Viz, the largest manga publisher in the U.S., has been aggressively pursuing a digital strategy ever since launching its own iPad app in November 2011. Unlike most other comics publishers, Viz decided to go it alone, using its own branded app rather than joining comiXology; currently, the Viz app is available for iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire as well as on the web, and Viz manga can be purchased separately for the Nook via Barnes and Noble. One of their most dramatic moves has been to convert their monthly digital magazine, Shonen Jump, to a digital weekly and sync it with the Japanese Shonen Jump, so that North American readers can get their new chapters of Naruto, One Piece, and other Shonen Jump manga the same day as Japanese readers.
We checked in with Kevin Hamric, the director of publishing, marketing, and sales for Viz Media, to get a sense of how their digital program is going—and what the future may hold.
Good E-Reader: What is the state of the Viz digital program right now?
Kevin Hamric: The sales on our proprietary e-reader and through the apps for iOS for Google and for the Kindle Fire are going very strong. Our sales on Nook e-reader are very strong, we are very pleased with that, and we will be launching on other e-reader platforms in the very near future.
So the wisdom of having your own e-reader has been borne out?
Nothing against comiXology, but in discussions with our parent companies back in Tokyo, where we are in the marketplace as a leader of the category, we just thought doing it on our own would be the best thing to do, and we are very happy we did that.
Of all the manga publishers, Viz has the most extensive digital program. How have you been able to accomplish that?
We have quality product and quality series, and people will pay a little more for quality. We are extremely picky about the quality of products on our apps and e-readers. We have no books on a black and white device as of today. We are only on color devices, and that is because we are not pleased with the quality of product on black and white devices. There is too much noise, the blacks aren’t black enough… We are working with our partners to do that, and we are very close to allowing black and white devices. They will be in the future, we just don’t have exact dates yet. We are liking better the quality of our product as it shows up on a black and white device. But we are not totally there yet.
What were your priorities when you started out and how have they changed?
The goal was to get to make it the best quality that’s possible, and to give the readers what they want. But there is a business side to it, and getting approvals out of Japan was difficult and we had to start with what we could get. The licensors had to go to creators and negotiate e-book rights. Hardly any of their contracts have e-book rights.
Is that still the case with new contracts?
Any new contracts have e-book rights. We try to negotiate all that stuff up front now. There was resistance with the creators and authors; a lot of them wanted to start in Japan first and then move to other countries, so we had to wait for that. With others it was just a negotiation period.
How many titles do you have digitally right now?
We have over 1,300 volumes right now. We are cranking out 50 to 60 a month.
What do you think is important in terms of usability—what changes have you made to the app to make it more user-friendly?
It’s still a discovery issue, both in print and in digital, getting our fans to discover the issue—except the volume in, volume out reader who knows when each volume is coming out. For casual reader it’s still about discovery. Our marketing efforts will make people aware that books are available in both formats. We are finding people are reading in both formats—people buy digital for the reading experience but buy print for collectability.
The other big struggle we have had is making sure these companies, whether Nook or Amazon, can do right to left reading. They are willing to work with us to create the correct format for the book.
You still have some books that aren’t digital. Why is that?
We are still in negotiations to obtain those rights. Our licensing team back in Japan is still hammering out deals with the creators. You will see more coming this year. We have the schedule pretty well planned out through August and September.
It does take some time to convert these into different formats for different platforms, and we don’t want to flood the market either by putting out a thousand titles in one day. Plus if we put [the books] out on a normal schedule people get used to it.
Is it your plan to have all books be day and date digital?
Yes, we made that conscious decision that we wanted to do day and date print and digital. Sometimes we do releases digital-only where we don’t have the book rights, as with Nisekoi. The demand for that was so high, we are going back to negotiate the print rights.
We are experimenting a little bit to see what happens. But for the most part, I’d say 99 percent are day and date with print and digital where we have both rights.
It has been just over a year since you converted Shonen Jump from a print monthly to a digital weekly. How has that worked out?
It’s marvelous. The fan reaction has been spectacular. When we went day and date with Japan it was a huge event. This was a huge internal undertaking. A short time ago we were a couple of years removed from Japan, then in January 2012 we went to all digital and got rid of print, which shortened the time between the Japanese release and ours, and just a year later we are now the same day as Japan with weekly Shonen Jump. It’s a huge leap, something our fans have been demanding and something this company has been working on for a long time, very hard. A lot of money was put into this. I’m sure it will cut down on piracy as well.
Is there any chance of Shonen Jump going earlier than Japan?
That would never happen. First of all, I don’t think they would allow it, and by the time we get the files from Japan and convert them—it’s hard enough just doing day and date.
Where are you in the fight against piracy?
It is still an issue. It is never going to go away totally, but with some of the comments we have gotten, people are sick and tired of the scanlation sites getting things wrong—it just causes a big mess. This will give the fans what they want and what they need, because I’m of the belief that the more roadblocks you put up, the more you force fans to get things illegally. Make it so, make it right, and we will keep and grow our fanbase.
There are always going to be pirate sites, that’s the way it is going to be, but we have cut them down pretty much to a basic few.
I look at what Tor and Forge have done at Macmillan, doing DRM-free books—they are selling more books than when it wasn’t DRM-free, and they cut down on piracy. The more roadblocks you put up for people, the more they are going to do something bad. The more you make it easy for everybody, the more you are going to sell stuff. We want to make our product available in any format [readers] want. Whatever way they want it, we are going to give it to them.
Are you thinking of any more digital magazines—maybe a digital Shojo Beat?
Nothing at this time. We are constantly talking to Japan about different things. We are always bringing up ways to do things better or new products or new versions of things; we are never going to sit still, but not everything that works in Japan would work here. That doesn’t mean we are sitting on our laurels. This is a company that moves pretty fast. We always have someone over there, someone from there over here, we are always talking about new versions and new platforms and new ways of doing things. We are a small but dynamic company.
Would you consider moving onto comiXology?
We never say never. We will probably talk to them again. We are always looking for better opportunities and better ways of doing things, so we never shut the door on anything.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org