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The Potential of JManga

by on September 2, 2011

By any standard, this has been a tough year for the manga industry.
Sales are dramatically down compared to the heights reached a few years
ago, Tokyopop went out of business and left a myriad of titles out of
print, and the immenent closure of the Borders bookstore chain
eliminates a major source of business and,makes it that much more
difficult for consumers to be exposed to the would-be hits of tomorrow.
Meanwhile, manga is faced by the same challenges facing print media in
general and certainly U.S. comics. Print sales are down, digital content
is on the rise, and the industry is now challenged to reach a fresh
audience and to turn a profit accommodating a growing market that’s
hungry for prompt and comprehensive access at a bargain price. And of
course there’s that proverbial elephant in the room, the reality of
secondhand scanlations and piracy that has only recently begun to be
subverted at last.

Viz Media has been leading the way in North America with a superb
service that works on mobile devices and even lets manga be read on a
PC, and smaller publishers have established themselves in the digital
realm also. Enter JManga.com, the response of the Japanese manga
industry to the changing times that was being hyped at San Diego Comic
Con. It launched on August 17th aspiring to be a hub of digital delivery
for manga from Japan to the rest of the world, and with 39 publishers
on board it has all the theoretical resources necessary to achieve that
goal. Even the big players in the land of the rising sun are in; we’re
talking Kodansha, Kadokawa Shoten, Shueisha, and Futabasha. By any
standard, JManga represents an extremely impressive collaboration on the
part of the manga industry. But putting basic facts and hopes and
good-sounding concepts aside, relevant questions pose themselves: is it a
worthwhile service for we consumers, and can the site’s potential be

For starters, the JManga website does work as a
no-nonsense hub for delivering comics. For now JManga is limited to a
flash-based online reader for North America, the good news being that
there is clear intent to expand to mobile devices and, eventually, the
international market. The reader is surprisingly efficient and
user-friendly. Images are high-resolution and easy to see, and the
minimal load time means that it the time it takes you to read a chapter
is only determined by how quickly you can read. Pages can be turned with
a simple click or via a mouse wheel; a simple control panel on the
bottom right allows the user to zoom in or out and toggle viewing
options. You could read a page at a time, a two-page spread, or take a
guided view option, and you can go full-screen. There’s even an option
to switch between languages, although for now translations are solely in
English and the Japanese language is either not an implemented feature
yet or is only present on a case-by-case basis. So far as presentation
goes, the service is fabulous.

What kind of content is
being delivered so well? Take your pick; the good news about JManga’s
content is that it is very broad and diverse. At the time of this
writing 196 different titles are listed, and the selection is well
beyond what’s already popular in the U.S. The likes of Naruto and
Vampire Knight are joined by dramas, mystery stories, horror manga, all
sorts of genres and topics that could suit just about anyone’s
particular taste. Dozens of them have never been released in English
before or had their publishing run cut short, and manga aficionados have
taken particular pleasure in the presence of many works by Golgo 13
creator Takao Saito. For the curious and open-minded, there is also a
free weekly “magazine” that offers a free look at three different manga
with each regular update. To listen to the Comic Con hype the selection
will be increasing dramatically in the months to come, so there is a
great opportunity here to read a whole lot of manga that has not and may
never be touched by a traditional English publisher. On the downside
some titles are listed on the website but have no content available just
yet, and right now nothing has more than a single volume or a few
chapters available. So while a reader can almost certainly find a comic
he or she will like on JManga, there’s an indefinite wait for the chance
to get deeper into the story. Curiously enough, this is even true for
titles that are or were already published in English.

A related trouble to the issue of access is price and the way interested
readers have to shop at JManga right now. JManga operates on a point
system, wherein readers spend money to get points to spend on volumes or
individual chapters. For U.S. customers $1 buys 100 points and volumes
tend to cost $8 and up, generally less money than what a physical book
would cost but also more than what would buy from something like Viz’s
mobile app. Prices vary depending on what the Japanese publisher of the manga wants to charge. As a counterpoint to the relatively high price, right now it’s mostly or entirely
undistributed manga for sale, so a customer is paying for the right to
read something that simply wouldn’t be available otherwise. The point
system also makes sense for a service intending to go global.
Unfortunately, JManga’s also overly reliant on a needless subscription
system. For $10 a month you get 1,000 points to spend each month, enough
for a full volume usually (a $25 option is coming soon). Subscribers
also get more previews of manga than a free subscriber does. The trouble
is that the ability to purchase points is tied to the subscription,
which is a needless hoop to jump through. Why ask customers to spend money for a privilege to spend money? If a reader wants to come to JManga for a select few titles, will that person find it appealing to accumulate points and spend money unnecessarily while he or she waits for periodic additions? Point purchasing is limited to 500 or 1000 or 2500 points also, which is a bit awkward for someone who wants to drop $100 on manga or buy a volume that happens to cost 1,198 points. A pay-as-you-go model that allows a reader to buy any amount of points would be simple, consumer-friendly innovation that allows a reader to consume manga the way one should: on his or her own terms.

In sum, the answer to my aforementioned questions are “yes” with significant caveats attached. Right now the service is worth it, so long as you are a reader with a healthy interest in trying new things. But if you want to collect an entire manga, JManga isn’t what you’re looking for just yet; the foundations of a vast library are all that is built right now. Can it realize its potential? Frankly, I think that in the long run JManga has won half the battle just by showing up. Even if JManga is too late to be the go-to source for a title like One Piece or Vampire Knight, the greatest hope that it presents for the future is that it can introduce the hot titles of tomorrow to a global audience in an effective, legal and hopefully profitable way. So long as there’s a commitment to the future of manga as well as the past and present, the manga industry can foster demand for its product rather than belatedly responding to it. That is the most compelling way JManga can be a game changer.

For now, JManga has launched as a work in progress. Technically it is
still in beta, the site has been vocal about its desire for user
feedback so it can adjust to suit demand, and Deb Aoki’s fantastic Comic Con reporting aptly sums up as-yet unrealized ambitions and unanswered questions. To what extent will JManga crossover with the English manga industry in the U.S.? When will mobile support arrive? How far will its global reach truly go? Will they indeed pull off collaboration with third-party translators? Is it an achievable goal to translate and sell recently-published chapters of popular manga eventually? How efficiently can it develop a catalog of manga as deep as it is diverse and thereby build a reader’s incentive to buy? How well will it adjust to reader feedback? All this and more is to be determined.

In sum, JManga has successfully established that it’s an admirable
experiment. Now it needs to establish that it is a great business. The sooner
it does, the better that will be for everyone with an interest in manga.

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