Cartoon-strip publishers, whose printed-matter sales have been losing steam, are actively embracing mobile media because cell phones are what young people are spending their time and money on.

Cell phone sites for cartoon strips are booming, as is demand for popular titles. But at the same time, some famous “manga” artists are bypassing publishing houses to offer their works to “keitai” (cell phone) sites directly.

Toppan Printing Co. in April 2003 became one of the first firms to offer cartoon strips via cell phones. It currently offers 55 titles, including Reiji Matsumoto’s “Ginga Tetsudo 999” (“Galaxy Railway 999”) in collaboration with major publishers.

The cartoons, which are converted to digital form from their original paper edition, cost 30 yen to 100 yen per episode. Company officials said they plan to add 100 more titles by the end of March.

“Sales of novels and photo books for cell phones are not bad either, but cartoon strips are deeply rooted in (the culture of) this country and are eye-catchers,” said Tadashi Awano, manager of the firm’s e-business division. While declining to give specific figures, he said there are “hundreds of thousands” of cartoon downloads a month.

The driving force behind the cell phone cartoon boom is the introduction of high-speed third-generation wireless networks and flat rates for data communications, as well as bigger and sharper displays, according to Toppan officials.

Awano explained there are basically two ways to display cartoon strips on cell phones — page scroll and picture card.

For page scroll, users follow the original print layout by scrolling the display horizontally and vertically. For picture cards, each frame is made to fit the handset display, so readers can move to the next frame by clicking a button.

Awano said only about 10 percent to 20 percent of handsets currently in use are equipped to display cartoon strips fully, and he expects readership to increase sharply as more people switch to the latest models. He also said the company plans to expand its manga lineup for women.

“There has been a sense of crisis about sticking to print media,” because the market will inevitably shrink with the onslaught of digital rivals, said Satoshi Iwamoto, general manager of Shogakukan Inc.’s Net media center.

The major publishing house has more than a dozen comic magazines under its wing and has publishing rights for such popular series as “Doraemon” and “Ranma 1/2.”

“The long-term decline has been a common problem for the entire publishing industry,” he said.

According to the Research Institute for Publications, the country’s overall magazine and book market peaked in 1996 at 2.66 trillion yen and then started to decline, hitting 2.24 trillion yen in 2004. Magazines and books featuring cartoon strips hit their peak of 586.4 billion yen in 1995. They since have fallen to 504.7 billion yen in 2004.

Iwamoto noted that growth in cell phone use is in inverse proportion to that of cartoon strip readership, as mobiles sap the time and money that young people in the past spent on reading printed matter.

“But instead of seeing cell phones as a hostile medium, we have to use them to our advantage,” he said. “Offering cartoon strips on cell phones gives us an opportunity to reach potential readers.”

For Shogakukan and other publishers, the move also helps corral popular artists. According to Iwamoto, under current legal contracts, publishers cannot bind artists when it comes to digital media. In other words, artists have the right to sell the same works offered to magazines and books to a third party.

While he said the majority of artists have remained loyal to publishers, some publishing houses were shocked to learn that some of their popular artists had contracted with cell phone cartoon providers.

Sony Pictures Entertainment (Japan) Inc. is one industry outsider that has been negotiating directly with artists to offer their strips on cell phones.

The company, a unit of the consumer electronics giant, launched its cell phone cartoon business in April. Currently available only on KDDI Corp.’s au, services will soon start on the DoCoMo and Vodafone networks, officials said.

SPE has been aggressively expanding its lineup of titles, with a plan to have some 600 — three times what it now offers — by the end of March.

Compared with Toppan and other rivals, the majority of SPE’s titles are what could be called classics — manga released in the 1960s and 1970s by a few legendary artists, including Shigeru Mizuki, author of “Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro,” and Kazuo Umezu.

“We focused on artists with a lot of works or else we wouldn’t be able to build up our library,” said Yoshinari Okada, director of SPE’s mobile entertainment business.

“Revival comic books are popular with young people at convenience stores,” he noted. “Good works of the past are accepted even today.”

Okada said he does not think it is difficult to bypass traditional publishing houses to woo artists, noting that many it has approached are responding positively to the idea of broadcasting their works on cell phones.

“For instance, by distributing out-of-print works on cell phones, artists can reach readers who had never read their comics,” he said. “I think we can offer comics from a different position from that of publishers.”

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