Manga were the original digital comics: Before publishers had figured out how to import, translate, localize, and actually sell manga, groups of fan translators (scanlators) were doing the job for them and making their favorite titles available digitally, usually as downloads, for other fans.
Plenty of manga makes it into print these days, but digital is re-emerging as an important channel, especially for older and niche titles. While Viz and Yen Press market top-selling books like Naruto and Maximum Ride through their iPad apps (and Viz just launched an iPhone/iPod Touch version that works remarkably well), other publishers are using it for manga that may be hard to find through traditional channels or that simply doesn't sell well enough to support a print release. Notable among these are Animate U.S.A.'s line of yaoi manga and Softbank's translations of Harlequin manga (which themselves are adaptations of American novels).
Last week, some readers saw the downside of digitization, when Amazon pulled a number of yaoi manga out of the Kindle Store and Tokyopop removed its BLU yaoi manga from the eManga website without warning.
In both cases, the removed manga will still be available to readers who have already bought it; while new would-be purchasers are shut out, those who already "own" the manga will be able to read it. But for how long?
On the other hand, while Tokyopop has shut down its manga publishing arm, comiXology will continue to offer Hetalia: Axis Powers in digital form.
Just as with movies, music, and other media, there are two ways to get your digital manga: Streaming and download. eManga, Square Enix, and Netcomics, the big legit manga sites, are all streaming—you have to have an internet connection to read the manga, and there is no way to download books to your computer or other device. When you "buy" a book, you are really buying access to the book on that site. That means there is no way to save a book, and if the site owner goes belly-up, you may lose access to the manga you thought you had bought and paid for.
Downloading is a different matter. Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble allow you to download books to your Kindle, iPad, Nook, or computer, depending on the app and the software. If you download a book and store it on your device or hard drive, it's yours for keeps. Well, not entirely: Amazon once made the mistake of removing a book from people's Kindles, but there was such a hue and cry that they apologized, put it back, and promised not to do it again.
Still, when pressed, most digital distributors will admit that you don't really buy digital comics, you buy the right to read them in the format the publisher chooses. David Brothers wrote a good overview of the issue at Comics Alliance last December.
For some people, that's fine. A lot of yaoi fans are like romance readers—they read a lot of manga but they don't necessarily want to re-read them. Digital can save money and space (and eManga offers a "rental" option that is cheaper than actually buying the books). If you want to keep your manga, though, stick to download services—which may limit your options.
Remember, too, that digital distribution services are mass marketers, and they are subject to the pressures of the market. They do have the ability to provide an almost unlimited selection of books, unconstrained by physical considerations, because they don't have to pay for printing, paper, warehouses, trucks, etc. The marginal cost of adding one more book is pretty low, so they can stock manga that are pretty far down the long tail. That seems to be Animate's strategy—many of the titles they carry were originally published by Central Park Media and Broccoli Books, American manga publishers who couldn't make a profit on paper manga. The books aren't cheap, but at least you can get them.
There are advantages and disadvantages to reading manga on the Kindle. The screen is small and the resolution isn't that great, but it is portable and some books, like Animate's, aren't offered any other way. The recent disappearance of some yaoi manga, without notification or explanation, from the Kindle Store is another problem. (The Yaoi Review has a posted a list of the removed manga, some of which have been restored.) Of course, your brick-and-mortar bookstores do this all the time, sometimes just by not re-ordering a book when it runs out, but the web has led us to expect that everything will be available all the time, and when a retailer deliberately removes a book, people notice.
Fortunately, the online marketplace is constantly evolving. If there is enough of a demand, someone will sell the books. The three Digital Manga Publishing manga that were removed from the Kindle Store are all available via the Nook or through eManga, and Animate told The Yaoi Review that they would begin investigating the Nook as well. In fact, the Nook may be the sleeper market for manga, as Digital Manga CEO Hikaru Sasahara recently told me that their revenues from the Nook were rapidly approaching the take from the Kindle. Digital itself is working on a new initiative, the Digital Manga Guild, that will digitally publish fan-translated manga, bringing manga right back to its roots again—except this time, it's legit.