The biggest news in comics publishing for 2018 snuck in just under the wire. Last Friday, Viz Media announced that Shonen Jump would be changing formats and moving to a day-and-date release for new chapters of their manga series in English translation and uploading them free on their website. Further, subscribers to Shonen Jump would be able to pay $1.99US/month for access to more than 10,000 chapters of older works. As the father of teenager who cannot stand the wait for new instalments of My Hero Academia, I can assure you that this announcement is a game changer.
Viz’s move is widely being read as an attack on scanlators - the fans who post unauthorized translations of manga online. Both the price (free!) and the timing of the releases (identical to publication time in Japan) will undermine scanlations, but, of course, Viz is also taking a massive risk with their existing revenue streams. Will my son still want paper copies of MHA if he can read the entire series from his iPad? It’s not entirely clear.
Ironically, the day before Viz’s announcement, I was talking at length with colleagues in our Communication and Media Studies department about the What Were Comics? project. One of my colleagues (correctly) noted that I had said extremely little about digital comics all day, opting to focus on traditionally printed comics. His question lingered with me as I read Viz’s news release, because it seems to point towards something that is so difficult in the study of contemporary comics: the absence of even decent data about the state of the industry.
Let me note that comics data has always been something of a problem. Sales and readership data from the first decades of the comic book industry are either absent or unreliable - even circulation statements are at least somewhat suspect. John Jackson Miller and Brian Hibbs both do remarkable work with the current sales data that is available to us, and both of them will remind you of dozens of caveats that come with their numbers. All of this, no matter how problematic it is, is far better than the data that we have for digital readership. This profile of Comixology, for example, gives absolutely no sense of its sales or subscriber levels - it simply tells us how many employees the Amazon subsidiary has; it’s a business profile that doesn’t want to tell us anything about the business.
A pointed example of the limited data on digital comics has been the launch this fall of DC Universe, the hybrid streaming service for DC’s superhero tv shows, films, and comic books. Though the service launched in the United States in September, there has been surprisingly little coverage in the entertainment industry trades or even comics blogs about its take up rate. This article in Sensor Tower from the end of September noted that the app had been downloaded 140,000 times, but that only 33,000 people had paid the $7.99US monthly fee. Based on the adoption rates of other niche streaming services, it is clear that the largest surge in subscribers comes at launch, and then there is the long, slow slog to find and convert additional users. 33,000 seems to be to be a terrible number for a service backed by Warner Entertainment. Even if the number is higher today (and it likely is), that is a small fraction of the number of subscribers to UFC’s Fight Pass or the WWE Network, both of which are far more niche than Superman and Batman.
I should also note that it is nearly impossible for me to assess DC Universe on my own - it is geo-blocked in Canada. Yet another problem with digital delivery, but for another post.
Whenever we talk about What Were Comics? we are asked the question about digital, and it does trouble me. The two biggest stumbling blocks to expanding our study into this domain seem to me to be:
(1) It seems almost impossible to take a step back to the point where we can get a good idea of how much material is included in a field that we might call digital comics - webcomics, web series, twitter comics, fan fiction. The field is extremely vast and extremely decentralized and there is nothing even vaguely approximating a standard reference work akin to the Overstreet Guide. Finding a way to sample it all is daunting, to say the least.
(2) We are still working with extremely limited data because of the proprietary nature of these systems. Sensor Tower’s data is the exception (although we’d love an update!). As for other companies - just like Netflix refuses to provide the public within anything akin to ratings, the actual numbers of subscribers and what they read online is a mystery enshrouded in an enigma.
No matter how the Shonen Jump decision shakes out in the long run, it seems to me that they are taking the lead in digital delivery. As we witness a massive run-up in streaming competition over the next few years with the American broadcast networks and legacy movie studios each positioning themselves to take on Netflix, it will be interesting to watch comic book publishers make similar moves. Viz is offering a significantly more comprehensive back catalogue to its readers at a fraction of the cost of DC Unlimited. It will be interesting to see if or when Warner and Disney will be forced to react in kind by expanding their offerings or lowering their prices.
Yet for scholars and historians of this material, the closed nature of the decisions being made today is troubling. When we study the history of popular music, or television, or film our discussions are driven by data to at least a certain extent. At comics studies conferences, however, I frequently hear assertions that low-selling comic book series are “popular in digital”. These assertions are typically offered with absolutely no evidence. As comics publishing - which has never been up front about circulation in the first place - increasingly shrouds its business practices our work as researchers will become ever more challenging.