Comic-Con@Home 2021 – Manga Publishing Industry Roundtable – Notes!

Credit: Peggy Sue Wood | @pswediting

About the Event

Date: 25 July 2021 | Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkcbcyjYEHg&ab_channel=Comic-ConInternational

Panel Description: Manga sales are now at record highs, but while demand is up, unprecedented supply chain shortages mean that popular titles are frequently out of stock. With these mixed blessings, what’s next for manga? Find out what’s going from the perspective of top publishing pros, including Kevin Hamric (vice president – marketing sales, VIZ Media), Mark de Vera (sales and marketing director, Yen Press), Leyla Aker (director, publisher services, Penguin Random House), Ed Chavez (publisher, Denpa Books), and Ivan Salazar (senior marketing director, Kodansha USA). Moderated by Deb Aoki (Publishers Weekly, Mangasplaining).

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Notes

As a reminder, these are not exact quotes from the speakers. I’ve done my best to match what they’ve said with some verbatim statements, but also summarization. I highly encourage those interested to watch the entire panel linked above. I took notes on what I felt was beneficial, but there was a lot more in this panel than the notes taken below. The panelists told stories from their careers so far, gave fantastic examples of different titles, and so much more. Their insight and information help inform on the culture and business behind publishing manga… with that in mind, let’s jump in!

Aoki: What goes into your decision-making process when you choose new titles to pick up? Obviously, what we get here in North America is the tippy-tip-top of the iceberg of what’s available in Japan, both on back-list and current titles. 

Akler: Every publisher will have different considerations when they are evaluating what they want to pick up. What might work for SQUARE ENIX is not the same thing that’s going to work for VIZ, which is not the same thing that is going to work for DEMPA, which is not the same thing that is going to work for XYZ. There is still very much an issue of imprint and publisher identity when publishing books because we all have our specializations. This is concentrated in Shounen (still one of the top-selling genres across the board), KADOKAWA, and, therefore, Yen Press, which is heavily concentrated in Isekai and light novel tie-ins right now. Kodansha kind of covers the waterfront as they do just about any genre at present. Ed Chavez at DENPA has more of an artistic and independent sensibility in what he’s picking up, while SQUARE ENIX is a little bit more on the video game tie-ins and more on the commercial end of things. So the identity of the imprints and what your publishing is informed by that decision. 

Akler cont.: Secondarily, as publishers, we’re looking at what will succeed in the market. And, I think that from the fan perspective, the whole thing is very opaque and mysterious. Why won’t a publisher pick up a title? It could be several things. Maybe the publisher doesn’t think it will work in the market here, maybe the sensibilities of the Japanese audience are not the same as the sensibilities of the North American audience, maybe it doesn’t fit the imprint’s identity, etc. Finally, there’s a certain kind of material that is more suitable for certain markets. The issue with which manga makes the evaluation is a little bit more complicated. If you’re a regular trade book publisher and a book doesn’t work, it’s one and done. Like, ‘okay, that title didn’t work. We move onto the next one.’ However, if you are a manga publisher, depending on the length of that series, you are locked in. So if a series doesn’t work, it’s not simply that a book doesn’t work. It means that book is not going to work possibly the next 64 times you come out with a volume under the title, and that is an incredible financial burden for any list to bear. Those aren’t the only reasons. As mentioned, there’s a lot of considerations put into picking titles, and it just varies with every single publisher. 

[All the panelists agreed.]

Salazar added that sometimes those series you’re looking for are coming; they’re just further down the list, so no announcements have been made yet. Not always, but sometimes.

Vera added: [For] What goes into deciding what manga companies like ours (Yen Press) to acquire, I’m going to quote a wise mentor figure of mine’s saying: ‘Can I sell it?’ That’s kind of the essential question that’s asked when considering what manga books get brought over/what books to acquire, and there are two ways to look at that sentiment of ‘Can I sell it?’–The first is when, you know, when one hears that they may think, ‘oh, you’re looking out for those obvious anime hits and tie-ins’ and, yes, of course, those are things that are looked out for as that does increase the likeliness of a title series being acquired. But, in my time in the industry, I’ve been most satisfied by the other half of ‘Can I sell it?’ and that’s when gambles have been taken, which is why I am really happy to work for a company like Yen Press. Yen Press is a company that historically has shown itself to be the kind of business that’s taken gambles such as light novels, which once upon a time was looked at as not a viable category when it was given a try before. Then we give it the full Yen Press treatment, and now it’s doing amazing for us. This year we’re the first to publish Korean webcomics in a pretty significant manner, such as Solo Leveling.

Vera cont.: Solo Leveling took off as one of the best selling graphic novel series of the year, so it may seem like an obvious choice now, but there is definitely an element of risk-taking that went into it. In my time in the industry, whether it’s the examples laid out here or in other cases I’ve come across, I’d say that I’ve been, personally, most satisfied at the time where the companies I’ve worked for took risks on titles, on series, and on categories, that might not have seemed like obvious bestsellers in the market. But, we believed that there were fans for it, we believed that there were markets that we could sell to, and it did well. It’s a combination of going for the obvious choices and also gambling for those that might be less obvious.

Aoki: Building on that question, let me ask: can you maybe name some titles that’s on your list or that you consider to be something that’s maybe a little outside of your comfort zone, but that people should take a chance on? Or, is there a category of books that you’ve started to publish that are kind of like, ‘Wow! I couldn’t have done this five years ago.’

Vera: There are lots of smaller genres that have always had an audience but have been hard to bring out. BoysLove, for example, has really expanded in the last few years in the English market and even classic series (like the re-release of Fruits Basket) are getting bought out. 

Vera cont.: All the panelists agree that the rise in BL/Yaoi sales have gone through the roof. Maybe this is because of more want for representation–who knows? But it’s a really expansive introduction into the market that is very popular right now. 

Chavez: Josei titles are still difficult to sell right now. (Josei manga are Japanese comics catered specifically to women’s interests, and marketed towards older teenage girls and adult women demographics.) Not sure why they’re hard to sell, but we’ll keep trying as it’s a section I believe has potential.

Aoki: How is piracy impacting sales and titles? Piracy along with fan-scanlations was something I’ve heard a lot about previously but have not heard as much in recent years. Is it still heavily influencing your business or …?

Chavez: Piracy is still out there, of course. I feel where it hurts the most is when publishers are already working on the title for publication and then fan-scanlations start coming out. We, as publishers, don’t like to break the perception of what a marginal title could be, which is not helped when–about half-way down the line–we see a slow down of purchases, and see that people are ripping off ebooks and posting them to websites. 

Vera: Does it affect acquisition decisions and sales? It does not generally affect acquisition decisions as typically pirated titles are things already popular, so being afraid of that is not really a thing. It would be foolish to say it does not affect sales, but we’re also in an unprecedented time where we cannot keep certain titles in stock because so many people are buying them. Here’s the thing, though–it’s just not a good thing to do (to an artist or for yourself or the publisher) because it affects the business overall. 

Aoki: Where do you see the business of publishing manga going in five years? 

Hamric: The business goes in peaks and valleys for the book business in general. Where I see manga and the industry right now is a peak and we’re in a time, potentially, of something historical happening. We may see anime and manga go from the pop culture side of things into the mass-culture side of things like we see in Japan. Never before has things like manga, anime, and stuff like science fiction been as popular as it is now. For whatever reason that is, whether its Marvel or DC or Big Bang Theory–the people our age are passing things down and it’s growing in a way that is exciting. I think, in the next 5 years, it will settle into the mass-culture like we see in Japan currently. The last boom and bust is not something I see repeating. 

Aker: I don’t see the last boom and bust from the 2009/2010 period happening again in the next five years. The circumstances seem fundamentally different from back then. You know, back then, almost 50% of all manga sales came from BORDERS which has since shut down (right around the same time as the bust). BORDERS, Waldorf books, and B. Daltons comprised the majority of sales for manga titles then and the economic crash of that 2009 period took them out. So unless places like Amazon go belly-up, the distribution and sales is probably not going to walk back. Culture, too, does not seem like it’s going to take a step back. 

Chavez: From a pessimistic perspective, anything could happen so while I hope there isn’t a bust–if there is one, it would not be unheard of. I hope it doesn’t happen, but there probably will be a dip at some point. So, I hope we get to keep expanding with better outreach and distribution. 

Vera: One of the biggest readerships in comics is on the digital platforms–something Korea has really done well and is popular here so I think a turn towards the digital will be booming as platforms for manga and other comics. I feel like we will see a continued growth in legitimate consumption of the medium rather than continuing with piracy. (As a note here, when legitimate means come out at affordable rates, piracy tends to drops significantly, so with continued growth of the industry this is reasonable prediction.)

*As a final note, in reviewing this post before scheduling it, Salazar’s addition to the conversation seemed missing and I wished to address this. Salazar added a lot more to this panel through case examples. I didn’t feel like taking notes as he often was expanding on someone else’s point rather than making new ones, as well as listing titles, BUT that does not mean that his inclusion and contribution should not be recognized. I, once again, highly encourage those interested to watch this panel fully to get a better grasp on the information within. 

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