Operation British, Phase Nine: JManga and Rooms Full of Japanese Executives

On August 17, 2011, JManga.com made its cyberspace debut. The site, the product of a distribution deal between its American owners and a variety of Japanese publishing houses, purports to offer dozens of manga titles that have never (officially) seen the light of day in English as well as rescues of discontinued works. What looks like a nice model for digital distribution of manga however, just beneath the shiny red paint shows the mark of shoddy, poorly educated and, ultimately, familiar hands.

Colony Drop doesn’t purport to be part of the manga “industry.” What we know about said business is limited entirely to second and third-hand knowledge. That said, the views expressed in this article are the impressions of a ground-level consumer. They may not reflect anything resembling the reality behind why JManga and other butterfingered Japanese attempts to directly enter the American anime and manga market, but these companies’ blithe, pigheaded actions do absolutely nothing to play down said impressions, “misguided” as they may be.

To start out with the central point of contention: JManga requires the user to sign up for a monthly subscription to be able to access the site’s contents. A free membership is available, and it’s a sham. Free members receive nothing except extended previews of single chapters. Individual chapters are obtained using JManga “points” that are handed out or purchased for cash. To enjoy the privilege of spending money for these points the prospective customer must register for a premium subscription plan, which itself costs $10 a month. A premium subscription on its own grants the subscriber 1,000 points a month. Individual chapters cost on average 200-300 points each. Manga tankubon typically go twelve chapters a volume.

The next caveat should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the way Big Media excursions onto the Web typically work, but all of the comics on JManga are viewable solely through the site’s built-in Flash program. Provisions to download .PDF files or high-resolution .JPGs are nonexistent—ostensibly to combat piracy, though a cursory search of relevant boards of 4chan.org on the day of JManga’s launch turned up multiple pages of JManga-published comics which had been screen-capped, copy-pasted to Photoshop or Microsoft Paint and uploaded.

Much like how Sony’s multi-million-dollar CD encryption program of years past was defeated by a trace of a Sharpie pen around the disc’s circumference, JManga failed to anticipate the irresistible power of the Print Screen key.

Really though, the worst part of it all is that the core idea behind the site is not terrible. In fact, it is very compelling. A Publishers Weekly article puts the amount of participating Japanese publishers at 39; all of them part of a so-called “Japan Digital Comics Association.” Among them most notably are Kodansha, Kadokawa Shoten and Shogakukan (owner of Viz). All three are Japanese publishing behemoths who between the three of them publish a huge amount of the manga that sees the light of day in both Japan and the United States. In a panel at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con a Kodansha spokesman said that JManga’s advantage over gray market/straight up illegal scanlation sites is that it offers not just well-known titles but also “the not-so-well-known titles that aren’t always available scanlated.”

Indeed, among JManga’s initial offerings are a wide variety of seinen and josei comics, two fields of manga publishing geared towards young adult audiences that rarely see the light of day on American book shelves. The seinen section even features multiple obscure titles by manga mogul Takao Saito, who is today so swagged out on the success of his Golgo 13 franchise that he no longer draws or writes the comics that bear his byline on the covers.

But examine the logic: We, the publishers, would like to increase the exposure of and build a potential market for these titles that have previously received no exposure to an English-speaking audience. In fact, by and large, the marketing niches (because manga genres like “shonen,” “shojo” and “josei” are purely determined by the niche target by the title’s anthology of origin) to which these titles belong have for the most part been slow burners if not outright duds. Therefore, we will implement a distribution service where the prospective reader pays for monthly access to our library, individual chapters of each tankubon and must have an Internet connection and relevant Flash software to access his collection.

JManga is not going to save the American manga industry. If it’s supposed to become a flagship for a migration of the industry into the realms of the Web then it must implement a number of drastic changes, or fail in that objective as well. As it stands JManga’s current terms of service are outdone even by Viz and Shogakukan’s own SigIkki website, which offers entire volumes of seinen titles at no cost for a promotional period before a tankubon is released in print. A free subscription at JManga gives one the comic book equivalent of the free five-second .MPG clips on your gonzo pornography website of choice.

Therein lays the true problem at the heart of the issue—expecting any sort of dynamism, receptiveness to customer experience or market savvy from a project helmed by not one, but several monoliths of orthodox Japanese corporate culture. It’s not that all of these publishers haven’t a clue how to prosper in America, Kodansha and Shogakukan (through Viz) have proven as much. The problem here is, I suspect, the sheer amount of hands in the pie. 39 publishers? Does that mean that any sort of company decision regarding format, presentation or pricing (because of course these publishers are going to raise a holy racket should one of their “partners” attempt a bold move to undercut them) has to be approved by a panel of 39 corporate representatives? 39 representatives who must go back to their respective companies and obtain authorization to make a decision from 39 chief financial officers, 39 marketing directors, 39 boards of trustees? Counting all the participating publishers that’s 39 times 39 times 39 times 39 t—MATH IS HARD.

There will, of course, be those voices that join the chorus that sings the corporate party line. Those who say that most if not all the problems with Japanese cartoons and comic books today are the result of American fans who, through their larcenous, Mangafoxy ways have reduced the value of said formats in the U.S. to zero and therefore convinced the benevolent Japanese gatekeepers that producing works for and adapting to the realities of the American market isn’t worth a yen, because that market hasn’t given them a yen for as long as it has existed. This is a chicken-and-the-egg debate. We Don’t Buy Because They Don’t Make What We Like vs. We Don’t Make What You Like Because You Don’t Buy. The reality is that Japan must pull its head out of the sand and figure out how to compete, “unfair” as it is, against Free (bottled water does it, and it’s not even illegal to drink tap water). JManga has taken a step in that direction in directly stating that it hopes to be a credible competitor to scanlations. That said, they’ve got a long, long way to go towards achieving that objective, and the odds are against them reacting in time—or ever—to reality.

We could at this point digress into several thousand words about the state of Japanese corporate culture and its systematic failure to deal with the realities of operating overseas in the 21st century. We would receive a barrage of comments and tweets whose contents would all be variations of “that’s racist, you’re racist,” and theories about how we probably read that nasty Chrysanthemum and The Sword book and probably even believed some of it.

That would be fun, but we here at Colony Drop always place the reader’s entertainment above our own. Suffice to say, one can get their fill of overlong diatribes on Japanese corporatism—with much usage of adjectives such as “sclerotic” and “bureaucratic”—merely pick up any back issue of The Economist or The Wall Street Journal since 1991 and scan Die Wochenschau—err, I mean, their op-ed sections.

Design by committee. JManga’s idea of charging a premium for the niche-est of the niche is no surprise at all when observing the way Japanese cartoons are produced and marketed today. Many of the producers of anime have decided that the way to sell their product is to produce material custom-designed by study groups to appeal to highly defined core demographics who can be relied upon to purchase Blu-Ray Disc releases, and then proceed to charge an extreme premium for said discs because, shit, we’ve got to make the maximum amount of per-unit gross revenue here because no one else is going to pick up this dreck. And, besides, they’re nerds; they’ll shell out for it because they have to have it.

This model will not work for the small niche of English speakers who are followers of seinen, josei and other underrepresented manga genres in the American market. You will get a degree of subscribers and sales—hell, the limited edition Kara no Kyoukai BD box set, which was sold through online order-only for a ridiculous sum, sold out in the U.S.—but nowhere near the amount you could have netted with an approach that does not have the customer spending what amounts to full print-media retail price and a $10 Right-to-Read fee for a non-downloadable digital copy that could disappear tomorrow morning should this committee of learned elders of manga publishing decide that the business is untenable and to dissolve and leave JManga’s American staff high and dry.

Prove us wrong, JManga. We’re happy that you decided to follow us on Twitter and all that jazz. We want you to succeed, but like so many other Japanese adventures into the realms of selling to the “American otaku,” you seem as if you were designed to fail.

21 Comments

  1. On that same note, Mangafox is apparently sustainable through its ad revenue enough to be around this long. In a sense that it could totally pay the contributors (scanners) something. Course, not like their finances are public. But why isn’t this model somewhat viable? Or is it the same problem with Hulu and Youtube being popular but not profitable?

  2. A Youtube model sounds more promising and maybe profitable than what jmanga is offering. I bet the free scan sites generate tons more traffic than the ones offering their manga for a price. They could probably release chapters quicker than the “free” sites if they wanted to which gives them an advantage over the other sites, if they decided to work with a free scan model that is.

  3. @AsteriskCGY Youtube actually started being profitable a while ago. I’m not sure about Hulu, but I’d imagine it is, since it’s far more comprehensive in its approach to advertisement, doesn’t serve a bajillion non-partner (i.e. ad-free) videos, has a subscription service, and can’t be circumvented by means of AdBlock.

    Whatever happened to Akamatsu’s plans with J-Comi? I remember reading in one of his interviews that he planned on expanding J-Comi overseas by providing a kind of comment system that would allow for user-contributed translation and working with foreign advertisers, but I haven’t really heard about it since. For what it’s worth, J-Comi is managing to pay the bills and turn over some cash to the various publishers via an entirely ad-supported model, so that’s a legitimate model from a legitimate business, at least for super niche, out of print titles. It’s not just the Mangafoxes of the world that are making money this way.

  4. Excellent analysis, but you have a basic premise wrong ~ its 39 Japanese publishers on a site owned by one Japanese printer. The Americans are just hired hands to put the site together.

  5. BruceMcF:
    Thanks for the correction. I had a hell of a time trying to figure out just who the hell actually owns JManga as an entity.

    AsteriskCGY and Groove-A:
    I don’t think one necessarily has to go all-free to compete with the “free” of the Mangafoxes. The trick is having some sort of real Value Added factor attached to going with the legal route. Versatile support for mobile devices, bonus content, degree of dialog w/ creators, etc. JManga currently has none of these.

    Tallergeese:
    The big problem of a totally ad-supported model is finding willing advertisers and then convincing them that your online ad space is worth X amount of dollars. The metrics used to measure such value, referrals, pageviews, hits-per-____ etc. are still hazy and mostly Greek to your average marketing director. The streaming model for anime is having troubles in this regard, and shit, the average major newspaper can’t even convince clients that Web advertising is worth anything remotely close to print rates.

  6. @Mark:

    Great points–and a great article.

    I had heard about the JManga launch and the fanfare that went along with it, but….once again, it seems that what looks great at first glance turns out to be riddled with flaws when one gets closer.

    We’ll see how it all works out, I guess…

  7. Being either byzantine or expensive alone would be enough to sink JManga, but I can see with 39 publishers at stake they’ve agreed to leave nothing to chance.

  8. Yes, no matter the approach, there will always be piracy. Piracy groups will continue to exist because they have more time than money. The key is to monetize content for the mainstream consumer making it easier than torrent or screen capping.

    Correct — and that’s why JManga should offer their product in a form more accessible on a variety of devices than a clunky Flash-based reader designed for desktop computers! One which can’t be read at all on a certain extremely popular tablet device, at that.

    Also the bottled water metaphor is a stretch. People drink bottled water because of a general mistrust of local water supplies. Conversely reading manga online is the same exact experience whether it is delivered by pirate or corporation.

    That’s hardly the only reason people buy bottled water, you know. There’s another extremely obvious one — it’s more convenient!

    Releasing niche titles are not “chicken-or-egg” arguments, they are risk aversion judgments because publishers have to put up the investment capital. If a title fails, consumers risk nothing but publishers could face huge financial set-backs. In a media industry that measures success in the thousands, a couple of poor selling titles could put manga companies into a financial hole.

    So you agree that manga companies frequently decide not to release niche titles because there is no perceived audience for them? Would you argue that there is not a potential audience that would buy these niche titles who is not currently being served?

    Furthermore, anime companies are making “dreck” for hardcore adult otaku men because they’re customers. They actually shell out hard cash for product. Anime and manga companies aren’t created to provide free content for fans; they are trying to make a profit. Why should a company produce manga or anime for fans who would rather pirate than buy?

    Okay, this is like the fourth or fifth paragraph where your “counter-argument” to Mark’s article is to say, basically, exactly what he just said. It’s kind of frustrating, dude.

  9. James:
    I don’t think any of us would argue against broad cooperation and the establishment of a standard format. My concern is that that many hands in the pie are going to incapacitate JManga come the time for important decisions like implementing mobile apps and altering subscription terms in any way. Take Kodansha, Shogakukan and Kadokawa alone. These are not quaint, open-door, mom-and-pop enterprises. They are massive, serious presences in the world of Japanese publishing in direct competition with one another. A previous comment suggested the 39 participating publishers do not have direct say over the operation of JManga. For the site’s sake I hope this is the case, but if you believe that these corporations will set aside their egos and competitive nature for this project about comic books on the Internet–you’ll have to forgive me if I am a bit skeptical of such an outcome.

    Interviews with representatives of participating publishers have outright said that one of their goals is to grow the American fanbase for “niche” genres like josei and seinen. I admit here that my “chicken-or-egg” diatribe was a bit off-tangent, but I stand by my view that charging a premium for said niche titles when the costs of printing and freight are no factor is the wrong way to go about this objective.

    I’m not a market analyst by any stripe, but it seems to me that, in the United States at least, there is a “silent majority” for types of anime that do not fit into the hardcore otaku mold. The reason they are silent is because they themselves do not fit into the hardcore otaku mold; they don’t blog or tweet about anime (save perhaps tangentially) or even frequent their local anime clubs or conventions. Afro Samurai sold well in the United States, so did Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop, not your average hardcore otaku shows. Older examples include Ghost in the Shell and Akira, and even though it’s very easy to chalk up the large success of the latter to the marketing genius of Carl Macek, I see this as the sort of cop-out championed by those who have some sort of vested interest in wanting others to believe that this “dormant” market for the SF/Fantasy Adventure anime/manga does not exist.

    But wait, this post was about manga, wasn’t it?

  10. @ Mark
    >> real Value Added factor attached to going with the legal route

    Here’s a tantalizing example: “Free of Ishihara meddling!”

  11. I have to say, I’m shocked they didn’t just leave it at $10 a month subscriptions. Can they really be losing so much money this way when most seinen and josei comics are already one chapter a month? Heck you’d have to read at least 10 series are so constantly for that to be worth as much as a retail copy anyway. Considering that they have no costs in printing and transport and such, shouldn’t dropping some bizarre point system altogether just make way more sense?

  12. You know, the site’s only been there for a month…

    “As it stands JManga’s current terms of service are outdone even by Viz and Shogakukan’s own SigIkki website, which offers entire volumes of seinen titles at no cost for a promotional period before a tankubon is released in print.”

    SigIkki sells titles which *need* to get that kind of exposure, because even in Japan, they’re not hit titles.

    “We Don’t Buy Because They Don’t Make What We Like vs. We Don’t Make What You Like Because You Don’t Buy.”

    Well, in terms of the former group, it’s more like, “We Don’t Buy Because We Can Pirate It Or Read It In Bookstores For Free.” So, in that sense, good riddance to them. Because they’re the jerks who helped flood the market with godawful moe and harem crap with long-ass titles.

    “You will get a degree of subscribers and sales—hell, the limited edition Kara no Kyoukai BD box set, which was sold through online order-only for a ridiculous sum, sold out in the U.S.—”

    That’s pretty much everyone on AOD, though, and not the overall market. And I bet they’re kicking themselves knowing that Aniplex lied to them about it being the only official release of the title in the U.S.

    “Would you argue that there is not a potential audience that would buy these niche titles who is not currently being served?”

    Yes, and no. The potential audience might be there, but it’s still hit-and-miss. There are a lot of “mainstream” manga titles which have failed here, which should have been profitable.

  13. Their flash reader isn’t THAT bad. It’s certainly better than Viz’s sigikki one with their jpeg artifact-ridden pages.

  14. To be fair, Ikki doesn’t show me ads and doesn’t charge me anything (wait these guys don’t make any money do they). If the quality takes a hit, it’s still a much better deal than what Jmanga is offering.

  15. I am a person of loose ethical virtues as far as consuming media goes.

    However:
    1) I am lazier than I am poor.
    2) A lot of seinen is kind of hard to find.

    I can’t be the only potential customer like this ready for milking, so get crackin’, publishers.

  16. This is the most accurate, honest, and insightful article on jmanga’s launch that I’ve read.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head more times, I think, than you realize.

  17. Could someone explain the analogy with Die Wochenschau? What does Mark think of The Economist and the WSJ?

  18. @doctorx0079

    Well concerning WSJ, it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch (owner of News Corp -> Fox News) and Die Wochenschau meaning Nazi news propaganda(?), so I think he’s saying WSJ is tainted by the hands of Rupert Murdoch…yeah something like that.

  19. The Economist is not owned by Murdoch, so he’s really just saying that business is evil.

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