Manga fans around the world flocked to Crunchyroll.com, an online portal that offers legal access to anime and manga, on October 30 to check out the latest development in digital comics publishing with the launch of Crunchyroll Manga, a new venture that will provide subscription access to a growing selection of Kodansha titles.
Now that Crunchyroll Manga is live, PW Comics World talked with Tatsuya Morimoto, licensing manager at Kodansha International, and Robert Newman from Crunchyroll to get more details about what’s next for this new worldwide comics digital publishing venture--including how publishers and artists will be paid. By the end of the year the subscription service plans to offer online access to new manga titles at the same time they are made available in Japan; look for anime tie-ins, the ability to purchase print editions of manga titles online and plans to greatly expand the number of publishers and manga available via Crunchyroll Manga. One caveat: while the service will offer access to the North American market and fans in about 170 countries, some overseas markets will be blocked from access because of previous licensing agreements.
After years of decline in the North American manga market, manga sales have rebounded in the U.S. and are growing again as Japanese publishers move to increase legal digital access to manga content. The debut of Crunchyroll Manga, a digital subscription service offering reasonable prices, copyright security and good title selection has the potential to engage manga fans and grow the manga market around the world.
Crunchyroll Manga made its debut this week with 12 current shonen (boys’) and seinen (men’s) manga series from Kodansha, one of Japan’s leading books and comics publishing companies, with plans to add even more titles from more manga publishers in the weeks and months to come. The latest English-language chapters from the featured series will be available on Crunchyroll Manga at the same time as they’re published in Japan on a “simulpub” basis. This is similar to Crunchyroll’s simulcast anime service, which streams the latest episodes of current anime series with English subtitles on the same day as it’s aired in Japan.
The latest “simulpub” chapter of series featured on Crunchyroll Manga will be available free, “with limited advertisements” to readers in over 170 countries. However, to access prior chapters and full volumes of some of the series on an ad-free basis, readers will have to purchase either a Crunchyroll Manga membership (starting at $4.95/month) or sign up for the Crunchyroll All-Access membership, ($11.95/month), which includes access to Crunchyroll’s streaming anime and TV drama shows, plus discounts in the Crunchyroll store.
The headlining titles in this initial batch of Crunchyroll Manga are two of Kodansha’s most popular series, Attack on Titan by Hajime Isayama and Fairy Tail by Hiro Mashima, and UQ Holder, the latest series from Ken Akamatsu, the creator of Negima! and Love Hina.
Also included in the first dozen titles on Crunchyroll Manga are several titles that have anime tie-ins. In addition to manga series that have anime that are currently airing on Crunchyroll.com (Attack on Titan and Mysterious Girlfriend X by Riichi Ueshiba), Crunchyroll Manga is also digitally publishing titles that have tie-ins to anime airing on other streaming services, like COPPELION by Tomonori Inoue (which is currently airing on Hulu and Viz Anime), and Fairy Tail which is airing on Funimation.com.
Kodansha Comics On Crunchyroll
Given that four of the initial titles featured on Crunchyroll Manga are also currently or soon to be published by Kodansha Comics USA, this raised some interesting questions about how Crunchyroll’s streaming manga subscription service would work with Kodansha’s print and digital publishing plans for these same titles.
For example, Kodansha Comics is currently in the midst of an accelerated digital / print release schedule for Attack on Titan and Fairy Tail. Starting in August 2013, Kodansha began releasing new print and digital volumes of Attack on Titan on a monthly basis, to catch up with the Japanese release, Volume 13 by January 2014.
Fairy Tail is currently up to 40 volumes in Japan, so to catch up with the latest chapters, Kodansha Comics is releasing TWO new volumes of Hiro Mashima’s fantasy/adventure series every month for Nook and Kindle eReader-compatible devices. So where does Crunchyroll Manga come into play here?
Well, the short answer is that for now, Crunchyroll Manga is featuring only the latest chapters of Attack on Titan and Fairy Tail on their site, and not the chapters in the back catalog volumes.
This is an interesting compromise, since other titles on Crunchyroll Manga that have a significant back catalog (Space Brothers, for example, is up to 22 volumes in Japan) will have all prior volumes eventually available to readers with All-Access or Manga memberships.
“The partnership with Crunchyroll is just a part of our whole picture for US manga publishing business,” said Tatsuya Morimoto, License Manager from Kodansha International. “We will try our best to offer more attractive titles in English that fans outside Japan want to read. To make this happen, we try to maximize the synergy between this new challenge and Kodansha Comics' growing print and digital manga publishing,” he added.
So why did Kodansha work with Crunchyroll instead of other digital publishing platforms? Morimoto cited Crunchyroll’s connection with anime/manga fans, and their experience with simulcasting anime content from Japan.
“We decided to collaborate with Crunchyroll because they are one of the best anime service platforms in the world, that already established the way how to deliver translated contents to many fans at the same day as Japan. They have lots of experience and expertise for simultaneous release,” said Morimoto. “Besides that capability, I like their way to offer manga to fans together with their rich anime portfolio. I believe fans love this way so we hope to satisfy their demand that they want to enjoy both manga and anime together.”
Osamu Yoshiba, Kodansha’s Executive Director for International Business also added, “We are very excited for readers worldwide to have access to our manga faster and more conveniently than ever before.”
While the first dozen titles on Crunchyroll Manga are from Kodansha, Crunchyroll is definitely looking to get more Japanese publishers on board with their program. Robert Newman, Crunchyroll Manga Manager, described it this way: “Crunchyroll Manga is an open platform. We hope to add more manga from as many publishers as possible, aiming to make Crunchyroll Manga the best place for manga fans worldwide to enjoy the manga they love.”
It’s worth emphasizing that Crunchyroll Manga is an “all-you-can-eat” subscription service, not a download-to-own publishing venture. So how do publishers make money from having their comics content featured on Crunchyroll? As Newman explained it, “Crunchyroll Manga offers a unique revenue share model that generates revenue from a combination of membership proceeds and ad revenue allowing publishers and creators the ability to monetize their content from both paid and free users.”
Much like how Crunchyroll streams anime, but does not license or produce these series for release on DVD, they’re also taking a similar approach to their manga content. “Crunchyroll does not have plans of publishing print editions at this time,” said Newman. “However, we are trying to support the sale of printed manga by making them available in the Crunchyroll Store.” He added, “We are already selling print editions of manga from several publishers including Dark Horse, Kodansha Comics, and Vertical and will be adding more soon.”
While direct links to purchase the print editions weren’t on the various manga pages when Crunchyroll Manga debuted on Wednesday, Newman mentioned that this sort of cross-promotion is definitely part of their plans. “We will have links to our store where users will be able to find a variety of merchandise related to the manga, including print editions from their US publisher.”
For longer series like Space Brothers and A Town Where You Live (which is up to 24 volumes in Japan), Crunchyroll Manga offers an opportunity to make titles that are normally considered too risky, too long, or too Japanese to be considered for print publication available to fans who would otherwise rely on unauthorized scanlation sites to read these comics in English.
Crunchyroll: Fifty Manga in Two Months
Given that Crunchyroll Manga is offering a mix of titles from weekly manga periodicals (like Morning and Weekly Shonen Magazine) and monthly magazines (like Monthly Young and Monthly Afternoon), how will their “simulpub” program work?
Newman offered this explanation: “Simulpub chapters will be available on Crunchyroll as soon as they become available in Japan. So, for titles from weekly magazines chapters will be added to Crunchyroll Manga weekly, and titles from monthly magazines will be added monthly (unless the creators decide to take a break from their hectic schedules or there are other such delays in Japan's release).”
And these first dozen titles are only the beginning. Look for Crunchyroll Manga to add even more titles in the coming weeks. “Crunchyroll Manga will be releasing manga from a wide variety of magazines and we will continue to increase our offering. We are aiming to reach 50 titles from various publishers by the end of the year,” said Newman.
So what goes into choosing the titles that are added to Crunchyroll Manga? Does an anime tie-in make a manga series more appealing to be added to the mix? Newman had this to say: “There are many factors that go into choosing a title, like whether or not there is an anime based on the manga on Crunchyroll, but at the end of the day our goal is to bring our users the best and most popular manga from Japan.” He also added, “We also look forward to hearing directly from our millions of monthly unique users what manga they want to read.”
Right out of the gate, Crunchyroll Manga is accessible by readers in North America, and “over 170 countries worldwide.” However, existing licensing relationships for some titles preclude making some series available to readers in these countries: South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Algeria, Lebanon, Belgium, Brazil, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Morocco, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand.
This list of excluded countries will vary from title to title, and publisher to publisher. Newman offered this explanation: “Titles will be blocked in some countries on a tile-by-title basis for a number of reasons The major reasons being the Japanese publisher's relationships with publishers in the particular country and their existing licensing situation there.”
Via their Crunchyroll Forums, Crunchyroll rep Shinji promised to “keep working on securing more territory rights.” While they obviously can’t offer any promises on a time frame to offer access to Crunchyroll Manga, fans in these counties can only wait and hope for new developments on this front.
While this is dismal news for readers in these excluded territories, Crunchyroll Manga is a promising new option for manga fans to get their fix of the latest chapters of current manga they want to read, via a legal, official channel that benefits the original creators and publishers. This especially benefits manga fans in countries that traditionally have been underserved by print publishers who have nonetheless discovered manga by watching anime or reading manga via illegal scan sites.
Based on an initial test drive of the service, Crunchyroll Manga works pretty well. The Flash-based manga reader loads quickly, is pretty easy to navigate. There’s room for improvement, like offering recommendations for similar series to read, or perhaps adding age ratings and/or warnings for graphic/violent content or fanservice (fanservice is gratuitious sexual content). The first chapter of As the Gods Will, for example, has some fairly graphic violence/gore in some scenes, but given that it’s only the first week of the service’s availability, some glitches and opportunities to improve are to be expected.
As more titles roll out and more publishers sign on to the service, it’ll be very interesting to see how Crunchyroll Manga will change the manga publishing landscape in North America, and maybe the world. Will this be as much of a game-changer as Crunchyroll Anime’s simulcast model was to the anime biz? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.