This post is a part of a larger discussion, called the Manga Moveable Feast, about the Viz Signature line and its titles, hosted this month by Kate Dacey of the Manga Critic. Check out the introduction post for a short history of the Signature line and the archive for more blog posts on each of its titles!
Let’s start off with the facts: Literary manga seems to be becoming more popular these days. More and more, manga publishers that didn’t used to publish seinen are taking risks with titles for older audiences. The fact that these publishers are placing their bets on manga that used to have poor sales records in the U.S. might have something to do with the existence of Viz’s Signature/SigIkki line, and all the online experimentation Viz did with that.
There’s only one problem: The Viz Signature line has lost a lot of its fizz.
Sure,Viz is still invested in Signature titles and releasing volumes steadily, but there haven’t been a lot of new licenses within the Viz Signature line. Most likely, the line got a small financial boost from the anime adaption of Natsume Ono’s House of Five Leaves being streamed online. Thus, some of the most recent licenses have been her one-shots Tesoro and La Quinta Camera.
One-shots are not very risky, however, especially for a line that used to put up half of its current line up online for free until December, 2011. You see what I mean, right? Viz Signature titles, while very, vocally loved by their small fan-base, do not sell gangbusters.
Luckily, I think there’s a fairly simple solution to the Viz Signature line’s woes. More very, very targeted marketing.
To comic book stores.
I know! I know! This seems like a horrible idea! Comic book stores! Those bastions of evil where manga is, generally speaking, shunned by the majority of patrons as stupid.
But here’s the thing: Viz Signature line titles are a showcase of how broad, meaningful and not “stupid” manga can be. There’s something in Viz Signature for practically everyone (excluding kids, perhaps.) And if you take the time to study what’s popular in nerd culture right now, you’d see that there are more than a few Viz Signature titles that one could easily place in the hands of fans who “just like Tezuka/Urasawa/Takahashi stuff” or even The Walking Dead fans. Because really, this is stuff that a lot of comic-reading adults out there could enjoy if they got the right recommendation. Or even if they were just on the right shelves.
Obviously, this would take more time, money and effort than what Viz is currently willing to put forth. And while I respect the fact that they’ve put the majority of their Signature/SigIkki stuff on their e-reader apps, I doubt it brings the manga many more readers. (Too many steps in the way, like knowing the company exists and knowing they publish titles you like.) It seems to me that a little good, old-fashioned boldness needs to happen to get the word out about these titles.
So, I would like to propose that one way to get more people interested in the Signature line would be to start teaching comic book shop employees about the diversity of manga, with a little more focus on the diversity of seinen. Educate them and get them interested different kinds of more mature manga titles, even if those manga titles are from another company. The more they become interested, the more likely they’ll read and recommend Viz Signature manga to their customers. Then help the employees decide which books might best fit their customer base, and they do the rest.
Sure, Viz could go a more traditional route and just send out more press releases, maybe put a few advertisements on non-manga sites. But I feel like a lot of readers are a bit too biased for that. They need recommendations from people they trust.
One of the worst ideas behind manga publishing, I think, is the lack of energy when it comes to publishers expanding their existing, fanatic reader base. Yeah, Naruto is only going to appeal to a certain audience and it makes bucket loads of money compared to Saturn Apartments. But that doesn’t mean Saturn Apartments can’t reach beyond the already devoted, manga-reading audience.
Yes, it’s going to take precious, precious money away from a company that may be having a hard time of making it. Yes, there are no guaranteed sales here. But is it worth a try, in the long term, to expand manga readership? I think it absolutely is. There’s no other way this industry is going to survive. Even if Viz only did this with Barnes & Noble, it would still be a worthwhile effort to convince the chain to stock more of their Signature stuff. Then it would be seen by more and more readers, perhaps flipped through. There would at least be more of a chance that these books are sold. (Assuming they aren’t wrapped, which some of them would have to be.)
Really, this is one of the larger problems I see with the industry. Casual manga fans don’t even know that some of their most anticipated titles have been published or licensed. Since they don’t follow publishers or distributors closely, how else are they going to find out about new titles than in a comic book shop or chain bookstore? Word of mouth cannot always be counted upon. This happens to me constantly as the uber manga aficionado among a sea of casual fans. I’m more than happy to share my knowledge, but it’s alarming how many people don’t hear about new titles. And if casual manga fans don’t know what’s being published, how will new or non-fans find their way?
This does, of course, cause the problem of potentially overstocking a book that won’t sell. But the idea of educating store owners about what’s out there for grown-up readers would be to help them find manga that they want to sell to their customers, not just keeping up with the bestseller’s list and what the kids want to buy. Not just stocking everything Viz puts out each month. Not even just stocking the whole Signature line. Just what the staff wants to sell and thinks would work best for their shop.
Smart manga like the Viz Signature line really need a smart plan to help them find their audience. With any hope, Viz will once again pick up their adventurous, experimental spirit and let the Signature line shine once again.