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Digital manga isn't just for the pirates

Buddha on the Kindle... if only!

You may have already noticed, but there is a lot of hullabaloo on the Internet at present about the presence of illegal manga scanlation aggregation sites (we won't link to them here for the sake of integrity) as well as the recent formation of an industry coalition to fight this particular practice. One response to this, and one I have personally echoed in my own vehement and nerdy voice, is that there needs to be a legal equivalent to fill the obvious market that exists for digital manga. There have already been some steps in this direction, as you will have seen from my review of the Astro Boy Magazine (Soon to be provided in iBooks, I hear!), but this is only available for Apple platforms in selected countries at present.

I want to outline how a digital marketplace for manga would make me a more lucrative consumer for the manga companies.

The first problem that can be solved by digital distribution is availability. There are two parts to this, because I can't help overcomplicating things.

Part number one: Retail availability can be a double-edged sword. Every few weeks I make a circuit of the two remaining manga booksellers that exist where I live and pick up things that interest me. This has led to some wonderful impulse purchases I would not have otherwise made, but as time has gone on this practice has declined just as the available space for manga has shrunk within these stores. More often it poses an issue — you see fragmented series missing volumes you wish to purchase, or only the very latest volumes of something you may be interested in. Ordering in copies can, depending on the service, be a royal pain and the time until delivery is often worse than shopping online.

Talking about online, these same issues are amplified in the digital bookstore, where ordering out-of-stock items is often a lot less transparent and impulse purchases are all but non-existent. I don't know about you, but most of the suggestions that Amazon offers me on its front page are for books I have already purchased from other vendors. Still, this shows that their system works.

With a digital product there is (barring a freakish technical fault) no such thing as “out of stock”, or “available in 7-14 weeks” — just a digital file on a server that is waiting for me to fork over my cash. While you lose some of the romance and physicality of a brick-and-mortar store, the instant and obvious availability of stock makes for a much easier purchasing experience overall.

The second part of the availability issue comes in when a manga is no longer in print, or hard to find. You may end up having to pick up volumes from many different places, both from physical bookstores and online counterparts, and trying to order unavailable volumes can be a lottery. I’m sure many of you can think of a time you have heard an exciting series described to you by a friend, enemy, or podcast with the soul-crushing words “Oh, but it’s hard to find now” appended on the end. Wouldn’t it be nice for there to still be an option available to obtain the series while still ensuring that the publisher feels the love?

For a personal example of this problem, I had a hell of time picking up Buddha recently. While not strictly scarce, the wildly fluctuating availability of individual volumes in the UK made picking it up for a reasonable (i.e. RRP or less) price a hellish endeavor. I ended up ordering it from four separate places, one of which was a bookstore in Croydon who did mail-order but had no e-mail and so I had to phone the (very pleasant) shop assistant.

How nice would it have been to simply press a big button on a digital delivery service labeled "Buy Series"? I would have done that in a heartbeat.

A digital option would also have cut out a big additional cost and inconvenience of manga purchasing — physical delivery. Instead of waiting 3-5 working days and/or paying a varying sum for delivery, the manga can come direct through your Internet connection at minimal cost. This immediacy would allow for an even greater volume of impulse purchases — something I am already highly susceptible on the iTunes Store and on Steam.

The next, and main, reason is amazingly boring and a bit obvious: Manga made from dead trees takes up space. Once you start a collection, the amount of space needed tends to skyrocket. I currently own the first 6 volumes of Fullmetal Alchemist, and while I would love to continue reading the series, I have no space to house it. I already have two full bookcases, and purchasing a long series like FMA would cause me no end of headaches trying to find a home for it. Note that this does not mean that I will stop buying physical manga volumes, but I have to be more selective about what I buy, especially longer series.

This leads me to a secondary item — while I enjoy reading Fullmetal Alchemist, I am not desperately chomping at the bit to devote the not-trivial amount of money and shelf space to the rest of the series. With this current state of affairs, I have no (legal) method of reading the series and the publisher is missing out on the money I would happily pay them for a digital version.

These are all issues with the current model that can be remedied by a digital marketplace, and would not displace my existing desire to buy physical copies. I haven’t even started to talk about ways that manga could be enriched and enhanced in a digital marketplace, but that is within the scope of a different article.

Editor's Note: Digital Manga Publishing is currently running eManga, a site offering digital distribution of manga through a rental system.

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