The news came abruptly. Users of the digital manga retail site JManga received an e-mail on March 14 that said "JManga.com will be concluding its retail and viewing services on May 30, 2013." Sales of the points that the site uses as currency were halted at midnight on March 13, and all manga purchases ended on March 26. When the site goes dark, on May 30, all the manga will disappear and fans will lose access to any content they have purchased because JManga is a streaming site that doesn't permit downloads. JManga7, a sister site offering serials, also shut down on March 13.
JManga launched in August 2011 with an ambitious agenda to put 10,000 manga titles online by this year. Although other U.S. manga publishers, Viz, Yen Press, Kodansha, and Digital Manga among them, all have their own digital services, JManga was the only digital manga platform that featured work for sale from a wide variety of publishers. Beyond that, what set JManga apart was a certain Japanese-ness: The featured books were often niche titles, not the mass-market favorites that U.S. publishers choose; titles were often left untranslated; and the works were presented with their original Japanese covers.
In fact, JManga was a direct-from-Japan product that was sponsored by a group of 39 publishers. In the beginning, it attracted criticism for high prices (generally around $8.99 per volume), a cumbersome point system that required a monthly subscription, and a display that included books that weren't featured on the service.
One of the hallmarks of JManga, however, was responsiveness to fans. JManga staff maintained an active social media presence on Twitter and Facebook and responded to questions and criticisms. Prices were lowered in October 2011, and while this was billed at first as a temporary sale, the price cuts eventually became permanent. Not only that, JManga refunded points to users who had bought manga at the original, higher price. Eventually the subscription requirement was dropped. And after rallying support on Twitter and Facebook, JManga dropped region restrictions and went from serving the U.S. and Canada only to a global service.
We had many conversations with JManga business manager Robert Newman in the past year and a half, so we thought it would be good to check in with him one last time for a wrapup. While Newman was forthcoming about how manga was chosen for JManga, the development of its app, DRM and other technical considerations, he was unable to answer specific questions about the decision to close JManga or about the loss of access to manga purchased via JManga when the site closes completely on May 30.
PW Comics World: What was the goal of JManga when it launched, and what do you think was its most significant accomplishment?
Robert Newman: JManga.com was formed with the goal of making Japan’s manga as accessible as possible to manga fans around the globe in a legal environment beneficial to the readers, the creators, and the publishers. I think that JManga’s main accomplishment was in showing manga fans around the globe that Japan is interested in the international fandom and helping close the gap between Japan’s creators and their worldwide readership.
PWCW: How did you choose which books to publish? What types of books were most popular?
RN: One of the main objectives of JManga was to show the world the vast depth and extreme variety of Japan’s manga. The manga that has been traditionally made available outside of Japan is really just the tip of the iceberg. We wanted to show the international audience what was underneath the surface.
In actual title selection we used a variety of methods and always made it a point to see what the fans were interested in. The titles that did best on JManga were titles that weren’t available in digital or print from genres traditionally underserved, including yuri manga [a genre featuring women in emotional/sexual relationships with other women] such as Girlfriends by Milk Morinaga and Sweet Blue Flowers by Takako Shimura and seinen titles [manga aimed at men] like Masakazu Ishiguro’s Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru.
PWCW: JManga was distinguished by your rapport with the audience. Was that a part of the strategy from the beginning, or did it evolve? Do you think the changes you made in response to user comments brought in more readers?
RN: From the beginning, we wanted to show fans that Japan was listening. We used feedback from fans in choosing titles for the site and in decision making regarding such issues as reducing pricing, adjusting our subscription model, making the site accessible globally, and even site design. Many of the changes and additions that were implemented to the service via fan feedback showed a significant increase in traffic to JManga.com.
PWCW: We have to talk about piracy. Numerous pirate sites have allowed people to read online for free. What did you feel JManga had to offer that would make it competitive with them?
RN: I think the main benefits that JManga provided its readers with were a superior digital reading experience and the opportunity for fans to support their favorite artists through a legal service. Additionally, one of the ideas behind JManga was to offer benefits to the international fandom that could only be facilitated by an official service. We offered exclusive interviews with manga artists as well as original illustrations and messages from manga artists created specifically for readers and fans outside of Japan. We also, on a number of occasions, ran contests with rare merchandise directly from Japanese publishers for prizes.
PWCW: Why did you decide to go with an Android app and not iOS?
RN: We decided to go with Android first for a number of reasons, one of which being the difficulty in getting manga past Apple’s content regulations. Our iOS app was completed a while back, but as we received Apple’s approval after the decision to cease JManga.com’s retail and viewing services had been made, we decided it best to not release the app into the market.
PWCW: And why did you stick with streaming content rather than permitting downloads?
RN: When we began shaping the service with the publishers it was made clear that DRM was a must. At the time in Japan, the mainstream digital distribution method was to have users download DRM files that could only be read using a downloadable reader and that were only readable for a set time-frame. Wanting to make JManga as user friendly as possible, we decided to go with Flash after weighing our options for its overall usability, and worked with the publishers to allow users unlimited viewing. These were both big steps for Japan and were decided with the conviction that JManga would succeed and continue.
PWCW: What was the relationship between JManga and the publishers—was JManga a separate entity?
RN: The concept for JManga was created by the Digital Comic Association, a private and voluntary organization comprised of 39 Japanese publishers. JManga Co., Ltd. worked closely with the Digital Comic Association and its publishers to bring JManga to fruition and continued to operate the website and service.