I’m not a big manga fan — especially when compared to friends who are doing dissertations on the subject for their post-graduate studies. I am a casual fan at best, with a small collection of less than 200 volumes all dedicated to a single genre: BL.
However, with the recent slew of closures of “free” manga sites and online distribution channels by a coalition of Japanese publishers and their overseas licensees, I couldn’t help but be alarmed by the entire situation. Yes — the legal copyright owners of the uploaded manga have every right to pursue their claims, but the situation is starting to feel like a witch hunt instead of a proper intervention.
The publishers coalition have declared that free sites are the sole reason that sales of manga have plummeted for a second year in a row. They claim that manga fans — instead of purchasing their books, read manga for free online. The coalition also claims that free manga sites are earning advertising revenues, charging subscriptions, and soliciting donations from their readers — effectively stealing revenue from the mangaka and their publishers.
While these statements are true, I as a manga consumer feel that they are only half-right, and that the coalition is unfairly heaping the blame for their loss of sales on the free manga sites.
First of all, accusing these free distribution channels as the only reason sales of manga have slowed down of the past two years is a load of bull. It’s not just the manga industry that suffered from a contraction over the past twenty-four to thirty-six months, everybody suffered! It was called a global economic slowdown for a reason — it’s not as if they were the only victim.
Likewise, no thanks to the economic slump, disposable incomes from their target markets have also shrunk. People who used to purchase manga have either cut down on their purchases or left off buying manga altogether. No matter how big of a manga fan you are, would you rather spend your money on this month’s rent or on a new stack of manga? The choice is quite obvious.
For manga fans who choose to continue buying books, “free” manga sites and scanlation channels are the best places to preview titles before purchasing them. Quite frankly, my collection was built on titles that I first read for free via the Internet, and then purchased later from online and brick-and-mortar bookstores. As far as I’m concerned, the free sites actually help the manga publishing industry by making a customer out of me — which is the opposite of what the coalition is crying foul over.
Let’s imagine for a second that the coalition succeeded in removing all of the sites in their hit list, but did not provide their consumers with viable alternatives to test out their products (re: read previews). Would you continue purchasing manga without having a good idea about its contents? Of course not — especially not with the way overseas licensees have been selecting bad titles over good ones just because the license fees were cheap (yet another good reason to preview manga before purchase).
Lastly, if the publishers were concerned that their mangaka were not being paid and that their overhead expenses were not reimbursed, it’s their own fault for being stupid enough not to figure out a way to monetize the online distribution of manga. If they themselves used the money-making tools used by the free sites to maintain their own online operations, they would not need to put together a coalition in the first place.
Long story, short: yes, the coalition has every right to demand the shutdown of free manga sites. No, free manga sites are not the only reason the entire industry of making comics is suffering. Yes, free manga sites are also generating sales for manga. And no, it is not their fault they are quicker on the uptake for monetizing online distribution than official licensees.
Feel free to rage in the comments.