Last month, Kodansha Comics, the publisher of two of the most popular manga in English, Sailor Moon and Attack on Titan, announced they were beginning an e-book program and would make their manga available on multiple e-book platforms. At the same time, they quietly stopped adding new material to their dedicated iOS app. I talked to Dallas Middaugh, director of publishing services for Kodansha Comics and a manga publishing veteran, about why they chose e-books over apps and what we can expect from them in the future. Kodansha offers two free e-book samplers, both of which can be downloaded for Kindle and Nook from this page.
So you are going strictly with e-book platforms and no longer supporting the app? Why is that?
That’s correct. We feel at this point the Kodansha Comics app is a little bit redundant, since we are able to distribute these books in the iBookstore, the Kindle and Nook stores, and we have plans to launch on Google Play and Kobo as well. We’re currently available on three platforms, an that is going to expand.
What happens to the app, and those of us who bought books through it? Will you continue to support it as iOS goes through future upgrades or will it eventually become obsolete?
That’s a really good question. It’s going to depend. Our goal is to keep the app alive forever. We don’t want to do anything with it. We don’t want the app to go away. Even if we took the app off the app store now, it would have no effect on the books you have downloaded on your iPad, but our goal is to keep it up there as long as possible. We don’t want people to lose the books they purchased.
Have you considered offering DRM-free downloads?
All I can say to you is that there are no plans for that.
Is there a chance?
I certainly see the merit. You have to bear in mind that we had the app for a while, and we are stepping into broad e-book distribution. DRM-free is something we would consider, but we need to get more experience under our belt. Our primary goal is to see what books from our catalog can we get into digital distribution. The key title is Sailor Moon. The way digital distribution works in Japan, especially for older series, is it comes down to each individual author and their choice regarding digital. Currently, [Sailor Moon creator] Naoko Takeuchi has not approved digital distribution. She is certainly not the only person who has had concerns about that; for example, Naoki Urasawa has been very public in that he doesn’t like digital.
For authors with newer works, Kodansha has started to work digital distribution into the contract up front. Older works are taking more time, but I’m convinced for a lot of this stuff it will happen eventually. While we have had e-books for about five years, since the debut of the Kindle, in Japan e-books have only started to take off this last fall, less than a year ago. So they have a very different experience of digital book distribution over there.
For the past several years, most e-books in Japan have been read on cell phones. I’m not going to pretend to understand that market; that’s a very unique and different market. The Kindle and Kindle e-book store only made their debut in Japan this October, and iBookstore is also very recent. Those things are starting to have an effect in Japan. They are bringing e-books to the fore in a way not considered before, and manga is a big part of that, because it is 25% of all publishing [in Japan]. On the e-book distribution front in Japan, it is kind of just now starting to become a big deal.
Your digital prices are close to the print price. Why are you going with that rather than pricing your books at $4.99 or $5.99, as other publishers, such as Viz, do?
The app was an experiment for us, and what we did at the time was we went with the prevailing market price, and Viz had done a good job of setting that price at $4.99. We are now selling to our retail customers who already carry our print books, so we price those at the same price at the print and leave it to the retail partner to discount. When you go to Amazon to look up a copy of Attack on Titan 1, you are now given the option of buying digital or print. We feel it is best for that pricing to be similar.
Do the Japanese licensors have particular preferences as to what platforms you use?
No. I know with other manga companies there are multiple licensors, but in our case it is our parent company, and their requirement of us is we provide the best reading experience in the local market.
What are the e-book platforms offering that app didn’t?
A much broader reach. When you have an app, you have to work very hard to market to people who want to buy your books. Let’s take Attack on Titan. People started watching the anime, and sales went up. Our anecdotal experience at conventions is a lot of people didn’t even realize there was a manga, and we were about to publish our fifth volume. Those people might go to a website like Amazon or Barnes and Noble and type in “Attack on Titan” looking for the anime, and they will find the books. We can reach the consumer so much easier that way. By keeping it in the app, we can only reach people who have the app. I think you can see logically our reach on these major e-book platforms is dramatically higher than it ever can be in a dedicated app, plus the reading experience is on a par with what it is in the app. If our app delivered a substantially better reading experience, there would be an argument for keeping the app, but that’s not the case.
Have you considered making your books available via Comixology?
We would consider that.
What about Google Play?
When we announced, we said we would, but at the eleventh hour there were a few issues with file format. We are working through it.
Given that you are releasing your print books as omnibus editions, would you consider doing digital omnibuses or bundles to give readers a better deal?
We do digital omnibuses now. Genshiken and Kitchen Princess are both available digitally now, and the digital version is identical to the current edition. So if you want Genshiken digitally, the only way to buy it is our three-volume omnibus.
Do you have digital rights for these books for North America only or worldwide?
World English rights. We have had a couple of technical glitches getting them set up everywhere, but we will be available all over the world. Why wouldn’t we?
The only reason not to do it is if we are materially competing with somebody who has licensed the book in that territory, and we don’t want to do that. If Kodansha has licensed the book to someone in that territory in English, we don’t want to compete with them, but Kodansha has granted us world English rights and we want to sell them everywhere. They will even be available in Japan, where we clearly are not competing with English editions.
A former book editor and newspaper reporter, Brigid Alverson started MangaBlog to keep track of her daughters¹ reading habits and now covers comics and graphic novels for Comic Book Resources , School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Robot 6, and MTV Geek. She also edits the Good Comics for Kids blog at School Library Journal. Brigid was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards. Send her an email to email@example.com