If you read manga, you probably read some Square Enix series. They don't publish manga under their own name in the U.S., but their titles are licensed by Viz and Yen Press. In December, Square Enix launched an online manga store, so I decided to check it out.
The best thing about the site is the selection of books: Black Butler, Fullmetal Alchemist, Hero Tales (a favorite of mine), Black God, Pandora Hearts. Unfortunately, that's the last nice thing I'm going to be able to say about it. The design is terrible, the registration process is way too complicated, and the reading software is unwieldy and locks the user in to one or two computers. Oh, and it's only available in the U.S.; the rest of the world is locked out. But if you're reading this in Canada or some other exotic place, let me reassure you: You're not missing much.
Since I have already outed myself as a cheapskate, I'll go ahead and say right now that at $5.99 per volume, the manga is seriously overpriced. That's especially true when you consider that the manga can't be downloaded; the site is streaming only. (The website says $5.99 is a "limited time offer," which suggests the price could go up at any time, but it has not changed since the website launched last December.)
Readers who just want to sample a new series can check out some fairly hefty previews, 40 or more pages, without having to log in or create an account, which is nice. This makes the site accessible to the casual browser.
Buying a book, however, is not so easy, especially if you are not already a member of their site. To begin with, I had to set up a temporary registration with Square Enix, which required me to tell them what country I am in and enter my birthdate and e-mail and agree to their service agreement. They then send me a link via e-mail, which I had to click on to continue. Then I chose a username, password, and security question.
After that, I had to enter more detailed information about myself (gender, name, and address) and I wasn't allowed to proceed to buy anything until that part was done. I don't think I'm an overly private person, but I resent having to hand over that sort of personal information just to buy a comic. Does Square Enix really need to know my gender?
Thinking I was good to go, I went to the manga store and picked out a volume. In order to actually buy it, I had to register again to create something called a Crysta Security Token. The next step was to install KeyringClient Software so I could read the books online. (This is a Flash program, which means it won't work on the iPad.) Then I had to set up a Click and Buy account, re-entering my name, address, and e-mail, as well as handing over my credit card information and phone number and creating another password.
So, that's five steps to buy one volume of manga. That's just the for the first time, of course—it's much easier to buy the second book—but it's a pretty high barrier to entry.
Finally, I went to the store, selected a volume (I went for vol. 1 of Black Butler), paid my $5.99, and sure enough, it appeared on my Bookshelf. When I clicked to read it, though, all I got was an empty screen. The manga reader didn't work. I was using Safari on my MacBook Pro, so I switched to Chrome and Explorer 7 on a Dell PC but got a blank screen every time. Even my husband, a physicist who does a lot of graphics work, couldn't get the reader to display.
I finally made it work on Firefox on my Mac, no thanks to the Square Enix support crew, who started out telling me to use Explorer, then when I complained that I had used Explorer, "upgraded my ticket" and eventually sent me another e-mail telling me … to use Explorer. Also, since all this I got a new Mac and since I have decided to stop using Firefox—and I don't want to re-install that 40MB Keyring file anyway—I won't be able to read that manga on my new computer.
It almost seems like piling on to mention that the site design is terrible, with no obvious pointers to the things one might want to do—starting with the lack of a "login" button on the home page. Again, I thought it was just me, but Melinda Beasi, who is far more knowledgeable about the intricacies of web design than I am, also had a terrible time navigating it; her review is worth checking out just for her description of how Square Enix made her feel like a criminal.
The biggest problem of all, though, isn't the software or the poor site design but the person or persons who decided to restrict manga sales to U.S. users. Do they not understand what the internet is? Don't they read the comments on their own Facebook page, the majority of which (if you discount spam) are variations on the phrase "I would like to read this but I can't because I am not in the U.S."? Are they all so rich that they can just leave money on the table? Because people who are turned away from the store will find another way to read the books, and it won't involve paying Square Enix for the privilege.
Here's the bottom line: Square Enix needs to make this work in order to fight piracy. I can read Black Butler online for free, from anywhere in the world, without going through five registration steps, telling them my phone number, installing special software, or trying four different browsers. That's the competition. Every obstacle that the site owners place in the user's way, be it a delay, a buggy interface, or a simple "No, you're in the wrong country" gives that user an excuse to head over to the bootleg sites.
At this point, judging from the comments on Melinda's site, I'm guessing that the majority of people who have bought manga (or even downloaded free manga during their recent promotion, which just ended) have been journalists writing reviews of the site. It would be terrible if Square Enix were to throw up their hands and say "See! People don't want to pay for manga." That's not the problem. People are flocking to the Viz and Digital online manga sites, while Square Enix's site is so bad, they can't give manga away. It's time for a reboot.