As a longtime manga fan, I’m thrilled to see the industry rebounding the past couple years. You see, I remember how TOKYOPOP’s 100% Authentic Manga line revolutionized the English-language industry. Volumes and volumes of manga lined the shelves of a dedicated section in Borders. A previously untapped audience of female readers were targeted by a multitude of shoujo titles ranging from Fruits Basket to Mars. This led to a subsequent boom and exponential expansion that, looking back, was unsustainable.
The inevitable crash in the late 2000s led to some dark times. Industry professionals lost their jobs. Companies closed their doors. Manga licenses went into limbo—many of which are still there even today. So seeing a recovering manga industry is heartening. Earlier this year, Barnes & Noble announced they were expanding their graphic novel section due to strong manga sales. Companies are more willing to take licensing risks such as adapting sports series. This growth may not be receiving the same coverage as the first iteration in the early 2000s, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
Despite the good news, there’s an elephant in the room that remains unaddressed: scanlations.
Briefly, scanlations are unlicensed fan translations of non-English comics, the majority of which are manga. While many scanlations are of manga that remain unlicensed in North America (and therefore, unavailable to purchase), a substantial amount are for titles that are. That’s where the problem lies.
While scanlations were once only available via underground file-sharing sites and forums, today we have a proliferation of online site aggregators, making them easily discoverable to anyone who knows how to Google. As a result, they end up directly competing with official licenses. To further complicate matters, it can be very difficult to take down scanlations because these aggregation sites have servers hosted outside the U.S.
For those old enough to remember, it’s similar to the situation the music industry faced with Napster in the late 1990s. Like the music industry, manga companies have lagged in adapting to changing technologies. Today’s reality is that a reader can buy a manga anthology magazine in Japan, scan the latest chapter of a popular series, and then upload it to the internet, making it available to North American fans the very same day. That is the kind of speed and availability that companies are facing and must find ways to circumvent.
It’s not as impossible as it sounds. If we look at manga’s sister industry in anime, they faced similar difficulties as recently as five years ago. Fansubs, the anime analogue to scanlations, proliferated because fans didn’t want to wait months for official English-language releases on DVD. Fansubs cut that wait time by making new episodes available only days after they aired in Japan. Today, however, the majority of new anime series are simulcasted via online streaming services such as Crunchyroll, Daisuki, and FUNimation. Paid members of Crunchyroll, for example, can watch new episodes a mere hour after they originally aired in Japan.
That’s the secret to stamping out online piracy. If you make the official versions simple and easy to get, they will eventually win out. In recent years, the manga industry has been making a concerted effort to court digital readers. Many companies make their titles available on legitimate online readers such as Kodansha does through Crunchyroll Manga. Others simultaneously publish new chapters such as Yen Press has recently begun to do with Black Butler. VIZ Media often releases buyer-friendly discount bundles of their digital manga.
While those are definitely ways to combat and beat out scanlations, the largest remaining hurdle rests with the time it takes to license new titles in North America. I’ll use my beloved Kuroko’s Basketball as an example. That series has already completed in Japan. The reason many U.S. fans know about it is via the anime that first premiered in 2012 and enjoyed a simulcast via Crunchyroll. VIZ Media won’t be releasing the first manga volume until next year. That’s a four-year lag. Plenty of time for scanlations to take root and flourish.
I don’t blame manga companies for being cautious about which titles to license in English. No one wants a repeat of the manga crash of the late 2000s, least of all a fan. And aside from surefire hits like the new series by the creative team behind Death Note, it can be difficult to gauge what titles will succeed in the U.S.
But surely a balance can be struck—especially with series that take off, such as Kuroko’s Basketball did. Anime are typically vehicles to boost manga sales in Japan. In the U.S., anime is usually an English-speaking fan’s first introduction to a series. If they like an anime, it’s only logical that they’d look up the original manga. If there is no official product, what are they going to do? There’s nothing more frustrating than to be an English-language manga reader who wants to support official localized releases and cannot. As U.S. manga companies expand their digital initiatives though, I hope that those kinds of situations will happen less and less. One can only hope!