure, it was the film franchise that re-invented the film franchise, but if it weren't for the hordes of fans giving the movies repeat business, it would not manage to do as well as it has. Even the least liked of the films broke box office records, and despite the claims of naysayers, it wasn't just the toy tie-ins that got it there.
The simplest way to ensure the continued success of the anime and manga industry is to evangelize the stuff you like. Think of a series you particular enjoy that you think is underappreciated, and then sell it yourself. More specifically, make your friends watch it. Write about it on the web. Support its creative staff in any way you can. It’s easy to jump in when people are talking about Fullmetal Alchemist and add your own thoughts concerning its magnificence, but it's altogether different to be brave enough to say, “Hey, this series is kinda weird, but it has a really good plot. We should watch it sometime.”
Who knows? You might be the person who introduces a person to their favorite series.