One of the great experiments in digital manga came to an end yesterday when JManga announced that they are shutting down its online manga site. They stopped selling points yesterday; readers who have points in their accounts can still buy manga until March 26, but no one will be able to access their manga after May 30. JManga is refunding unused points in the form of Amazon gift cards. Its sister site JManga7 has already shut down.
JManga was unveiled at Comic-Con International in San Diego in July 2011 and launched the following month. Backed by a group of 39 Japanese publishers, it was sort of a Netflix for manga, offering streaming access but no downloads, although unlike Netflix readers bought their books one at a time.
JManga always seemed to be doing a lot with short money. Their selection of manga included a lot of titles with niche appeal, such as "Ekiben Hitoritabi," the story of a man who travels around Japan sampling the box lunches available at train stations, but they also picked up dropped licenses from Tokyopop and Del Rey, and they published manga by well known authors. Everything had a raw feel to it; translators weren't credited, covers weren't relettered, and the titles were often left in Japanese. For some readers, that was a nuisance, but others relished the authentic feel.
One of the hallmarks of JManga was its responsiveness to comments from users, and the fairness with which it treated them. I kicked the tires in early August, and along with a lot of other readers, I complained that the prices were too high and the points system, which required a monthly subscription, was too clunky. In October, they rolled back their prices in what was billed as a temporary sale but turned into a permanent price cut. And in a nice touch, they gave readers who had already purchased books at the higher price a partial refund on their points. Later on they dropped the subscription requirement as well, allowing one-time purchases. And while JManga originally served only North America, they extended the service worldwide at readers' request. They maintained an active Twitter feed and Facebook presence and, unlike many other Japanese publishers, often responded directly to comments and Tweets.
JManga was a significant presence at San Diego and New York Comic Con, where they packed the panel rooms with fans who would scream enthusiastically for the chance to win a free membership or a Nexus 7 tablet. They also showed up at the tiny MangaNEXT con in New Jersey last year, bringing editors and creators from the publisher Shinshokan. They ran a fan translation contest, and they had numerous other promotions to bring in new readers and more fully engage the existing audience.
So what happened? Without any insider knowledge, I would guess that format had a lot to do with it. Manga readers are accustomed to reading online for free, thanks to the wave of pirate sites over the past few years, and JManga was slow to go onto tablets; once it did, it was with a fairly clunky Android app. It's a shame, because JManga had many of the things fans want—an eclectic range of manga, quick access, and an unusual responsiveness to feedback—but in this environment, apparently, that wasn't enough.
We will miss them.