Secret Admirers

In search of the hidden manga consumer

Last week, comics retailer resource ICv2 published a piece that examined yet another sector of the manga audience: people who read manga but don’t pay for it.

ICv2 dubs them “the hidden manga consumers.” They sit in comfortably appointed bookstores and libraries, reading volume after volume without ever getting out their wallets, even for their library cards.

It’s an interesting if somewhat unfocused piece, and one anecdote in particular jumped out at me:

“Shojo Beat contributing editor Eric Searlemen told attendees at a BEA panel that a Borders store he frequented, on Union Square in San Francisco, had begun packaging all its manga titles in plastic, regardless of content.”

I buy a fair amount of manga at chain bookstores like Borders, and I can tell you one thing without hesitation: if a store chooses to deny me the ability to browse based on the behavior of others who abuse the privilege, I’ll happily take my business elsewhere. And I’ll probably note on the way out that, if they’re going to be draconian, they might as well shrink-wrap all the magazines, too. (In my experience, people are more likely to read the latest issue of Cat Fancy cover to cover and then shove it back on the shelf than to do the same with the latest volume of Fruits Basket.)

While no one would ever accuse me of being the most discriminating manga reader in the world, even I don’t take an untried title to the cash register without giving the insides at least a quick peek. What sane person would? (Okay, there are exceptions in the form of digests that have been shrink-wrapped for content. The awesome responsibilities of the manga columnist demand that I sample the naughty stuff.)

I wonder if the no-browsing policy has affected sales in any way. Has it led to an increase in purchases because freeloaders have to pay for their fix? Has there been a decline because buyers are reluctant to make a purchase blind? Had the stores been getting complaints about less-than-pristine tankoubons with broken spines and smudges of mocha frappe?

I don’t know how effective this technique would be in driving hidden consumers to the cash register. Beyond the fact that there are other bookstores within walking distance of the store in question, there’s that other haven of the cost-conscious manga-phile, the library. But even there, where expense isn’t a factor, hidden consumers practice their wily ways.

As noted in the article, not everyone who reads library volumes of manga is counted. Some read them in the library. Others borrow the tankoubons from the person who originally checked them out of the library, with the digest passing through who knows how many hands before it makes its way back to the shelves.

This wouldn’t seem to be a problem in the same way in-store consumption is, but it does limit a library’s ability to track the popularity of manga among its card-holders. If everyone who read a library’s manga actually checked it out, the librarians would have better documentation of its popularity and might be able to allocate more resources in that direction. And since most public libraries have relatively limited resources to begin with, they need to be very thoughtful with their dollars for acquisition.

Still another undermining force is referenced in the piece, that being the rumored arrival in New York of a shop that rents manga. Such establishments are already popular with customers (if not with publishers) in Japan. I’m guessing publishers would greet the prospect of them gaining a foothold in the U.S. with the level of enthusiasm usually reserved for the importation of a defoliating insect or strain of influenza.

So as large as the manga audience already seems, it may well be even larger. The piece concludes, quite naturally, with the hope that the hidden consumers might somehow be convinced to buy the cow, as it were, instead of slurping up all that free milk:

“For retailers, this represents an opportunity to convert these free readers to consumers.”

That strikes me as somewhat optimistic. If the majority of manga vendors take to wrapping their stock to prevent free consumption, it seems more likely that the hidden consumers will just get more creative (or find other forms of diversion). And if they don’t respond, entrepreneurs will. Manga rental shops and cafes that allow customers to read as much manga as they can in a sitting for a nominal fee are already a successful business model. Restricting free access (and annoying paying readers by limiting browsing) might actually do more to create a demand for these establishments than to expand the market for the graphic novels.

I’m all in favor of publishers making a profit off of manga. I think the whole notion of capitalism has real potential, and I think paying for products one enjoys is only good manners. With a combination of fiscal irresponsibility, poor impulse control, and Catholic guilt, I can’t imagine myself reading something cover to cover in a shop with no intention of paying for it.

Of course, I’m also in favor of libraries offering an interesting selection of manga and other graphic novels. It provides access to a growing sector of popular culture to casual readers who might otherwise be unwilling (or financially unable) to sample it. (If I were forced, I’d also confess that I just love the perceived legitimacy that comes from having Sgt. Frog a couple of aisles down from Pride and Prejudice.)

But it’s a tricky proposition, maximizing sales and limiting this kind of intellectual shoplifting without limiting access to the product. I have no idea how a retailer might strike that balance. I also worry that smaller publishers, who have to struggle to get their product on the shelves in comparison to larger competitors, might suffer if browsing is limited.

Thankfully, no sensible person would ever put me in charge of a sales or management strategy. That doesn’t stop me from wondering about the implications, though, or from flinching at the thought of shelves of manga sheathed in plastic.