As other people on this roundtable have pointed out, we’ve been using “arty manga” as a catchall term for a variety of niche manga with potential appeal to older readers: genuine alternative and underground manga (gekiga, the work of Junko Mizuno), offbeat manga similar in content to American indie comics (Viz’s SigIkki line, pretty much everything Fanfare/Ponent Mon puts out), mainstream manga aimed at adults (Ooku, A Drifting Life, Oishinbo), and basically any manga published before 1980. In Japan, a manga’s publishing category is usually determined by the venue where it first appeared, whether a mainstream magazine like Shonen Sunday, an edgier but still basically mainstream magazine like Ikki, an indie publication like Comic Beam, AX or the defunct Garo, or a totally alternative venue like self-published doujinshi or CD liner notes. This system is problematic in its own way (Comic Beam‘s “alternative” lineup runs the gamut from underground trip-outs like Junko Mizuno’s Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu to the mainstream-friendly Victorian maid romance Emma), but it does keep things simple.
In the U.S., the established categories are less clear. Jason Thompson has pointed out that, in terms of popularity and sales, manga in America can be divided into Naruto and everything else. Aren’t most comics “alternative” to most of America? So what the hell. For the purposes of this post, the manga under discussion are Awesome Manga, all the titles that are too smart, too weird and/or too old for the established comics audience.
They’re hard to sell. For years, it’s been a truism in manga publishing that alternative, adult and classic manga have to clear nigh-insurmountable odds to find an audience. Personally, I knew it was going to be an uphill climb when, in 2004, I heard the shojo manga Boys over Flowers, originally published from 1992-2003, dismissed by manga fans as “too old.” Most manga fans are lukewarm toward alternative or classic comics, and most fans of alternative and classic comics actively hate manga. This is slowly changing as manga permeates the larger comics culture and the manga audience ages, but we have yet to reach a tipping point where autobio manga or Black Jack reprints can reach American shores with expectations of a built-in audience. It still takes a ton of effort to get people to read awesome manga, and often you have to go outside the usual manga/comics venues to do it.
Many of the previous posters have suggested ways to market these titles. Based on my ten years of experience working for manga publishers, talking to people at manga publishers, and generally obsessing over manga publishing, here’s my take:
1. Selling outside the established comics readership. A great strategy if you’ve got a title that can sell that way. If you have the only comic in a non-comics section of the bookstore, you’re golden. Viz has been successful in getting Oishinbo stocked in cooking and food sections of bookstores, and even in cooking specialty stores, where it stands out. It helps that, for bookstores, Oishinbo has an easily grasped high-concept pitch: it’s the manga about food. Obviously it belongs in the food aisle! It may be harder to get, say, Ooku shelved in historical fiction, sci-fi or romance, even though it fits all these categories. But nonfiction manga–history, autobiography, instruction–can often escape the comics ghetto.
This is, of course, the same strategy followed by American alternative and small-press comics. Titles like American Born Chinese and Fun Home attracted only lukewarm interest in “mainstream” comics fandom at the same time they were making bestseller lists in the book market. Every alt-publisher dreams of making this strategy work.
2. Selling to libraries. At this point in the manga game, this is a no-brainer. Manga loves libraries and libraries love manga. Librarians tend to do a fair amount of research before purchasing new manga, so you can sell them with a more detailed pitch that explains the work’s artistic/literary/historical value. As far as I can tell, Tezuka’s Buddha has been the champ in this category. It’s got a double-barrelled claim to legitimacy: a work by the undisputed master of manga covering a Serious Historical Subject. (If you actually read Buddha, you’ll find that it’s more of an action-and-comedy-packed Classics for Children take than a reverent history, but whatevs.) In the dawn times of the manga business, Tezuka’s Adolf sold well to libraries for the same reason. Hitler equals Serious Literature.
The challenge, for titles that aren’t Buddha or Adolf, is convincing libraries that a manga they probably haven’t heard of, by a creator they probably haven’t heard of, covering an esoteric subject that may or may not be of interest to their patrons, is a must-buy because it’s awesome. At this point, most librarians have heard of Tezuka, but they may not be familiar with the Year 24 Group or care about its role in shaping shojo manga. They may not have heard the term gekiga. They may not see the literary value in a pulpy horror manga like The Drifting Classroom or Cat-Eyed Boy. And manga with graphic adult material is going to get them into trouble with parents no matter how carefully they shelve and label it, so they need to be convinced that it’s pretty damn great. That said, libraries are a manga publisher’s best friends, especially for titles with value beyond their immediate mainstream appeal.
3. Sweet book design. Again, a no-brainer at this point. Give manga publishers credit for picking up on Vertical’s initiative and putting a lot more effort into the design and presentation of awesome manga. Even Viz, which for years was reluctant to deviate from the 5 x 7.5″ glossy standard, has been publishing its Signature and SigIkki books in eye-catching outsize editions with matte covers, gatefold flaps and interior color pages. Fantagraphics’ cover for A Drunken Dream suggests that their new manga line will be a good-looking one, although the logo for the imprint is kind of spidery and weird.
Does good book design sell more copies? In some cases, yes. Chip Kidd’s line-up-the-spines design for Buddha makes the series look like a must-have, as does Drawn & Quarterly’s intimidating doorstop presentation of A Drifting Life. In other cases, not necessarily. In addition to Buddha, Chip Kidd designed Vertical’s editions of To Terra and Andromeda Stories, the only works by major shojo pioneer Keiko Takemiya available in English. Have you bought To Terra and Andromeda Stories? Didn’t think so.
4. The Internet. Putting awesome manga online for free browsing seems like a great strategy. After all, scanlators are always going on about how their piracy does the industry a favor by introducing readers to new titles, so why not use that power for good by introducing people to Moto Hagio and Yoshihiro Tatsumi rather than the latest borderline-pedo-porn strip out of Dengenki Daioh? Home-grown American webcomics survive, and even thrive, by building an audience online for material that might have trouble finding fans in print. Can you imagine a print publisher even touching the stick-figure math-nerd strip xkcd, much less figuring out a way to market it? So here’s the plan, presented Internet-meme style:
1.Put awesome manga online.
2. Build a fanbase and get the attention of critics.
3. Publish the manga in print.
That’s the logic behind sites like SigIkki.com, Viz’s online alt-comics initiative. The site does just about everything right. Rather than offering stingy samples, Viz posts entire volumes online. The lineup (all manga originally serialized in Ikki magazine) is solid but eclectic, including the haunting aquatic fantasy Children of the Sea, the quirky-cute sci-fi drama Saturn Apartments, brilliant up-and-comer Natsume Ono’s not simple and House of Five Leaves, edgy but accessible genre series like Afterschool Charisma and Bokurano: Ours, and out-of-left-field weirdness like Tokyo Flowchart and Bob and His Funky Crew. The site’s e-reader is excellent, a cut above the clumsy, slow-loading readers most publishers offer.
Are there things publishers like Viz could do better as they move online? Probably. My own feeling is that the Viz sites need more non-manga content: blogs, forums, exclusive material, anything that contributes a sense of community. That’s how all successful webcomics work. Hell, go to the frontpage for Penny Arcade, the biggest webcomic in the world, and you don’t even see the comic, just the creators’ blog posts about the gaming industry. (And a ton of ads, of course.) Scanlation sites have already achieved this; a big part of the appeal of the scanlation community is the sense of being part of an exclusive inner circle of alpha fans. For a lot of oft-downloaded titles (I’m looking at you, Weiss Kreuz), the manga itself is much less of a draw than the vibrant fan community that’s formed around it like an oyster pearl.
A wise cartoonist once gave me some advice for making a living from webcomics. He told me that online fandom revolves around stealing stuff, so the only way to survive is to build a cult of personality around yourself to the point that your fans feel bad about stealing from you. With manga, that’s hard to accomplish, because communication between creators and fans is severely limited–by language, by distance, and by the fact that these people are insanely busy drawing manga all day. Maybe the solution is to develop the publisher itself as a personality, Mighty Marvel style. The company that became Tokyopop started out this way; anyone else remember the funky editorials of DJ Milky in MixxZine? Not exactly the way we want the industry to go, but maybe the basic concept could be done more honestly and effectively online.
I guess I’m supposed to devote a paragraph here to talking about iPads, e-readers, smart phones, etc., but they’re going to be completely interchangeable with computers within a few years. Assume that everything I’ve said about websites applies to apps.
5. Things that don’t make a difference in sales. Flipping or unflipping. I honestly don’t think enough people care one way or another to make a noticeable dent in sales. Someone who says, “I can’t read right-to-left because it’s all foreign and hard,” or, “I can’t read left-to-right because it destroys the glorious purity of the manga-ka’s authentic Japanese vision OH GOD THEY PROBABLY DROPPED THE HONORIFICS TOO” wasn’t going to buy the damn book anyway. In the balance, it’s better to publish manga unflipped because it’s cheaper.
Getting celebrity blurbs. It’s really cool when famous people, or semi-famous people I admire a lot, share a fondness for my favorite manga. If such a person is willing to provide a blurb, the publisher should by all means go for it. But I’m not convinced that Junot Diaz’s recommendation of Monster did anything to spike sales. And he made that recommendation in Time magazine, the biggest mass-media platform you could hope to reach. Again, it’s cool when it happens, but I don’t know if celebrity endorsements do anything for sales–unless it’s someone who’s Internet famous, with the aforementioned cult of personality, and orders their minions to buy the book. Junot Diaz? He’s just another bestselling novelist with a Pulitzer. When Joss Whedon or the guy who played Wesley Crusher plugs Monster, maybe Viz will start raking in the benjamins.
Oprah would be good too. Somebody publish a manga version of The Secret. Only awesome.
Update by Noah: The whole Komikusu roundtable is here.