Crunchyroll’s new streaming manga service, which will launch on Wednesday, looks like the manga publishers’ best bet yet for fighting piracy, for three reasons:
1. It has new manga chapters the same day they are released in Japan.
2. It has a couple of big-name series to anchor it.
3. It’s free.
OK, it’s only partly free, but right now it looks like Crunchyroll is coming very close to the holy grail of manga publishing: A digital manga service that will lure readers away from bootleg sites and still make money.
Let’s back up a bit. Starting in about 1998 or so, before many titles were available in English, readers hungry for new content would buy manga in Japanese, translate it, reletter the manga with the English translation, and post it. Eventually this developed into a whole scanlation scene, with fans communicating and sharing downloads of their favorite series via IRC (Internet Relay Chat). It was small and clubby, and most scanlators had an informal rule that they would stop translating a series (and often pull their scanlations from circulation) once it was licensed by a publisher.
Then in about 2005, websites started popping up that simply posted manga online for anyone to read—no special technical knowledge or secret handshake required. These websites quickly caught on, and soon it was possible to find pretty much any manga online, for free, with a simple Google search. Manga sales slowed, and then in 2007 the curve turned around and sales began to decline. Many people within the industry blame piracy for the turnaround.
Publishers had two alternatives: Shut the sites down or offer a better alternative. Shutting them down is not easy, as many are located in countries with looser copyright laws than the U.S. And offering a better alternative has been difficult. Freed from the constraint of actually having to pay anybody, pirate manga sites can offer a huge selection of manga, including recent releases, for free, and still come out ahead because of advertising. Publishers have legal obligations to pay the creators, the licensors, and their translators and other staff. Yet readers want free manga, and they want it now. I talked to Gagan Singh, who heads up Viz’s digital services, just over a year ago, shortly after Viz announced it would publish manga chapters in its digital magazine Shonen Jump the same day they come out in Japan, and here’s what he had to say:
“There are two axes that drive the sales in our business, other than the content,” Singh said. “There is the timeliness of the content and there’s the price. And the farther out you are with high price and the farther removed from simultaneous, the worse off your sales are. The holy ground is where it’s simultaneous and you get the price as low as you possibly could. We are going to continue to find ways to narrow the gap on either of those [axes].”
Actually, Singh left out a third axis: The popularity of the available series. It’s no coincidence that Viz chose its Shonen Jump line for its digital experiment—those are some of the top selling manga in the U.S. While Shonen Jump offers high-profile titles the same day they come out in Japan, however, it isn’t free, so a lot of readers, particularly younger ones, won’t touch it. There’s a big jump from free to paid content.
By contrast, the digital site JManga, which was run by a group of Japanese publishers, was the opposite of the ideal we are discussing here: It offered obscure older series no one had heard of, and when it launched the price was quite high. The prices came down fairly quickly, and the staff did a great job of communicating with readers and building community, but the niche audience they built must not have been enough to sustain the site, as it folded earlier this year.
Along the way, JManga spun off a sister site, JManga7, that allowed readers to access manga for free—but again, none of the series on the site had a big following.
Crunchyroll is managing to get pretty close to Singh’s holy ground: It offers a range of Kodansha manga, including the monster hit Attack on Titan, on the day they are released in Japan, for free. Those free chapters are available only for a limited time, though; when a new chapter goes up, the old one will disappear. Readers who pay a monthly subscription fee can access all the manga on the site, an “all-you-can-eat” model that is similar to Marvel Unlimited (but with far fewer titles, at least for now). The 12 titles available at launch are a good start, and Crunchyroll promises to have 50 titles available by next year.
This is possible because Crunchyroll is different from almost all other manga services in one important respect: It is a streaming service. The user cannot download the manga. That’s how most pirate sites work as well, and it actually makes sense to go after their audience with the same model. Given a choice between free streaming manga or download-to-own manga at a price, a substantial part of the manga audience has opted for the free service.
Many manga readers do feel a responsibility to support the creators and publishers of the original work, and Crunchyroll is giving them the opportunity to do that without having to pay any actual money, at least at first. And their two-tiered service is a great idea. It may seem like madness to give away your most valuable property—brand-new manga chapters—but that’s what it will take to lure fans away from the pirate sites. It also gives them a reason to come back every week. And eventually, some of them will start paying the subscription fee so they can access the back issues. That will be easier not only because they are familiar with the site but also because they or their friends may already be paying a subscription fee to watch anime there. Crunchyroll started as a fan site where people could upload and share videos, and then it went “legit,” banning unauthorized content but also seeking out authorization to run the content its users had been uploading. In other words, the content came first.
There’s one more thing worth mentioning: Crunchyroll’s manga service will be available in 170 countries. While manga publishers were locking down digital distribution with regional restrictions, the pirate sites were serving anyone who wanted to read manga, and it’s clear from the comments when sites are taken down that many readers are coming from outside North America.
Despite the downturn in sales since 2007, there’s plenty of evidence that the audience is still there for manga: Attendance at anime cons is rising steadily, the print market has stabilized a bit, and bootleg sites continue to proliferate. The puzzle for manga publishers has been how to draw that audience toward legal digital manga services that will make a profit. Older readers will buy manga in print or download it to their tablets, but the younger readers don’t have a lot of money to begin with and are conditioned to reading manga for free online. It remains to be seen whether Crunchyroll has cracked the code, but it certainly looks like the best attempt yet.