Protesting government controls on “harmful” content, 10 major Japanese manga publishers announced their boycott of the 2011 International Anime Fair (IAF) and teamed with a number of anime studios to form a rival event, the Anime Contents Expo (ACE). Both events were canceled of the earthquake last March, but were scheduled again this year. The IAF closed this week and the first-ever ACE will run March 31-April 1, with advanced ticket sales over 50,000. The significant attention Japanese manga has won for its domestic plight inspired PT to take a look at the genre’s challenges abroad. That the biggest international threat is digital piracy shocks no one. The scale and efficiency of that piracy, however—and the recency of any strong proactive response from publishers—is worth talking about.
In many ways, manga’s digital revolution had its road-blocks in the making before it even got started. Digital piracy was seized on by manga’s young readership early on, but, according to Kurt Hassler, Publishing Director at Yen Press (Hachette’s manga imprint), it was around 2007 when digital piracy truly became a force for manga publishers to reckon with. Scanlation, where users of a website upload scans of original manga pages and translate the work using collective amateur language skills, is a particular driver of digital piracy, as it makes whole works available online without license or permission. One such site, OneManga.com, had a reported 1,074,790 different pages of illegally translated and distributed content at the beginning of 2011 and at that time was the 300th overall most popular website in the United States.
Hassler argues that rather than “pushing” manga publishing into the digital age, the genre’s robust digital piracy-base has retarded its progress. As if the challenges of image-rich content weren’t enough, Japanese publishers have feared that licensing digital editions internationally is as good as hanging out a “pirates welcome” Jolly Rodger. Consequently, digital rights have been all but impossible for US and other international publishers to negotiate.
Despite years of travail, some of the biggest developments for manga publishing have occurred in the past 12 months. Most wide-reaching was the demise of Borders Group, an account that comprised around 30% of manga’s (legal) US market-share (Kurt Hassler was, in fact, graphic novel-buyer at Borders for almost 8 years). And, in an action many said was effected by the Borders collapse, TokyoPop, one of the largest manga publishers in the country, closed down its US office in summer 2011.
Taking a more organized stance than they had previously, 38 Japanese manga publishers and a handful of US publishers, including VIZ Media, Vertical Inc, and Yen Press, formed The Manga Multi-National Anti-Piracy Coalition in 2010, but they didn’t issue their first official cease-and-desist orders to the 10 largest piracy websites until a couple of weeks ago. A different approach is Digital Manga Guild’s (DMG), a site which licenses manga rights from Japanese publishers, but then uses site visitors to form “teams” that develop a legal English-language edition. Some have criticized how little DMG’s “workforce” gets paid, and also whether the model will ever attract any truly major Japanese publishers. Since releasing its first title in August 2011, the company now has over 50 titles available, so the experiment continues, charges of exploitation and shoddy work aside.
The smorgasbord of color tablets available in the past few months has addressed many of the nuts-and-bolts issues standing between manga and a digital reading experience. Manga’s delayed digital revolution might just be getting underway. In February 2012, Yen Press began offering something that “not even the best pirate” (as asserted by Kurt Hassler) can: the first simultaneous-release digital manga, sending their digital rental subscribers the newest installment of the series Soul Eater Not! in English on the same day the original is released in Japan. As publishers finally implement an internationally organized defense, the struggle will be to keep up their offense by creating an environment that makes digital licensing look more inviting to international publishers—and less like walking the plank.