One of the top subject among all anime/manga blogs these days is the difficulties and frustrations of finding and buying the items that, as fans and consumers, we want to support.
I don’t know if I’m going to be able to express well enough all the many complexities of the issues, so my apologies in advance if I seem like I’m oversimplifying or making things more confusing. To try and explain the whole mess, I thought I’d split the whole thing into three perspectives. Hopefully as I go through the process from each group’s point of view, you can start to see the problem areas on your own. Honestly, I have no suggestions at all about how to fix this.
Let’s start with the point of view of the consumer:
I want to buy a manga. I have several choices to decide how to do that. If I go to a comic book store, I can look through a copy of Previews (for which many comic stores charge, something that I think is criminal,) and decide what I want to read three months from now. The comic store places the order and we both *hope* that the book will come out on time and that there will be enough to fill my order, because the distributors frequently fill larger orders first, leaving the remainder of their initial order from the publishing company to fill the smaller orders from individual shops. If I don’t get my book, maybe the distributor will have enough remaining orders to place a new order with the publisher…or maybe not. If they do, maybe the publisher will have enough books from the first printing left to fill that order…or maybe not. If any of the “not” options arise, I don’t get that book. Even though I ordered it three months in advance.
So, I decide to go to a bookstore. Here’s a spot where consumers have a serious disconnect between their reality and real reality. They think – the bookstores will have books. Or they will order books for me! The reality is that bookstores only want to shelve books that will sell. So they will almost never order a book/author they don’t know, that has a niche audience, a small chance of selling, or a book that they don’t know anyone wants. Whether they have a lot of manga shelf space or not, real estate is always at a premium. Naruto sells, Bleach sells. These titles, for many reasons (some of which I touched upon last week) sell multiple copies. Strawberry Panic Light Novel (and I don’t want to beat on Seven Seas particularly, I’m just choosing that because it is a niche publication by being both Yuri and a Light Novel,) might, maybe, possibly, sell a copy. If you are a bookstore – which are you going to place an order for?
So, I go to the bookstore and ask them to order a copy of a book. They check to see if their distributor has it. They won’t go through the publisher directly, because that would be madness…there’s a million publishers, small and large. There are fewer distributors, so the bookstore can place an order with a few places, rather than many. Now the cycle goes back to the – does the distributor have it in stock or not?
So, in the case of say, Yuri Monogatari 5, you walk in to the store, ask them to order it. They place the order with Diamond and eventually, yes, you have your book. But if Diamond has none in stock, and they don’t plan on getting any more, because the last bunch never sold or was returned – or they can’t because I’ve shifted distributors, then you don’t get your book.
All of this applies to online bookstores as well as brick-and-mortar and is no less vexing. Online is a little more annoying because they may not even have the ability to let you place a pre-order or order, if they don’t list the book on their site.
Now, the distributor’s point of view:
A publisher tells the distributor that they have a book going on sale in five months. The distributor adds it to their catalog, that goes out to book stores, comic book stores, etc. Bookstores look through the catalog and decide to place some orders for that month. They may change their order a bit if a lot of pre-orders come through for a particular title, by adding more to what will go out on their shelves. Or, if a book that was on the shelves is not selling well, they’ll return the unsold copies (to make room for new volumes) and not buy as many the next time of that title.
The comic book stores take the orders for manga and hand them in – they rarely buy anything for the shelves, because most small American comic book stores really don’t *get* manga, and don’t want it hanging around the shop, but some do keep a nice selection. Those will deal with the orders just like the bookstores do. Mostly comic stores buy what their subscribers pre-order and no more.
The distributor collects the pre-orders and gets back to the publisher with a purchase order for x number of books. The publisher sends those books. It takes time for them to get sent, then logged into the system, then shipped out. In fact, it adds anywhere from a month to two months to the from printer-to-consumer cycle. So even though a book is “on sale” on Day/Month, you may not get it for a while.
Now, let’s say that the distributor gets no, or only a few, pre-orders. They won’t place a big order w/the publisher, because as far as they know, only 40 people want this book. In reality, there may be 4000 waiting for it to come out, but since those people didn’t pre-order it, the distributor and bookstores have no idea. So they place an order for 100 books, send out the 40 orders, and fill other orders as they come in. That’s 3900 people who are waiting for a book to show up on a bookstore shelf so they can buy it – but that book will never arrive, because the bookstore and the distributor can’t read minds and didn’t know to order it.
Once people realize this and ask their bookstore to order it, pretty quickly the distributor is out of books. Maybe they get enough orders to make it worth placing another order with the publisher, but because the initial order was small and they only have a few more orders coming in, not 3000, but maybe 30, they place another small order and the cycle repeats. They don’t want to be warehousing thousands of unsellable books, so they will be very conservative.
And, if they start getting returns from bookstores, they’ll be even more conservative, because they can’t resell books that have been returned to them to another bookstore. They will sell to discount and bargain sellers (like the people who sell books cheaply on the Marketplace on Amazon,) but those are few and buy in small amounts. So, if Diamond is stuck with 100 shipped and returned copies of Iono-sama Fanatics, they won’t request a new order, even if they get a few orders in for it – and they won’t ship what they have, because they are considered used. So, even if the publisher can fill the order, they may not be able to get you a book.
Last up, the publisher’s point of view:
The publisher has to work on a schedule and know about 5 months ahead of themselves when a book will come out. (This is easier for larger companies. It’s really hard for me, since I can never be sure how much time a book will take and, more importantly, how much time at any given point in my life, I can give it.) They tell their distributors, who put the books into their catalogs. Then they wait for the purchase order. So, if you pre-ordered Kannazuki no Miko from Amazon, that pre-order went into the initial p.o. from Amazon to the distributor and the distributor to the publisher.
Let’s say the publisher publishes 6000 books. They get an initial p.o. for, again, say 1000. That leaves them holding 5000 books. Now, maybe the best situation happens and all 1000 get sold and few returned, so they get another p.o….this time for 300 books. Because, remember, the distributor isn’t going to want to warehouse more than they can sell, bookstores don’t want to shelve more than they can sell (and bookstores don’t really get that new fans pop up all the time, so having only the latest volume of a manga series makes it hard to sell that volume 5 to someone who hasn’t read 1-4.) So the second p.o. will always be smaller than the first. Unless there’s an astounding number of orders from stores.
Maybe, from this point on, the publisher get a p.o. every few months for a few more books here and there. But mostly, they still have about 4000 books sitting in their stock. The stores/sites will also only keep a book or two – at most, and after a while won’t bother stocking more. And they may return a title if it gets too old, so the orders dribble out. The publisher *has* the books, but can’t get them to new fans, because the system has no method for that.
And, just to make this all more annoying, all these books sold through a distributor are sold for a very low price, so the distributor can add a percentage and so can the bookstore, so everyone makes money. If a publisher sells a book that is a cover price of $10, they may only get $4 from the distributor. If the cost of printing that book is $4/book, then with shipping, the publisher would actually lose money even though they made a sale. So per-books costs have to be very low in order to make any money at all.
You will probably say “why not just sell direct?” but that’s not as easy as you think. People don’t order directly that often and not in great numbers. Fulfillment for 1000 single items is a nightmare. That’s 1000 books that have to get packaged, labeled and mailed and many of the publishing companies don’t have that kind of staff. I certainly don’t. If I had 1000 copies to send out of a book, you’d be waiting WEEKS while I got all those orders filled. Also, some publishers don’t bother discounting their books on their site, so you get a better deal at a store site. In the case of the one book you want from that publisher, it’s sometimes not worth the effort to get that one thing. People would rather buy on a site where they can buy many titles at once, like Amazon, or go in a bookstore and find it on the shelf…only that title might not be there, for all the reasons I mentioned above.
The publisher *might* go to events, but that is extremely expensive and may not make more money than it costs – unless the publisher has new items constantly, it gets harder and harder to sell that Volume 1. Sure, there’s a new fan here and there…but they need to sell out the last 4000 of those books, which is a lot of new fans to try and get. It’s not reasonable to expect to be able to have sales like that at a show. New books make it easier to sell the old ones, but then publishers are locked into a cycle of having to constantly be putting out new books, which can get very expensive and you actually end up with more older volumes lingering each time.
You, the consumer, might really want a copy of Last Uniform and Seven Seas may have the copies to sell. But if the bookstore won’t or can’t place the order, or the distributor won’t or can’t place an order, then the books might be there, but they can’t get to you.
Here is what I can tell you. There is NO publisher – none, ever – who want to screw you, the consumer, the fan. If you believe that, you are being silly, or perhaps deranged if you *insist* that any company is out to screw or deceive you.
*Every publisher wants to sell books. They want you to get the books you want.*
Plain and simple, they want to make money. The profit margins in publishing are so low that, trust me – they all really, really want to sell books.
What does happen is that a lot of companies are run by fans, who have a middling to poor grasp of business and/or business communications. So their inability to communicate to you may seem like them fucking with you. But it is not intended to be that way. On the other hand the company may be run by suits and they don’t understand fans at all, so then it seems like they don’t give a shit. They do, but they don’t know the particular issues of fandom. Again, it’s not personal.
Because of the legacy process from comic books, and the process for books in bookstores that is geared for short-lived best sellers, manga publishers in particular have a hard time getting those books to you. And the onus gets put on the consumer’s shoulder to pre-order things, which is ridiculously unfair. It basically means that you have to buy first, in order that people after you can buy later. It’s an absurdity and I’m sure we’ve all been burned by it at some point.
If you’re from overseas the problems are multiplied, because to your country our books are foreign and therefore of significantly lower priority than your own. Even if my distributor has a deal in place with bookstores in your country, it’s not guaranteed at all that any bookstore there will ever place an order for one. Even if you go in and ask, they may just not care enough to bother.
It sounds good to just get rid of the distributor, but that’s unrealistic. Bookstores and comic bookstores typically buy from distributors because that makes their lives easy and in some cases, it’s the *only* way to get that book. So without a major distributor, you’re basically selling off your own shop. And that just will never generate major sales on a regular basis (except in some unusual cases. If you are thinking of Right Stuf, for instance, remember that they were actually a distributor first, with a website that aggregates many companies’ items, so it’s more like going to an anime/manga store or Amazon, than a single publisher.)
Lastly, the sad truth is that far more people buy Volume 1 of a title than will buy Volume 2 and it goes down in numbers from there. So if a publisher spends $10k to publish 6000 copies of a book and sells 2000, and doesn’t come close to breaking even, then the impetus for them to spend 8k to print 3000 copies (because even though it’s less copies, they’ll still pay license fees and royalties and the cost per book will rise, because they are printing less) and will only sell 1000 this time. And so on, as they put out more volumes. Unless pre-orders are there to pick up the slack.
So, it comes down to the fact that the whole cycle of publishing, distributing, buying and selling is a total mess. Not just for one company or one consumer, but for all of us.
I hope that that explains some of the issues you, the reader, run in to when trying to find the manga you want. It doesn’t help the problem, but I hope I’ve been able to shed some light on why sometimes, even if a publisher says a book is available, you can’t seem to get it.
If any of the other publishers out there have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear it. I’d also love for us to get together and figure out a way to fix this system, because for manga publishers at least, it’s way beyond broke.
While writing this, I started thinking about the complexities of promoting manga, so I’ll deal with that at a later date, too.