We’ve long said that there’s no better time to start reading manga. North American publishers are releasing a wide variety of titles. No matter your preferences, you’ll probably be able to find a title you like. Better yet, companies have worked hard to increase accessibility. In addition to print, fans can read manga via digital apps, budget-friendly subscription services, and their local library. Even longtime manga readers can now legally acquire series once considered commercially unviable a decade ago.
It wasn’t always that way, though.
The North American Manga Market of the Past
Older fans are likely familiar with the manga boom of the 2000s. For those less familiar, here’s a quick overview. Prior to the 2000s, most manga was mirrored-imaged to read left-to-right and released in monthly floppy issues similar to American superhero comics. After the turn of the 21st century, however, manga publishers switched to preserving the original right-to-left reading order and began releasing titles in collected volumes from the get-go.
Bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble soon stocked entire sections devoted to manga. (You might have heard older manga readers reminiscing over Borders’ much-beloved manga section.) This, combined with licensed titles aimed toward a demographic often overlooked by the direct market of superhero comics, contributed to high sales. Alas, nothing lasts forever.
The Great Recession of the late 2000s impacted many businesses, Borders among them. But the company shutting its doors meant more than simply the loss of a brick-and-mortar bookstore. It meant manga publishers lost a significant mode of distribution. And soon, the manga boom of the 2000s abruptly ended.
But remember: while highs don’t last forever, neither do lows.
It took time, but the North American manga market recovered. More titles began being licensed and released — and not just the typical shonen blockbusters either. Classic manga from the 1960s and 1970s were brought to English readers for the first time. Series that fell into limbo were relicensed and repackaged in beautiful new editions. Light novels became an established, sought-after format. In short, the market matured, stabilized, and flourished.
Then, 2020 hit.
“We’ve Entered an Unprecedented Time.”
For many people, 2020 will go down in history as the year of a global pandemic, endless lockdowns, toilet paper shortages, bread baking, and Netflix marathons.
For the North American manga industry, 2020 ushered in an era the likes of which has never been seen before. Manga sales hit an all-time high, surpassing the previous peak in 2007. Even without seeing those figures, we know manga has been selling well. It regularly shows up on The New York Times Best Seller list and has occupied the top 20 spots in Bookscan’s Adult Graphic Novel list since March 2021 (1 2 3 4).
At an industry roundtable at Comic-Con @ Home 2021, representatives from the major North American manga publishers agreed that the market has entered “unprecedented times.” A couple reasons explain the exponential growth. Pandemic-driven lockdowns gave people time to read manga. And not necessarily new manga either. Backlist series drove sales. To give some insight into why, standalone manga is relatively rare. Series make up the bulk of manga releases. And sometimes those series are very long. It’s easy to fall behind. But during lockdown, manga readers had time to catch up.
Another major factor is the wide availability of anime via multiple streaming platforms: Netflix, Crunchyroll, FUNimation, and Amazon Prime, to name a few. In Japan, most anime exists to drive viewers to buy the original manga. Thanks to easily accessible anime, we’re now seeing that same phenomenon replicated in North America.
Don’t believe me? Look at Demon Slayer. It first simulcast on Crunchyroll in 2019. The completed series hit Netflix in 2020. And let’s not forget the Demon Slayer: Mugen Train film which, despite being released during a global pandemic, is the highest grossing film of 2020, the highest-grossing anime film of all time, and the highest grossing Japanese film of all time. Now look at those Bookscan Top 20 Adult Graphic Novel lists again. Notice how many of those spots are occupied by Demon Slayer volumes?
Success Comes With a Few Hiccups
We can all agree the demand for manga is a good thing. Manga is flying off shelves. Retailers are struggling to keep the most popular titles in stock. As a result, freshly printed manga are also flying out of warehouses.
There’s only one problem. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. A pandemic that has disrupted the supply chain, not just domestically but also globally. In other words, we have a print manga shortage.
What does this mean? It means that finding print editions of today’s shonen blockbusters — My Hero Academia, Demon Slayer, and Jujutsu Kaisen — can be tough. Even titles without popular anime to drive them — like Spy x Family and Chainsaw Man — are difficult to find in print.
To be fair, we can’t place sole blame for the shortage on the pandemic. The paper supply was already facing challenges before 2020. Printer consolidation has fueled capacity issues for years. The pandemic — and the ensuing print manga demand — only exacerbated those problems.
As a result, manga publishers have had to make tough decisions. While these hiccups aren’t affecting the launch of new manga titles as much, they are affecting reprints. In other words, if a specific manga volume is currently unavailable in print, don’t panic. It’s likely because of the ongoing reprint problem. It probably isn’t because the series has gone out of print. Trust me. My Hero Academia, Demon Slayer, and Jujutsu Kaisen aren’t going out of print anytime soon.
A Peek into the Future
Of course, we can’t expect highs to last forever. The manga boom of the 2000s taught us that. But don’t expect a repeat of the industry contraction we witnessed at the end of the 2000s either. Not saying it can’t happen. If 2020 taught us something, it’s that anything and everything can happen. Realistically, the market will probably recalibrate to pre-2020 levels, which were still stable and robust.
Reprint and inventory issues aside, the future of the North American manga market looks bright. Hopefully, this means even more diverse and interesting licenses beyond the typical shonen blockbusters. But for now? A piece of advice. If you’re interested in the dark fantasy Chainsaw Man or the comedy Spy x Family and want those series in print? Buy those series if you see them in stock. Because if you think they’re hard to find now, wait until they get an anime adaptation — and Chainsaw Man‘s anime is scheduled for next year.