While statistics show that the size of the manga market has steadily decreased in Japan over the last decade, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Japanese are reading less manga. The figures only refer to new manga – serialised in magazines and bought in shops as graphic novel compilations. In the past, the vast size of the Japanese publishing industry was often over-estimated by pundits who counted the same title twice, once on its magazine publication, and once when it was reprinted in book-form. This only matters if you are an accountant, not a fan.

But it’s these book forms that are weighing heavily on the industry now. Anthology magazines the size of phone directories have built-in obsolescence. The ink comes off in your hands, the paper is often coloured to hide the fact it has been recycled several times already. You’re supposed to read it on a train and then dump it at the next station, thereby allowing creators to sell the same thing back to you later on in book form.

But books are much more enduring. In Japan, you can shell out for new editions of the complete works of Masamune Shirow or Osamu Tezuka, or you can just pick them up second-hand for a fraction of the price. Ex-bachelor fanboys are forced to sell off their collections by irate spouses. Old-time fans die off, leaving their collections to go back on the market. Second-hand manga are great news for impecunious fans, but they can cause the entire market to depreciate in value. It’s going to be an interesting question, over the next few years, if UK manga sales also develop a second-hand afterlife. Then again, there are some companies whose products are so shoddily assembled that they won’t last long enough to make it to the second-hand stores. Poor print quality, weak glue… was this a cunning plan to build in obsolescence, or just low quality from the start?

(This article first appeared in NEO magazine #24, 2006, and was reprinted in the collection Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. I choose to reprint it today because of the recent news that the manga market dropped 6.6% last year, something of a collapse after the steady 2%/year decline since 1995).

10 thoughts on “Afterlife

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  4. I wondered about this actually when I went CD shopping in Tokyo last year: the second-hand albums are reasonably-priced by our standards, especially considering how a Japanese second-hand CD is in nearly-new condition. Bought new, they are very expensive which makes me wonder how the appealing nature of the second-hand market is affecting sales of new discs.

    I could see the same thing with DVDs and, I’m assuming since I didn’t have much interest in things I couldn’t read, books too. Given the fact that second-hand items are in such good condition and the fact that new ones are so expensive, is the market relying on lots of hardcore fans who are willing to spend a lot on new stuff, look after the items and quickly sell them on to everyone else? If so, it’s a model that works well now but could easily be upset because it’s so reliant on one sector of consumers!

  5. In six years of writing the Manga Snapshot column, I have only found a single magazine that seems *designed* to be collected, and that is the high-brow alternative manga Fellows. Which is, incidentally, the only manga magazine I have seen which includes back issue adverts. Tellingly, it doesn’t have an ISSN magazine identifier, but an ISBN that actually implies it is really a book masquerading as a magazine.

    Several other magazines have been printed on a high enough quality paper to make them more than a train’s ride worth of fun. They are magazines for women, who presumably care more about the ink coming off on their fingers. Magazines for young boys are universally poor quality, and necessitate several trips to wash my hands in the space of a single reading.

    The Japanator article is right in the sense that manga magazines don’t *have* to be disposable. But they are certainly intended to be such by their publishers. The publishers hope very much that you won’t hang onto yours for very long because if you do, you are less likely to run out and buy the anthology compilations. You will also need a bigger house very quickly.

  6. Your talk of a “steep decline” in manga sales is interesting, but needs some more context; for example:

    In January, sales at Supermarkets and Convenience Stores in Japan fell 4.9% and 5.3% respectively on the year, the 14th and 8th consecutive month of decline.
    Sales at Department Stores were hardest hit: by a 5.7% drop, the 23rd straight month of decline.
    (You can Google this quote line to find my source)

    So it isn’t simply a case of manga is not popular/important/successful anymore as a case of the Japanese domestic economy being in a major recession. None of this necessarily spells the “end of manga”.

  7. I never said it was the “end of manga”. But it’s very interesting and not at all surprising to see that the Japanese are buying less of everything at the moment.* I suspect that in a couple of years the overall trend will even out and we will see that, on average, the manga market is *still* declining at 2% a year, as it has done since 1995.

    *Except perhaps 2nd hand comics. Good news for Book-Off… maybe not so good news for publishers.

  8. Pingback: Fandom, food, and falling sales | Manga World

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