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).