Manga sales and profitability

Every so often the blogosphere gets into a tizzy over scanlations: do they hurt or help manga sales? As ‘net-based discussions tend to, these spats frequently get dominated by one group of people claiming that scanlations are the ultimate evil and another arguing that everything, EVERYTHING should be free, at all times, in all ways. However, some smart people also comment. Sooner or later I will get around to adding a page to this site that rounds up some of the more thoughtful posts on the issue, but today I want to talk about a related problem.

Comic Book Resources’ Brian Hibbs has rounded up some hard numbers on manga sales for everyone’s perusal. These numbers probably represent about 75% of all translated manga sales in the U.S.

Hibbs has some interesting analysis that I want to think through a bit, so I won’t talk about that so much. Instead, I want to talk about the differences between manga and American comic books on this list. Those differences all amount to: American comics make more money. I don’t mean in terms of size of the industry, production costs or anything like that. I mean that across the board if you look at an American comic on this list it is liable to have brought in more money than those manga selling at a similar rate. In other words, comics cost more. The three million dollar-plus sellers were all American (and two of them were Watchmen). All three had tie-ins of some kind. All three also cost $20 or more. The exception to the higher-cost American comics is the mangaesque or manga-style comics, which have prices like the manga.

To some extent, this is an apples and oranges comparison. Manga have to pay translators and licensing fees that comics don’t, and comics have to pay for artists and (often) colour printing that manga companies can ignore. But what struck me most was not the difference between how much manga and comics earn as how very, very little manga earn. The last five manga on the list (which only includes the top 750 comics/manga sold in the year) earned within the $31,000-$43,000 range. Those numbers come from multiplying the cover cost of the book by the number sold, so they don’t reflect the coupons and discounts offered so frequently. Moreover, they don’t include the bookstore’s cut, shipping to the bookstore or ANY expenses – not printing, not translation, not salaries for anyone working on the manga… That’s not a lot of money for all of the effort involved. I’m just trying out different estimates of how much each of those titles brings in, and really… it’s not looking good. On the other hand, the publishing industry has always been based on the idea that some works will sell like hotcakes and some will slowly wend their way through the market before dying a miserable death in a remainders store. I’m worried that, with manga, there aren’t enough hotcakes properties to carry a full industry, based on the current sales set up.

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