The North American manga business took a beating last decade. After peaking around 2005-06, the lethal storm of oversaturated shelves, a collapsing U.S. financial industry and the bankruptcy of major American bookstore chain, Borders, left publishers and distributors in a panic. Downsizing, restructuring and layoffs became de rigueur.
“The bankruptcy of Borders in 2011 was definitely the final straw in forcing me to close down the office and stop print publishing,” says Stu Levy, the founder and CEO of Tokyopop, a pioneer and stalwart of the North American manga market that once introduced millions to the iconic “Sailor Moon” series. Levy believes rampant digital piracy and reduced print runs combined with the closing of Borders to force his hand.
But after the losses sustained in the wake of Japan’s natural and nuclear disasters of 2011, manga publishers and their overseas partners see signs of hope — though not necessarily where they were looking for them.
“India is the new market, and it’s the fastest growing one now,” says Kevin Hamric, senior director of sales and marketing at San Francisco-based Viz Media, one of the oldest North American distributors of manga and anime.
At the start of this year, Viz entered the English-language Indian manga market in partnership with its global distributor, Simon & Schuster International. The move follows Viz’s successful foray into the Philippines last year and signals a new focus on emerging manga markets in South and Central Asia, South America and the Middle East.
“It’s overwhelming how fast (Japanese pop culture) conventions have grown in India,” says Hamric. “Last weekend in Bangalore, they were expecting 60,000 attendees, and I’m sure they exceeded that. We sold out of every single book we had in our booth. We could have easily sold more, but we didn’t have enough room.”
The explosive growth of conventions in India and other parts of Asia is a relatively recent phenomenon, Hamric says, that took place over the past three or four years. By contrast, he notes, it took seven years for North American Comic Cons in San Diego and New York City to hit record-breaking tallies.
And it’s not just strength in numbers; fans in India and the Philippines are passionate, even frantic, to get their fill of manga.
“In Manila I was treated like a god, and I’m just a publisher,” Hamric says. “There were rabid fans who were so desperate to talk to anybody who had anything to do with anime or manga. All knew the Viz brand, which was good to see. But it was more fulfilling just to see kids who want to get their hands on something they want to read.”
The rapid expansion of such conventions in India has created the need for more professional organization and strategies. Enter ReedPOP, the division of Reed Exhibitions responsible for staging next month’s massive New York Comic Con and the annual Book Expo America, among other global trade shows.
Earlier this month, ReedPOP announced a tie-up with the original founders of Comic Con India. The collaboration will enable the Connecticut-based company to bring bigger names to shows in India, and stage events backed with years of experience and know-how.
“What’s amazing is that fandom — whether in Bangalore, Brisbane or Boston — is universal,” says ReedPOP Senior Vice President Lance Festerman. “Comics, movies, anime, manga and video games have created a global culture. It’s pop culture, sure, but it’s a shared culture that people are consuming at the same time all around the planet. At Bangalore Comic Con this month, fans queued up to play the Xbox One, to get an autograph from David Lloyd, to hear Neil Gaiman speak, and to photograph cosplay guests from Japan dressed as Sailor Venus and Satsuki Kiryuin from ‘Kill la Kill.’ ”
Still, Festerman admits that the Indian market and its burgeoning con scene remain underdeveloped. The Bangalore venue was old and so small that organizers had to erect makeshift sheet-metal additions to house the fans, power was piped in from a fleet of adjacent generator trucks, and ticket prices — as high as $50 per day in the U.S. — hovered around $5.
“It was a little rough around the edges,” he concedes. “Polishing these things are a big part of our partnership.”
Despite the opportunities, the biggest obstacle to the growth of manga in emerging markets is Japan itself. Publishing industry veteran Hamric is frustrated by the hesitation and outright resistance of many Japanese publishers to license their titles in untested markets such as India.
“That’s the slowest part of the process,” he says. “The publishers of this kind of book, manga, just haven’t had experience with this. They just don’t understand the marketplace. Where there’s been no distribution whatsoever, or where distribution has been localized — they’re very careful about letting English-language books go into those territories. They don’t want to disrupt the local distribution.”
The profitability of rising manga markets in India and across Asia, South America and the Middle East is impossible to ignore. If Japan’s manga publishers hope to survive amid a shrinking domestic market, they would do well to risk some disruption to secure a future.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.