2011 was a big year for manga, with a new publisher (Kodansha Comics), the return of Sailor Moon, the demise of Tokyopop, and a host of other events. But the biggest story of the year, one that stretched across almost all publishers, was the adoption of digital platforms for manga.
Manga publishers have been slower than others to make the move from paper to pixels, in part because Japanese licensors tightly control the way manga was published and until recently, they weren't interested in digital rights. That situation has been changing over the past few years, and 2011 was the year that manga went digital in a big way.
Viz launches new platforms and digital Shonen Jump: Viz Media led the way with its iPad app, which was announced in late 2010. Right from the start, they put flagship series such as Naruto on the app and charged $4.99 per volume, about half the price of a current print volume. They continued to add both new volumes and new platforms throughout 2011, making their digital manga available via the iPhone/iPod Touch, their own web store, and the Nook (Barnes & Noble's e-reader).
Their boldest move came at New York Comic-Con, where they announced that Shonen Jump magazine will transition from a monthly print magazine to a digital weekly, to be titled Shonen Jump Alpha. The new magazine will launch with six series—Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, Bakuman, Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan, and Toriko—and each chapter will appear in English just two weeks after it appears in print in Japan. (Viz veep Alvin Lu hinted that eventually the English version will catch up with the Japanese editions.) Since all six series are currently behind the Japanese releases, Viz has been aggressively speeding up their digital releases, releasing new volumes of Naruto, One Piece, and Bleach way ahead of print.
Viz broke more new ground at Yaoi-Con with the announcement that some of the books in its new yaoi line SuBLime, will be available digitally in a DRM-free, downloadable format.
JManga launches web portal: The other huge story was the launch of JManga, an online manga portal created by a group of 39 Japanese publishers. The big announcement was made at Comic-Con, and the website launched in August. I gave it a mixed review initially, but since then, they have increased the number of titles available and announced a temporary price cut (which hopefully will become permanent—$8.99 per volume is pretty steep, especially for manga that can only be read online and not downloaded). JManga also gets high marks for communicating with fans (via Twitter and Facebook) and responding to their concerns. (See also: Sean Gaffney's more publisher-centered review at his blog.)
Digital Manga Guild opens up shop: The aptly named Digital Manga pioneered a new publishing model this year: The Digital Manga Guild, a gathering of amateur translators, editors, and letterers who localize manga that is then published digitally (via Digital's eManga site as well as their iOS app and the Kindle, Kobo, and Nook devices). The catch is that everyone—licensor, publisher, and localizers—gets paid on the back end, taking a share of the profits, rather than getting their fees up front before the book is published. Digital CEO Hikaru Sasahara sees this as a way to bring manga with niche appeal (Digital specializes in yaoi) to English-language readers while minimizing his company's financial risk. The first book was published in August, and there has been a steady stream of DMG releases since then.
Yen Press launches first simultaneous English/Japanese release: While Viz's almost-simultaneous Shonen Jump Alpha is a daring digital move, there's a catch: It's only available in the U.S. and Canada. Yen Press goes them one better with the inclusion of Soul Eater Not in their Yen Plus online manga magazine; not only does each chapter come out at the same time as its Japanese counterpart, but Yen Plus is available worldwide.
In other news...
Yen Press launched its iPad app in January. While the interface is nice, I criticized it at the time for being pricy and having a limited selection; since then, they have put more series onto the app and there is more variation in the prices.
Kodansha unveiled its own iPad app at New York Comic-Con in October with four series; unfortunately, they don't seem to have updated it with any new content since then.
Amazon pulled a number of yaoi manga, from Digital and other publishers, from its Kindle store.
I panned two digital manga services that were not ready for prime time, Square Enix's digital store and the Sugoi Books app, and Ed Sizemore found the Osamu Tezuka iPad app to be a disappointing flop.
Rikki and Tavisha Simons brought back Shutterbox as a digital manga.
Publisher and commentator Erica Friedman offered a digital manga reader's manifesto.