Behind the Scenes / Comics leading the way in digital publishing

By Shinya Machida / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterSales of digital publications are on the rise. According to the Research Institute for Publications, sales rose by 27.1 percent in 2016 compared to the year before, reaching ¥190.9 billion, with digital comics making up more than three-fourths of that. As print sales decline, digital works occupy an increasingly significant position in the publishing world.

“Tateyomi! Tadayomi!” (Read vertically! Read for free!)

Using this catchphrase, the comico service — which is operated by NHN comico Corp. and lets users read comics and other publications on their smartphones — has rapidly been spreading in the youth market. Launched in 2013, comico lets users read most of the works for free. The cumulative total of domestic downloads has reached 14 million.

The distinguishing feature of comico is vertical scrolling. A print comic is read page by page in a horizontal direction, with the reader’s eyes moving from the top right to the bottom left. In contrast, a digital comic with vertical scrolling is read by sliding one’s finger upward on a smartphone screen to move the panels in a vertical direction.

This is meant to make comics easier to read on a screen, which is smaller than printed pages in a book. The screen moves as if it’s flowing, giving the work an added sense of speed.

“Nanbaka” by Sho Futamata, which is currently being serialized on comico, is a distinctive work that tells the story of prisoners leading peaceful lives in jail. After the digital version became popular, the work was published in four book volumes and also made into an anime. In the beginning, Futamata published the work on her own website, with “Nanbaka” expanding to print through the comico channel.

“I’ve been thinking about how I can shape the humor and actions I want to draw [in the work] on a smartphone screen as effectively as possible. Since the comic is now a printed book as well, I have twice as much fun,” said Futamata.

Remarkably, IT companies are now entering the digital comics market. LINE Manga, a service for smartphones that allows users to read “free serials” from existing publishers, is popular.

Tomoyoshi Murata, manager of LINE Manga’s editorial team, said, “This helps promote publishers’ new books, and it makes LINE Manga itself more attractive.” LINE Manga also sells digital comics, and if the number of users increases, it will also lead to an increase in sales.

In comico, space is also provided for postings by amateur comic artists — a system that can cultivate future popular works in the digital world. In this business model, the operator’s investments in the manga creators can be recovered through printed books and other publications.

Lately, providing digital comic apps has become a trend among major publishers. In September 2014, Shueisha Inc. began distributing the Shonen Jump Plus app. For ¥900 per month, subscribers can read works serialized in the weekly comic magazine Shonen Jump and also read original works for free.

Apps like this, including Shogakukan Inc.’s Manga One and Kodansha Ltd.’s Magazine Pocket, are an effort to make up for the falling readership of printed comic magazines.

Magazine services

Digital magazines are attracting attention as well. Last year, digital magazine sales hit ¥19.1 billion — a substantial increase of 52.8 percent compared to the previous year — amid the struggling of print magazines. Print magazines’ slump is evidenced by Shinchosha Publishing Co.’s announcement to suspend the publication of Kangaeru Hito, which had carried content like interviews with author Haruki Murakami.

All-you-can-read apps such as NTT Docomo Inc.’s d magazine, which lets subscribers read over 170 magazines for ¥400 per month, are also popular. According to a survey by the Japan Audit Bureau of Circulations, the number of users of all-you-can-read digital magazine services reached 4.73 million in the first half of 2016, a large increase from the preceding period.

New culture

“Digital comics are giving birth to ‘vertical scrolling,’ a culture that is not present in conventional manga works,” said Yashio Uemura, professor of publishing studies at Senshu University. “All-you-can-read digital magazine services basically transplant the same content from print magazines to smartphones. The key is what kind of magazine culture the publishers can create [with the digital magazines].”

Take a look back at the history of literature in Japan. After the age of handwritten manuscripts came the Edo period (1603-1867), which saw the popularization of woodblock printing — a technique that allowed many copies to be produced. In the Edo period, works including those by Ihara Saikaku, known for the novel “Nihon Eitaigura” (Japan’s eternal storehouse), were released.

After the Westernization movement during the Meiji era (1868-1912), modern Japanese literature was born amid the popularization of typographical printing techniques that allowed the printing of a larger number of copies.

The advent of new technology always leads to the development of new culture. I’ll keep watching what kind of creations smartphones will bring to modern society.

Solutions for coexistence

As digital publishing takes off, the publishing industry continues to grapple with how to develop print and digital works in a balanced fashion.

Dai Nippon Printing Co.’s honto is a membership-based service that allows users to buy digital books and order printed books for delivery through its website. Ordered books can be picked up at bookstores that belong to the group. This has gained attention as a service that connects the internet with local bookstores, and honto now has 3.8 million members.

Dai Nippon Printing, which was launched as a publication printing firm, now operates bookstores such as Maruzen and Junkudo under its umbrella. Yukihiko Tamiya, who heads the unit in charge of the honto business, said, “We want to vitalize local bookstores and increase the number of places where books and people can meet.”

The entire publishing market — print and digital combined — was worth ¥1.6618 trillion in 2016. Although the number continues to decline, print publications still make up ¥1.4709 trillion, or 88.5 percent, of the total.

At a press conference on Feb. 21, Kodansha President Yoshinobu Noma said: “It’s important to expand our digital and licensing business, but the contraction of the market for print formats weakens distributors and bookstores. To revitalize the print market, it is urgent for us to publish entertainment products that can attain worldwide popularity.”

Major publishers remain unwavering in their support of the idea of placing the importance on print publications, where excellent works can be enjoyed the most.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 28, 2017)Speech

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