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The French writer Xavier Guilbert has written an interesting editorial on scanlations at the zine du9, in which he questions the now-conventional wisdom that because the rise of scan sites corresponded with the fall of the manga market, the two are interrelated. He makes some good arguments, and I strongly recommend that you go read his piece.
It’s easy to draw a line from bootleggers making a product easily available for free to the sales of that product declining, but that was always an oversimplification. There are plenty of other reasons why manga sales are down, a weak economy being chief among them. It’s also worth noting that a lot of manga publishers were small outfits operating in a new environment, and several have failed despite, not because of, strong consumer demand for their product (ADV, DramaQueen, Go!Comi, I’m looking at you).
So the key question is, will shutting down the scan sites increase the sales of manga? Looking at the content of the scan sites and the comments in their forums, I am seeing four types of readers:
The first two groups are reading something they cannot buy, so shutting down the scan sites won’t make any difference to them, although a shrewd publishers would be looking for a way to tap into that online market. The fans who want their weekly Naruto fix, on the other hand, could be converted. Viz is already doing this with Rumiko Takahashi’s Rin-ne, which they are releasing online the same week it is published in Japan. Maybe this is just a test run to see if they can do that with Naruto as well. My advice: Do it! The demand for these series is huge, and the core audience is teenagers, who don’t have much money but are skilled at finding free entertainment on the internet. Scanning and translating a chapter at a time is simple enough, and the demand is high enough, that someone is always going to do it. The best thing for Viz to do would be to channel that demand by hosting the most recent chapters itself. That way they could reap the benefits of ad revenue and promote their other products to a pre-selected audience.
But wait—won’t that cannibalize sales of the book? Probably not. Viz is pretty clever with the online-manga thing; once a set of chapters has been collected in a print volume, they pull them off the web. The kids who are coming for the latest chapter won’t notice that; the newer converts, though, will need to buy the books to follow the whole story. It won’t bring things back to pre-Onemanga days, but let’s face it, nothing will. The digital horse is out of the barn.
Finally, “everyone else,” which is a pretty heterogeneous group. Some are reading licensed manga, perhaps not aware that the site they are reading it on is not legit; some know that but don’t want to spend the money on manga. Taking down the sites would force some of those readers into the bookstores, others into the library, and the rest into another form of entertainment. I doubt the publishers are so naive as to think that every reader of online manga can be converted to a paying customer, but some percentage of them probably can, and it looks like the publishers are gambling that the increase in sales will offset the expense of the legal actions required to shut down the sites.
Complicating the picture further is the fact that traffic on those sites seems to have leveled off. Guilbert looks at the Alexa rankings for Onemanga.com; thinking that users had simply shifted to other sites, I compared Onemanga with several other sites and came to the conclusion that traffic is either flat or down for all of them in the past six months.
Does that mean that “the manga fad is over”? I certainly hope not, but the comics/graphic novels picture is a lot more diverse than it was ten years ago, so readers have more choices. The girls who read shoujo manga because there wasn’t anything else can now turn to a host of graphic novels geared for them, and the non-superhero action category has opened up as well. While that may draw readers out of manga, it may also lead them to the medium if publishers make it easy for them to find stories in their favored genre. So while it’s hard to argue with shutting down a competitor who is giving away your product for free, publishers will need to do a better job of embracing the potential, as well as the threat, of online distribution.