How English language manga is shifting toward a ‘graphic novel’-style market

One thing I’ve been pondering recently is the shifting state of the English language market – which right now, seems very much in a state of flux.

There are a number of key factors at work here – 1) The number of series being translated into English, 2) The average price of a typical volume of manga, 3) The formats – both physical and digital – that it is being released in.

In many ways, we are in a golden age of English language manga distribution – we are getting more and more series, sooner than ever before. The Weekly Shonen Jump digital edition is a masterclass in how to get things right – with a ridiculously cheap subscription fee, allowing fans to keep up to date with series day-and-date with their Japanese release (and in the original magazine-style compendium format of the original too)

And elsewhere, while Crunchyroll’s manga offering seems to baffle in the fact that it continues to update its existing series but not license any new ones – it remains one of the best places to quickly read through a number of big-name titles and get up to date on them; including standouts like Attack on Titan or Fairy Tail.

But what I mainly want to focus on here are individual volumes of manga – the stuff we see everywhere these days, whether it be a Forbidden Planet, or via an iPad or Kindle e-reader. In returning to those key three questions outlined above, I want to briefly elude to what I mean by a ‘Graphic Novel’-style market for manga.

The number of series being translated into English

Over the era of manga’s ‘rise’ to its current state – largely driven by first TokyoPop and then Viz Media (and more recently Kodansha) – the emphasis was on long-running series like Naruto, or countless other popular shonen/shojo titles that fans would eagerly collect volume-by-volume. The emphasis here was on cheap, affordable titles that could be quickly ploughed through, consuming the story as key point of value. In a pre-kindle era, buying the volumes was the only way to keep up (short of piracy or reading a Wiki).

But with many of the long-running shonen series now either ‘complete’ or approaching synchronicity with the Japanese releases, publishers are now targeting nicher markets. See Seven Seas cornering the market in monster girl manga, or the likes of Yen Press and Vertical mining the vaults to release lush new collected editions of Fruits Basket and Blame respectively.

It’s reasonable to say that ‘every’ taste is now catered for – but more significantly, by broadening this taste, the inherent by-product is that the market shifts toward a more ‘high-brow’ feel on the whole. Walk into a manga store five years ago and you’d be greeted by a wall of garish shonen jump spines – a wall of endless numbered volumes. Walk into a store now and it’s a panoply of colour and variety.

I feel the crucial factor here is one of taste – more and more, whether via podcasts or websites or the simple proliferation of the volumes themselves in shopfronts, there is a notion that the manga market is diversifying its taste (and by association, a perceived notion of ‘quality’), which dovetails nicely with the next point.

The average price of a typical volume of manga

But more recently, and I’d really just target this to the last few years or so – I think we’ve seen is a shift toward a market (related to what we’re seeing with collector’s editions in anime) where the prestige and quality of the ‘value’ of the physical edition begins to attain a value in its own right beyond the simple ‘story’ contained within. Physical editions of manga are becoming plusher and plusher – with price tags to match.

If you look at the Japanese version of Amazon and convert the Yen price into pounds – you’re typically looking at around £3 – £4 per volume. Ridiculously cheap, right? And while it’s to be expected that prices would rise in the conversion to English editions, once you factor in translation costs, graphic work, marketing etc. the simple truth is that here and now – in 2017, most English manga now cost anywhere between £6.99 and £10. Basically, more than double the Japanese price.

What this means is that you’re no longer buying a ‘manga’ – that portable, disposable medium of printed paper – you’re buying a ‘book’. A graphic novel. A thing designed to be kept. And this is reflected in the digital prices too – which are a veritable minefield in their own right.

While Shonen Jump titles typically remain at a sub-£5 cost per volume on Amazon (for the kindle edition), Kodansha seem to typically charge over £7 per digital volume. That’s right, £7 for typically under 200 pages of content. Bonkers.

And while we could sit here and argue about the state of the economy and the rising price of goods across the board, the simple truth is that the price manga is sold at arguably changes the perception and way people interact with it. And it is to this degree that we turn to the last (and in my eyes, most important point)

The formats – both physical and digital – that it is being released in

For me, this is the single biggest sea change affecting English language manga right now – and if one were to be cynical, it is even part of why prices are rising across the board. We talked a little earlier about a notion of rising taste / quality in the manga market – and I think central to this is the increasing introduction of prestige editions. A cursory look at Amazon’s most pre-ordered manga titles highlights titles like Vertical’s Blame edition, VIZ’s glossy new hardback Jojo’s edition, as well as their collected editions of Goodnight Pun Pun.

I think these three titles are standard-bearers for where the manga market seems to be going – titles that one could arguably say perhaps even ‘transcend’ the manga ‘ghetto’ and fit neatly into a wider graphic novel taste sphere. If you looked purely at the bright, ‘designed’ covers of the PunPun volumes – much like with Assassination Classroom, you might not even think they ‘were’ manga.

We’ve seen something similar happen with Tokyo Ghoul – arguably the single hottest manga in the English market right now. In the old TokyoPop / VIZ days, there’s no doubt Tokyo Ghoul would have been released just like Naruto and all the rest in a cheap tankobon style edition – but now, it forms part of the larger format VIZ ‘SIG’ (signature) edition (alongside other titles like Terraformars).

This larger format – while looking magnificent in your hands and on your shelf, arguably allows VIZ to jack up the price for what in the old days would have been sold far more cheaply. By adjusting the physical size and materials the volume is constructed from, the item is taken away from the petite, jacketed Japanese editions. This in itself doesn’t bother me – the English market has different tastes and norms after all. But more of question here is *what* exactly that change achieves in terms of long term market perception and trends. eg. In the future will *every* VIZ title become a VIZ ‘sig’ prestige edition because, hey, just because they can?

In Goodnight PunPun, Kuroko’s Basketball, Prison School and many other titles, we also now see an increasing trend of the ‘first’ English edition automatically being a bundled 2-in-1 edition. While this ostensibly saves money for the fan and allows the publishers to more quickly catch up on long-running / completed series, it again shifts the format toward a more ‘book’ like / graphic novel item – a hefty tome if ever you saw one.

It remains to be seen where exactly all this will head, and whether prices will continue to rise – but what I would like to at least suggest here is that the physical entity of manga itself (in English translation) has a profound effect on the market itself and the kind of perception and taste it entails. We saw this in the past as the market shifted from ‘flipped’ floppy singles to the accepted tankobon ports we all know and love.

Are we on the cusp of another long-term shift? One where a comic book store manga section will start to look more and more like its Western counterpart – choc full of collected ‘trade’ editions; weighty, hyper-glossy tomes far removed from the cheap, disposable volumes of old?

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