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.