One column that I follow from time to time is the Hey Answerman! column at Anime News Network. It’s generally interesting and as close as one could get to a miscellany of current thought on anime and manga in the US.
The current question of the week being discussed is this:
In the past few years, what do you think is the biggest mistake the [North American] anime industry has made?
Obviously, this is very topical in the current economic climate among anime and manga licensers and publishers. Tokyopop continues to hang on after a drastic restructuring and cost-cutting initiative, which unfortunately leaves a lot of licenses and extremely talented creators hung out to dry, so to speak. A.D. Vision, the publisher of such lucrative anime titles as Neon Genesis Evangelion and the Rurouni Kenshin (a.k.a. Samurai X) OVAs, as well as manga titles like Azumanga Daioh, Gunslinger Girl and Cromartie High School, may wind up out of business by the end of the year: their print publishing division appears to be indefinitely suspended, they’ve had two failed magazine projects in the past year, and their anime licenses are being resold gradually to Funimation.
In terms of manga publishing, which is my primary interest here, the market for licensed titles in the US is consolidating away from smaller operations and new start-ups into large media-conglomeration publishers, specificically:
- Viz, formerly an independent who partnered in the 1980s with publishers like Eclipse, is a full American subsidiary of Japanese mega-publishers Shogakukan and Shueisha, possibly Japan’s largest overall publisher of manga. Viz continues to control the anime market with repeated high-profile successes (Dragon Ball Z, Inuyasha, Naruto, Bleach, Death Note), has very deep pockets and endless access to licenses through its’ parent corporation.
- Del Rey Manga, a surprise success story, Del Rey is Random House’s science fiction and fantasy imprint. Del Rey played the conservative tortoise in the tortoise-and-hare race of manga publishing and won. Their publishing efforts are built on a backbone of perhaps four or five ongoing titles, and their overall count of licenses is probably dwarfed by any of the other publishers so far, but it helps that two of their successful licenses are from CLAMP (Tsubasa, and XXX-Holic) and one by Ken Akamatsu (Negima).
- Yen Press, a company that not many have heard of, is definitely one to watch. As ICEkunion, they published rather banal-looking manhwa, but they’ve been consolidated into Yen Press, which is a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group. Hachette was, until the past couple of years, the major publishing division of Warner Bros., but have since gone independent, taking authors like James Patterson, John Grisham [My mistake–Grisham publishes through Dell], Dean Koontz and others along with them. They’re just starting a new manga magazine to rival Shonen Jump, Yen Plus. Some of their original publications include manga adaptations of Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz and Maximum Ride by James Patterson. [Editorial note: See below regarding my corrections here.]
At any rate, part of the reason I’m interested in this Answerman article is what one of the respondents said to the above question:
In addition to my love for anime, I’m also a lifelong science fiction fan, so to resolve the current issues in the R1 industry I’ll employ one of my favorite s.f. staples; the time machine. First, I’d travel back about nine years, right as studios were beginning to gorge themselves with licenses in anticipation of the likes of Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon igniting a nationwide anime craze. After providing proof of my identity, and in violation of any number of temporal protocols, I would hand over evidence to the heads of ADV, Pioneer, and other studios that this road of rabid expansion would eventually lead to their ruin, and that they must find and destroy the future creators of “Youtube.” Thus, instead of licensing every title in sight, they would conservatively track, through surveys and Japanese ratings, which shows would yield the most profit. I would also appear to the heads of companies like Tokyopop (or Mixx, back then?) and demonstrate that they also need to exercise restraint when licensing, and that trying to farm domestic talent would render naught but barren coffers. After forcing a pinky swear that they would only troll for hits and leave any would-be American Toriyamas flapping in the wind, I would return to the future, confident in my salvation of domestic anime for everyone.
Part of this is true, undoubtedly many of the companies producing manga produced titles in a spaghetti-on-a-wall fashion, in the hopes that if enough material were released at one time, the accumulated sales data would be enough to pinpoint hits to fall behind. Alas, in Tokyopop’s case, they were never able to re-create the voracious sellers that they had with titles like Chobits, Love Hina and Fruits Basket, and of those, only the last is continuing to release new volumes. But, serious data of this sort can be hard to get. Hardcore fans don’t watch anime or read manga for all of the same reasons as casual fans, and obviously it’s never been an easy task to pick what could be a runaway bestseller instead of a flop.
Could Tokyopop have exercised more restraint in licensing? Of course, but it’s easy to forget that the manga “boom” lasted about six years–from the 2002 release of the first wave of Tokyopop’s “100% Authentic Manga” format, to the 2008 corporate restructuring. Six years is a long time in the publishing business–certainly long enough to know that this was more than just a fad, but a very significant trend. Even with the recent downturn, there’s no reason to suggest that the actual popularity of anime or manga is less than it once was. Simply put, it’s not correlating to dollars and cents, where it counts.
Perhaps what Tokyopop should have forseen is the inevitable difficulty to keep up the incredibly high standards that readers in the early manga boom had accommodated themselves to. In the beginning of the manga boom, publishers had the ability to cherry pick the best possible licenses of the past twenty or thirty years of manga publishing. Naturally, the industry offered wall-to-wall blockbuster titles at first, apparently without much concern that there would be a time when immediate blockbusters wouldn’t be as available as licenses. Obviously this means a lowering of expectations–more redundant and less compelling work has increasingly filled the void between the blockbusters.
Where I part ways with a lot of hardcore manga fans is the perception of Original English Language (OEL) manga, work created specifically for the English-language book market by Western creators. As the above excerpt illustrates, hardcore American manga fans have always largely resented OEL manga, for no justifiable reasons. Too many manga readers would treat some amazing books, such as Steady Beat, East Coast Rising, Off*Beat and Dramacon with outright contempt, while at the same time opting for an increasingly pedantic selection of Japanese manga.
The contempt that hardcore otaku have for OEL is yet another instance of the serious end of this fandom wanting what is clearly against even their own self-interest. As Japanese licenses become less reliable, the rise of OEL becomes more and more inevitable, particularly considering the quality of most OEL works. Resistance to change is detrimental, and these fans missed out on a lot of amazing work at the expense of unrealistic and ridiculous standards of “Japanese-ness.” Perhaps someday publishers can reconcile their own interests with those of the serious otaku fanbase, but I don’t think it’ll be as likely until the manga readership has reduced itself to only the more enlightened and open-minded readers.
Editorial note: Perhaps I should do more fact-checking before I post? Either that or stop posting single-draft blogs very, very late at night. As noted above, John Grisham isn’t published by Hachette, and neither is Dean Koontz. Del Rey is in fact the pubisher of In Odd We Trust, and of course more information can be had about the book here. I didn’t get to put together my thoughts about how manga-format licensed works seem to be a good new solution for OEL, check for that soon. Thanks, Queenie Chan!