January 13, 2006

Time to cue up the Death Star theme music again. Viz has expanded its partnership with Simon & Schuster, giving the publishing giant control over Viz’s domestic sales. From the press release:

“The new agreement expands the relationship to utilize Simon & Schuster’s Sales and Distribution Division to further raise the visibility of the manga genre and continue to grow revenue streams from traditional book retailers as well as from newly emerging channels. Manga is now the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry and VIZ Media titles like FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST, NARUTO and INUYASHA regularly appear as top sellers on national retail sales charts.”

I’m a bit curious as to what those “emerging channels” might be. Discount stores like Target? When I hear “emerging channels,” I generally think of things like downloadable comics for cell phones and the like, and then I feel very old, because phones are for talking to people. Back to the release:

“‘The vast reach and sales expertise of Simon & Schuster will play a key role in our strategy to be the dominant manga publisher in North America,’ says Liza Coppola, vice president of sales and marketing for VIZ Media. ‘The success of Simon & Schuster overseeing our domestic distribution operations will now be bolstered further by the talents of their sales personnel. We look forward to their efforts helping to raise the profile and revenue for manga in North America to an even higher level.’”

Okay, so it isn’t exactly earth-shattering news. It’s more like a couple who’s lived together for a few years deciding to get married because one of their employers doesn’t provide health insurance. Still, I can’t help but wonder how this will actually shake out in terms of Viz’s sales, which I hear are reasonably healthy.

The announcement makes a recent thread at The Engine even more interesting. In it, folks are discussing a strange development that Jog noted: manga shelves are eating up all the graphic novel space in chain bookstores. Various reports from the front emerge:

“I felt the pinch on my DC tpb sales almost the minute manga started flying off the shelves.” (Warren Ellis)

“Even our books that could be called ‘manga-ish’ like SCOTT PILGRIM and SHARKNIFE are often racked with the superhero books, even though they are the exact same digest size as the TOKYOPOP books (mass-market paperback). We are told that since they didn’t originate in Japan, they should be shelved with the rest of the American comics. Oddly enough, TOKYOPOP’s and SEVEN SEAS’s OEL books, which are also made in North America, manage to get shelved with the rest of the manga.” (Randal Jarrell, Oni’s managing editor)

(Actually, every time I’ve seen Scott Pilgrim in a bookstore, it’s been shelved with the manga.)

“Part of the problem (as I saw in Kingston Borders yesterday) is that the TPB section is just thrown together – no order, just a jumble of books big and small. It looks so utterly unappealing.” (Jamie McKelvie)

“But all 3 of the shops I go to for comics, one of which is a major bookstore chain in Canada ( The previously mentioned Chapters ), have all reduced space for other types of comics and increased space for manga.” (Scott Keating)

I’ve seen this happening to various degrees. At the local Barnes & Noble, manga is kind of creeping into the graphic novels section. It’s mostly displacing DC and Marvel stuff, which has its own bank, and not the books from smaller publishers. And the sale table is still entirely non-manga, with Persepolis sitting nervously next to Sin City. (There are always at least two stand-alone manga racks or cardboard pop-ups, though.) The space for non-digest-sized graphic novels is the same at the local Books-a-Million, but the digests are expanding in the other direction. The manga offerings at my favorite Borders up in Pittsburgh seem to have at least tripled in the last year, but space for the other graphic novels has, too.

I wonder if book chains have ever considered coming up with some kind of subscription service for manga buyers. I thought about this the last time I was in B&N and saw a new volume of Othello, a title I reserve through my local comic shop. I do that partly because I like to support small businesses when possible and partly because I like to know for sure that I’ll be able to get my hands on a certain book.

While I can be reasonably sure that Othello will show up in at least one of the local bookstores, I have no idea how many copies will arrive and if any will be left by the time I get myself together for some retail therapy. Some retailers already send out author alerts, letting me know when, say, a new Yû Watase volume is coming out. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch for them to develop some kind of reserve service as an extension of their special orders, but it might be much more work than I suspect.

I’d feel badly about cutting the quantity of manga I buy from the LCS, but I’d love to get the discount from the chain store. I’d also love the quicker gratification, as many titles seem to show up at chains weeks before they get distributed through the direct market. I’ll probably always buy at least some manga from the LCS, especially oddities or titles from smaller publishers that haven’t breached the bookstore walls.

Anyway, for some commentary on the business of manga that, unlike mine, is actually clear-headed and intelligent, take a look at Pata’s Year in Review at Anime News Network and ICv2’s look at the Suncoast situation.