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Selling Anime & Manga
By Oliver Chin
Reprinted with permission by the author
Ask the Questions
How do you pronounce them? What are they? Why do kids like it? Who has it? Where do I get it? When should I sell it? All you know is that they're hot.
Big questions for two small words. Yet anime and manga (Japanese for animation and comics, synonymous for Japanese animation and comics) cover more genres and titles than their American counterparts. This alone makes AM worth a comics retailer's consideration to sell.
The time is right for anime and manga advice (which I'll refer together as AM), as AM grows in public awareness, name recognition, product selection, and sales revenue. AM is relevant to your business, since you either sell them or watch competitors do so. In a bearish comics environment, AM has proven to be a valuable revenue stream. However, it is not a miracle cure. Sales are not predictably easy but require investments of time, money, and strategy.
A consolidating market desperately needs growth areas, and AM is no secret anymore. Sales are increasingly competitive as more specialty shops emerge, carving out faithful followings, while scouring Asia for the latest consumer tastes.
Nevertheless, there is room for more retailers as the AM market enlarges. For those who haven't taken the plunge already, here is a primer. Let's evaluate the market forces, pick the products, and poll your customers.
Analyze the Scene
AM is not a new, urban, or Asian phenomenon. Over the last decade in the US, AM has multiplied its retail offerings, English-speaking audience, and industry sales (for publishers, distributors, and retailers). Many factors simultaneously are contributing to this "mainstreaming". The most important naturally involve culture, companies' products, and customers.
The first is the "globalization" of popular culture. For the past century, the "American" way of life influenced every nation, magnified by the proliferation of mass communications. Japan is still enamored with cool stateside fads, from blue jeans to hip-hop.
In the 90's the counter wave, especially the tsunami from the Pacific, has hit American shores. Fueled by immigration, foreign flavors are ubiquitous (ex. salsa outsells ketchup in U.S. groceries). Influential Gen-X entertainers especially are incorporating Asian themes (popular music, Hong Kong action flicks, video games, fashion, and children's TV). Unsuprisingly, AM combines and capitalizes on all these elements.
Because of this assimilation, U.S. mass media finally deemed Japanese mass media ready for prime time. AM is acceptable programming for public consumption because it is lucrative. More anime TV programs have released in the past 5 years than in the previous 25, building on the buzz of Speed Racer, Mazinger Z, Voltron, G-Force and Robotech. In 1999 syndicated programs like PokČmon will proselytize to thousands of new fans who could reinvigorate the comics market (as long as they're properly directed!).
Cable and local TV push the bandwagon forward too. The Sci-Fi Channel's "anime week" has been an annual fixture (Fatal Fury, the Motion Picture debuted in 1998). Likewise, in September 1998 the Cartoon Network broadcasted Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball on weekdays again. KTEH (PBS station in San Jose, CA) is a regional pioneer. Already having televised Urusei Yatsura and No Need for Tenchi, KTEH will debut Key, the Metal Idol in November 1998.
And don't forget movies. Though countless anime (available on VHS here) have had Japanese theatrical releases, very few have graced America's big screens. Every few years, an Akira or Ghost in the Shell breaks through. But with shifting winds, expect more high profile films soon. The entry of Fortune 500 companies could tilt the whole playing field, as Disney just purchased almost the entire library of Hayao Miyazaki (creator of Nausica') and plan a U.S. release of Princess Mononoke in 1999.
Choose the Suspects
Product, product, product. AM covers a broad and deep range of items. Stocking anime and manga merchandise is not for the faint of heart or pocketbook. Shell out $500 and get 20 videos and 20 graphic novels to stock. Not much penetration considering hundreds of each are available.
But you have to start somewhere. In 1999, manga will abound: over two dozen regular monthly comics, 200 graphic novels, half-dozen magazines, and a handful of monthly comics anthologies.
Anime output in higher than ever. Home video generates two dozen VHS releases every month. As DVD quickly replaces laserdiscs for technophiles, expect another half dozen titles per month.
Merchandise is overflowing: toys, RPGs, trading cards, stickers, wall art (posters, scrolls), apparel (T-shirts), and music (CD soundtracks).
Plus, retail markets (comic, book, video, video games, music) are converging. Superstores like Borders and Virgin sell magazines, graphic novels, VHS/DVD, and soundtracks and are noticing the purchasing power of AM fans (remember that product cross-fertilization?). As these retail jungles overlap, sales survival depends on product selection.
In this climate, determine your customers' preferences but plan for growth. AM has long since outgrown its "adult" reputation, and offers something for everyone: kung-fu to kids, aliens to alternative, horror to humor, robots to romance. Generally AM fans buy across the board, especially for characters available in multiple formats like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Ranma 1/2. So your "backlist" will sell. By starting with quality products, you will eventually offer AM in sufficient variety as the consumer market and their predilections broaden.
Find Customer Solutions
Converting customers to AM isn't simple, considering traditional "superhero" expectations and the limited shelf space devoted to alternative press. But the best reasons to branch out are immediate: satisfy customers hungry for challenges and substance and reach that widely desired but rarely seen "new" buyer. First, poll your customer base on their preference for a different world of storytelling and content. A well-documented addiction, AM preys upon collegiates, teenage gamers, and sci-fi junkies.
Second, gauge how many new customers you could attract. AM fans are young and enthusiastic, and getting younger by the moment. They can definitely be a breed apart, with particular appetites and demands. AM draws clientele which your store may not normally attract (preteen girls, business travelers, educators).
Most AM fans are zealots who display arcane knowledge as badges of honor, and spread the faith by word of mouth. I call them "Trekkies x 2" since they are so rabid. Dependable patrons, they provide invaluable recommendations (especially on staff) and are your best evangelists, proselytizing new customers into the fold.
Deepen customer loyalty by exploring how mail order via the Internet can expand your customer base beyond geographic boundaries into an international audience. Disproportionately, AM fans are online, and have quickly populated the net with sites, rings, and newsgroups. As a communication tool, the web has boosted their activity and enthusiasm from Alaska to Wyoming.
Like Internet sales, AM flashes immense potential but also daunting complexity and rapidly changing conditions. Yet the brave who stake their claim will benefit as this retail niche widely flowers into bloom.