Manga were the original digital comics: Before publishers had figured out how to import, translate, localize, and actually sell manga, groups of fan translators (scanlators) were doing the job for them and making their favorite titles available digitally, usually as downloads, for other fans.
Plenty of manga makes it into print these days, but digital is re-emerging as an important channel, especially for older and niche titles. While Viz and Yen Press market top-selling books like Naruto and Maximum Ride through their iPad apps (and Viz just launched an iPhone/iPod Touch version that works remarkably well), other publishers are using it for manga that may be hard to find through traditional channels or that simply doesn’t sell well enough to support a print release. Notable among these are Animate U.S.A.’s line of yaoi manga and Softbank’s translations of Harlequin manga (which themselves are adaptations of American novels).
Last week, some readers saw the downside of digitization, when Amazon pulled a number of yaoi manga out of the Kindle Store and Tokyopop removed its BLU yaoi manga from the eManga website without warning.
In both cases, the removed manga will still be available to readers who have already bought it; while new would-be purchasers are shut out, those who already “own” the manga will be able to read it. But for how long?
On the other hand, while Tokyopop has shut down its manga publishing arm, comiXology will continue to offer Hetalia: Axis Powers in digital form.
Downloading is a different matter. Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble allow you to download books to your Kindle, iPad, Nook, or computer, depending on the app and the software. If you download a book and store it on your device or hard drive, it’s yours for keeps. Well, not entirely: Amazon once made the mistake of removing a book from people’s Kindles, but there was such a hue and cry that they apologized, put it back, and promised not to do it again.
Still, when pressed, most digital distributors will admit that you don’t really buy digital comics, you buy the right to read them in the format the publisher chooses. David Brothers wrote a good overview of the issue at Comics Alliance last December.
Remember, too, that digital distribution services are mass marketers, and they are subject to the pressures of the market. They do have the ability to provide an almost unlimited selection of books, unconstrained by physical considerations, because they don’t have to pay for printing, paper, warehouses, trucks, etc. The marginal cost of adding one more book is pretty low, so they can stock manga that are pretty far down the long tail. That seems to be Animate’s strategy—many of the titles they carry were originally published by Central Park Media and Broccoli Books, American manga publishers who couldn’t make a profit on paper manga. The books aren’t cheap, but at least you can get them.
There are advantages and disadvantages to reading manga on the Kindle. The screen is small and the resolution isn’t that great, but it is portable and some books, like Animate’s, aren’t offered any other way. The recent disappearance of some yaoi manga, without notification or explanation, from the Kindle Store is another problem. (The Yaoi Review has a posted a list of the removed manga, some of which have been restored.) Of course, your brick-and-mortar bookstores do this all the time, sometimes just by not re-ordering a book when it runs out, but the web has led us to expect that everything will be available all the time, and when a retailer deliberately removes a book, people notice.