JManga launched last week as a website that is designed to connect Japanese publishers with overseas readers. Overall, the buzz on Twitter and the websites can be summed up as follows:
"Oh, cool, they have a bunch of interesting manga I never heard of before!"
"I clicked on the title but there was no manga, just a catalog listing!"
"I clicked on the preview, and it was in Japanese!"
"They want HOW MUCH for that manga?"
Yes, at $8.99 per volume for manga that is streaming—not download—JManga is not particularly good value for the money—unless they are carrying that one manga that you just have to have.
JManga looks like it's chock full of manga, but that's a bit misleading. Their catalog shows 168 series, but only 48 of these are available to read online. Another 59 offer previews only, and the rest are strictly catalog listings with information about the book, although the Viz volumes include a pointer to the VizManga.com website, where they can be purchased and read online.
Why include listings for books that readers can't buy? The backers of this site, the publishers of the Digital Comics Association (DCA), refer to it as a "portal," because it's like a directory, with some of the manga on the site and links to manga on other (legitimate) sites. Many people don't know or care who publishes a particular title, so having all the titles in one spot makes sense, and this lets the publishers steer readers away from pirate sites.
Still the JManga site could be improved by making a clearer distinction between manga that are available to read and those that are simply previews or listings. It's disappointing to click on a title and just see a description.Hopefully the publishers will eventually put all the manga online, and the problem will solve itself.
One thing you get right away from the home page is that the user is expected to know a thing or two about manga already. The series are divided up by their Japanese demographics—shoujo (girls), shonen (boys), etc.—including "kodomo," young children, which is a term you don't see much. Viz Manga appear with American covers, but other series—even ones that are translated into English already, like Dragon Girl—are shown with Japanese titles on their covers. Some of the previews are in Japanese only, while others let you toggle between English and Japanese.
One thing that is really nice is their JWeekly magazine, which presents three free chapters of different manga each week. The first issue included a chapter of Naruto and two other manga that haven't been translated before. It's a good way to get people to sample something new, and free is always a good price.
I give JManga high marks for ease of use; the reader is simple and very straightforward, and they actually have a User Guide that explains how to do everything in simple language.
What's the point?
However, their use of a point system is a classic example of something that makes life easier for the publishers and harder for users. Users don't buy the manga directly; they buy points (at about a penny a point) and redeem them for manga. The reason, presumably, is that the site will eventually be international, and having everyone buying points is easier than listing the prices in 20 different currencies.
This doesn't have to be a hassle for users, but JManga has made it so. First of all, you can't just buy the number of points you need to buy a book; you have to become a paid subscriber, to the tune of $10 a month, before you can buy any points at all. The problem with a paid subscription is that it's not a one-time expense—JManga is going to keep charging your credit card $10 a month, and if you drift away from reading manga but forget to cancel it, well, you'll end up paying $10 a month for nothing for a long, long time. Admittedly, you can cancel at any time, but there are a certain number of people who always forget they have the subscription. It's great for the publisher, not so much for the user.
The second problem is that the number of points never matches the cost of the books. As I mentioned last week, if a book is priced at 899 points but the smallest bundle of points you can buy is 1,000, then you are paying $10 for that book. The books are already overpriced, and the wasted points make it worse.
Third, the points expire after a year. That's just evil. Dollars don't disappear out of my wallet if I forget them for a year; why should points?
The point system would be a lot more palatable if it allowed for one-time purchases of any number of points the user wants, and if the points didn't expire. In addition, a number of people have said they would like a subscription that lets them read all the manga on the site, an all-you-can-eat option rather than the current a la carte.
The Twitterati have spoken: $8.99 is too much for a volume of manga that can't even be downloaded. It's way out of line with current prices—a volume of manga is $4.99 from Viz or Digital, $5.99 from Square Enix (but everyone complains that Square Enix is too expensive), $8.99 from Yen Press (but you can download it). A streaming-only site should be charging less, because the manga is less portable, and it disappears anytime you don't have Wi Fi access.
That doesn't mean that every volume should be a dollar. I can certainly see charging more for rarer manga that won't necessarily sell well in English, although the high price does make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. But there's another stratum of manga that should be priced a lot lower: Older series that have already been translated into English, such as Hitohira and Crayon Shinchan. Most of the work has already been done and paid for by the original licensee, and the publishers should pass on the savings to the reader by pricing those lower—maybe set up a tier and call it "Classic Manga" or something. Charging nine bucks for something that is available for two dollars on Amazon doesn't make any sense. Lower the price to $2.99 per volume, though, and readers would snap them up, and most likely the volume of sales would make up for the lower price.
There are a lot of reasons why people use pirate sites:
Wide selection of manga, not just from one publisher
- It's free
- It's available in the country they are in (not just the U.S.)
- Speedy translations of new chapters
- Forums where users can discuss their favorite titles
In addition, there are a number of iOS and Android apps that sync with the bigger pirate sites so that users can read manga scans on their mobile device.
How does JManga stack up next to that? There are no forums yet, but they are on the way. The selection looks good, and they are working on rolling the site out to different countries.
They fall short on price and speed, though. There are no free volumes, only free previews, and the price is too high. And since this week's chapter of Naruto is widely available, in English, all over the internet, it needs to be on JManga as well.
JManga plans to update every Tuesday with new content, which is a great strategy. Hopefully most of those catalog listings will eventually be converted to full volumes of manga, which would make a lot more sense than the current configuration. Each of the demographic categories (shoujo, shonen, etc.) has a list of tags for different genres (romance, sci-fi, yaoi), which should make the manga easier to find.
The site developers do need to come up with more obvious ways to steer readers from one manga to another. A referral system like Amazon and Netflix (if you like this, then you might like that) would be especially valuable on this site, because so many of the series are new to English-language readers—whether deliberately or by accident, the site owners picked a lot of manga that haven't been scanlated. Looking at a sea of covers, most in Japanese, is confusing for a lot of users, and the JManga folks have to make it easier to distinguish between them.
Right now, I'd say JManga is doing a decent job. They are not as good as Viz, which has reasonable prices and lets users read manga on a number of different platforms, but they are miles ahead of Square Enix, with its cumbersome registration and excessive DRM. The JManga folks say they want to hear from readers, and judging from the chat on Twitter, they are responding to people's comments, so I'm sure the site will improve over time. The biggest change they need to make, though, is in the pricing. The customer base is teenagers, who don't always have a lot of money, and the competition is free manga sites. iTunes showed that people will pay for something they could get for free, if the provider gives them a smooth interface and a reasonable price, but if iTunes had charged $8.99 per song, it wouldn't have lasted a week.