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Possibilities are endless as Japan’s manga fans turn cell phones into libraries

by Akky Akimoto

In a development indicative of the growth of Japan’s digital publishing industry, key player Celsys Inc. was listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s second section on Nov. 4. This is in addition to being listed on startup market Centrex.

Celysys functions as a provider of authoring tools for manga manufacturers and an e-books-support business, according to their website.

The digital manga market, accessed primarily via cell phones, is large in Japan. According to a report by research firm Impress R&D, the size of the e-book market in 2009 was ¥57.4 billion. That is 23.7 percent larger than the previous year. Around 89 percent of this market (¥51.3 billion) comes from Japanese cell phones, 10 percent is from PCs and a mere 1 percent comes from emerging platforms such as Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iBookstore.

Underneath these statistics, it might interest readers who are not manga fans that ¥42.8 billion, 83 percent of all e-books sold over Japanese cell phones, were digital comics.

This month, Forrester Research issued a much-publicized prediction that the e-books market share in the United States would hit $966 million. Comparing the numbers in yen, the U.S. e-books market share would be at ¥82 billion while, in Japan, e-comics sold on cell phones last year totaled ¥42.8 billion. As the population ratio between the two countries is about 2.5:1, it’s easy to see how many Japanese purchase and read e-comics on their cell phones.

So, what kinds of comics are being read on the nation’s cell phones? MMD Labo’s 2009 research revealed that the most popular categories of manga were: pornography, romance and comedy. More than half of the users preferred e-comics because they could read them anywhere, anytime. Over one-third said the advantage was that they could secretly read them (which might explain why pornographic comics rated so highly).

The bigger question might be, how can manga fans tolerate reading comics on such small cell-phone displays. Screens average between three and four inches, often making the dialogues boxes in the comics unreadable. The latest feature phones have a pretty good pixel count, around 480 × 854, which improves the experience of taking pictures and watching movies, but it is difficult for the human eye to focus on such small script. Another difficulty is that traditional manga consists of several frames on one printed page.

There are two ways to translate manga onto the (really) small screen. One way is to display the original scanned page and use a controlled scroll. When readers press the phone’s home button, the viewpoint moves to follow the desired path.

The second way turns each frame of the comic into a single page. In the case of small frames, two could be shown together on one page. Or, the reader could scroll vertically or horizontally across a long frame by using their cell-phone home buttons.

On the whole, popular tools support both. The scrolling system has advantages when it comes to authoring costs. The frame-by-frame approach, however, is better in terms of user experience and, though rare, new manga developed for cell phones are done in the frame-by-frame way.

Extra features on the phone already include visual, sound or vibration effects. The frames fade into each other, or there are sudden bursts of color. When a character is walking, cell phones make the tapping noises of footsteps. There are even comics in which characters “talk” with voice actors lending their talents to important scenes. And in horror e-comics, a well-timed vibration could have readers jumping out of their seat.

While e-book readers seem to be content with text being simply lifted from paper to tablet device, e-comics involve more work in converting data or adding special effects.

Celsys’ move to the TSE indicates growth and the potential for more growth. However, for the industry to be really profitable, eventually it will have to move its product overseas. It’s not an impossible task, manga already enjoy a lot of popularity in other countries. So far, some firms have tried to export cell-phone e-comics, mostly to other Asian countries and some European markets. Although there hasn’t been the kind of success that has been seen in the domestic market — yet — some Asian countries have still been playing an important role in digital comics — through outsourcing.

Drawing paths on scanned paper comics, cutting whole pages into frames, adding several effects — all of that is pretty hard work. Authoring (the use of e-comic editing tools) duties tend to be farmed out to countries such as China, India and Mongolia, where labor costs are low and many of the workers may not understand Japanese. Problems in production are possible if the person making the comic doesn’t understand the order of the frames, but they can be solved with checks by native speakers and the process will still be cheaper in total.

It is said that there are about 10,000 paper comic titles published annually in Japan, and countless tomes of manga from the past. As more readers start using their cell phones to read the comics digitally, the supply of content will not disappear soon.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English-language blog on the Japanese Web scene. A Japanese version of this article is available on his blog at akimoto.jp. You can follow him at @akky on Twitter.