Japan’s manga industry faces great peril, with a significant drop in overall sales and a precipitous drop in sales for manga magazines suggesting that change may be required sooner rather than later if the industry is to arrest its decline.
Weekly Shonen jump is a case in point – Shueisha’s flagship magazine sold 6 million copies each week in 1995, which has more than halved to 2.8 million now. Analysis suggests much the same pattern across other magazines in the industry.
Below are the decline in 2009 sales versus those of a year earlier:
|Weekly Shonen Jump||2,807,000||0.7%|
|Weekly Shonen Magazine||1,633,000||-6.9%|
|Monthly Shonen Magazine||902,000||-4.7%|
|Weekly Shonen Sunday||765,000||11.7%|
|Weekly Young Magazine||838,000||-10.4%|
|Big Comic Original||785,000||-5.3%|
However, the traditional pattern in the manga industry is for the work to be developed and published in a magazine, and then for the real money to be made in publishing the manga in compiled volumes (“tankobon”).
Poor sales for magazines might be shrugged off, but even tankobon sales have been suffering, though not with the same substantial drop in circulation exhibited by manga magazines.
Below you can see magazine (red) vs tankobon (blue) sales, with volumes sold in units of 100 million above, and sales in units of 100 million yen below (approximately $1,000,000):
One industry researcher reports that “the industry is becoming polarised between the mass market and the otaku-centric,” a fair characterisation in the eyes of many.
Not all companies in the industry face such a bleak outlook however. Kadokawa has carefully cultivated niche audiences of otaku, enjoying huge success with a “character business” based approach, as opposed to pure publishing.
Their CEO certainly agrees, though he stresses that good characters only stem from quality works:
“As we were selling our magazines, so the characters began to sell as a result. But characters don’t take precedence. First the content of the work itself has to be good.”
Kadokawa seem to have taken this business model to its logical extreme in any case.
However, one major shortcoming with this entire viewpoint does become apparent – despite what major publishers would like to believe, Japan’s visual culture industry continues to evolve, and much activity now takes place outside the auspices of the traditional manga/anime combine.
Thus it seems possible that just as traditional CD-based music sales have suffered from the advent of the Internet, so has traditional manga begun to suffer from the rapid changes wrought upon the visual culture industry over the last decade, none of which offer any particular reason to continue buying thick volumes of manga every week.
The very notion that the health of a medium can be measured by the number of blockbusters it produces is itself increasingly obsolete – in music, books and other media, markets are increasingly centred on the so-called “long tail,” with modern distribution allowing vast numbers of niche titles to be economically supported where before only a few very popular titles could ever find commercial success.
Having low or high sales is thus not a measure of how “good” a title is, but instead merely reflects the size of the particular niche a product serves.
Most people have probably lamented their favourite work not appearing in some sales chart, instead marvelling at how bad the top-sellers can be – the future of content industries are increasingly seen to be many of these relatively obscure titles appealing to obscure fanbases, rather than a few hugely popular franchises winning all.
Of course, mass appeal still seems essential in actually developing the market into something which can be differentiated, and the lack of recent franchises with truly broad appeal is a matter of concern.
Just how the production and distribution of anime, manga and games ultimately copes with the erosion of the mass-market blockbuster in favour of a hundred niche titles remains to be seen…