August 18, 2011

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Digging into Digital: First Impressions of JManga


One of the more interesting things to come out of the San Diego Comi-Con was the news that a whole bunch of Japanese comics publishers were putting together a website for their comics to appear in English.

The details were extremely vague and extremely secretive, which was annoying. However, no one had long to wait to see what was up, because of a promised mid-August release date. Well, here we are in August and the JManga folks delivered, bringing a website that is functioning but has some drawbacks that need to be overcome.

I took some time to look over the site over the past two days, and my initial impressions were quite positive in terms of the site's design and functionality. Everything I tried loaded quickly, and I was on a public network at the time, so my connection speed wasn't ideal. It seems like the designers behind the site took the time to look at what worked for other digital comics platforms (particularly Comixology, I think, as I'll get to later) and tried to incorporate them here. That's definitely a good sign. This does not look like a project that might quickly be abandoned if sales aren't quite as they hoped. (I am, however, concerned about this lasting in the long term, as you will see.)

JManga makes a good first impression when you click over to the site. But how does it hold up under the scrutiny of a person who wants to use it as a potential regular, reliable customer? Well, the answer is not quite as positive as I'd like. After you get past the very nice looks, there are some significant mis-steps in my opinion, two of which are going to be a problem in relation the project's long-term viability, and there is no easy fix for either one.
  • The first thing you see when you go to the site is a large image of one of their comics, such as OnePiece or or Crayon-Shinchan, which will take to the homepage for that series if you click on it. To the right of the image is a smaller set of boxes, encouraging you to subscribe (for longer previews) and highlighting some of the non-comics content on the site. Below that is a news bar and then a series of thumbnails for "free previews", "new arrivals", and "JManga picks" respectively. Each of those thumbnails goes to the main page for that series, and you can cycle through them if necessary. That is one of the best parts of the site in my opinion. It is very easy for any customer to start looking at what they are interested in if it catches their eye.
  • Moving on to the top bar, this is where your account access will live if you sign up for one, as well as breakdowns for various manga genres. Joining the familiar shojo, shonen, seinen, and josai is the new (to me) kodomo, which is apparently kid's manga. (I thought that was part of shonen and shojo.) Yaoi and Yuri are mixed in with the major four categories, depending on what type of magazine it originally appeared in. I understand the logic in this, but I think they need to be separate bars on the main page, to maximize customer interest. The bar also has a browse, store, preview, new arrival, and feature menu. Each of these works very smoothly, but they do have a problem, as I'll note below.
  • When JManga was teased at the Con, I was extremely excited about the idea of bringing the mangka closer to their English-Speaking audience. This is one of the things JManga is promising, and I hope to see more of it. The interviews that are on the site currently are a nice start.
  • Naturally, I did register, and I found the process to be smooth and painless. They ask some questions which I expect will later be used to determine what they add to the site, and I'm sure it will also link to the community they are looking to build on JManga. "Like horror manga? You said you did! Now get this exclusive interview with horror mangaka So-and-so." I actually checked more boxes than I expected to.
  • If you are planning on buying comics from JManga, they are offering some incentives at this time. If you agree to pay $10 a month into the site, they will give you a bonus $5 and 50 cents a month after that.
  • For those who aren't sure what they might like from these lesser-known titles, JManga has a weekly "magazine" that's actually a collection of samples from the site. Looks like they're going to do three chapters each week that way, though time will tell if they offer more chapters of the same manga or if they opt to keep sampling. I think this is a really cool idea either way. It definitely made one of the selections--a Sherlock Holmes manga(!) jump out at me.
  • But the best part of this site, bar none, is the viewer. This viewer is easily the most user-friendly of the ones I've tried for manga, having used three of the four legal manga viewers I have access to. If you've ever used Comixology, you will instantly recognize the formatting of the reader, so for me the learning curve was flat. I was able to jump right in and start reading. All forms of the viewer--two page, one page, and guided view were easily read on my small netbook screen. Best of all, however, was the fact that I could use two-page view and still read every single letter on the page without scrolling of any kind. That is how you put together a comics reader! There are definitely some things that JManga gets wrong, but the viewer isn't one of them. If they can get the other parts of the site as good as the viewer in time, JManga is going to be a big player in the digital comics world.

Unfortunately, however, that's where the good things end. The more time I spent with the site and the more I thought about its business model, the less happy I became with it. Though I like what it's attempting to be, the site just isn't there yet, and I think they should have waited or made it clear that the site is not fully up and running. But their news page makes it clear to me that they felt this was good enough to roll with. I can't say that I agree.
  • There are currently 20 Jmanga picks, and to be honest, some are a bit depressingly familiar. Does a site like this really need to promote Bleach and Trigun as special selections? I realize that having bigger names is a good thing, but Bleach is on VizManga.com and is cheaper than JManga, so if they're planning on competing with Viz, pricing has got to change.
  • Speaking of those JManga picks, a disconcerting number of them are not available for preview, let alone purchase. Of the 20 picks, four of the first five (which is all the average user might click on) are not available to buy at this time. Even worse, two of those five don't even have a preview. Overall there are 4 picks that you can't even preview, and a whopping 15 (or three quarters) that are preview only. It's like they've created a sampler platter for a restaurant but told the prospective diner to eat elsewhere--and in this case, elsewhere just might mean a scantilation site, losing them as a customer, possibly for good. I realize the site is new, but this is a major, major fail.
  • The top bar brings up concern number two. I was initially giddy about the large number of titles listed, thinking they were all available now. Nope! Part of this might be due to listing upcoming titles before they are ready but the site doesn't make that clear. When I visit a site with intent to purchase, and see full category listings like that, I want to buy what's listed. This needed a better clarification from the start. A "coming soon" button is desperately needed here. Otherwise, it looks like they're just teasing the buyer with things they cannot have. I think that is a serious customer service flaw, but it is fixable.
  • As of this writing, there are 48 titles available. Not bad for a debut, but a far cry from the 168 titles listed overall. There's a definite disappointment factor once you realize the difference, which could have been avoided. This is yet another thing that could turn a customer off.
All of the above problems can be fixed by some better editing of selections and tweaking the coding just a bit to make it clear what's ready and what's going to be ready later. If those were the only problems I saw in the site, I wouldn't be worried at all. Unfortunately, there are two big problems with JManga, and neither is an easy change.

The first one makes no sense at all to me, and makes me think the people in charge did not do much market research: Why in the world did they code this site to be unusable by Apple customers? This may seem strange, given that I often complain that things are exclusive to the ipad or other Apple products. The thing is, it's not that I'm anti-Apple per se; I am anti-exclusionary. I do not think that any company should exclude potential online customers. This is just so incredibly strange, it's like I stepped into Bizzaro Digital World. Given the coding involved, I don't see how that would change easily, either. This is probably the biggest mistake the site made, and I say that as a person with no attachment to Apple, nor do I think they are the key to digital sales.

That would have been the biggest problem about the site, except for one thing: Price. Jmanga's comics are in the cloud, which is so common at this point, I barely thought to mention it at all. I know there are folks who dislike this strongly, but it's standard practice right now. However, unlike Dark Horse and Viz, which have their manga priced almost entirely in the extremely reasonable $5 range, JManga has a sliding pricing scale that seems to be anywhere from $9 to as high as $12, based on the titles I looked at. I think it's asking a lot of the audience that wants to buy manga legally online to pay $12 for a single volume.

What's worse, however, is that to buy the manga, you have to (again, as of this writing) buy a $10 a month subscription, which turns into points at the rate of one cent = 1 point, with no discount for buying in larger quantities, the way that Digital Manga does. Please note that the picture above shows a manga that costs 1098 points, or $10.98. Now recall you're getting 1000 points a month on the standard plan. Starting to see the problem?

Well, there's one more wrinkle. The increments of additional funds aren't a dollar here or there to help make up the difference. You have to buy at least $5 at a time, (or $10 or $25), so there's just about no way to easily make sure you're spending all the money on your account.

Take the high price out of the equation for just a moment. Why in the world does this site not adjust its funding options to allow the customer to easily use all they spend? Are they hoping to pocket the difference? I certainly hope not, and that this is just a case of poor planning. But this is creating a very high barrier for the customer, and it makes me greatly concerned about JManga's ability to make it in the long run.

I realize that there are a ton of publishers involved in this project, and as a result, standardized pricing is going to be hard. But costing same as print is not industry standard. Only day and date releases (which these are not) and Yen Press (which does not seem all that invested in the online world) are structured that way. The price points will keep the honest, hard-core customers, but if they want a wider audience, they need to either run some specials (first volume discounts are nifty) or consider scaling back on prices. Even a drop to $7 would be welcome. $9 makes me only want to buy sparingly. $12 for a digital book makes me mad. I don't think I am atypical in that regard.

When you combine the high price, frequent unavailability of the titles listed (especially the spotlighted series), and the need to sign up for $10 a month (which might not even get you 1 volume of manga, depending on what you're most interested in), and you have a recipe for people going to the scantilation sites. I do not endorse illegal scans in any way, as folks who Twitter with me well know. But this is like painting a target on yourself and saying, "please bootleg me."

People want things NOW, not later. There's a ton of things out there to buy and to read. If you're going to open a site, better to open it with less (and the promise of more) than claiming more than you've got.

Right now, JManga is a great idea that serves an audience of decent, potentially loyal manga fans with jobs sufficiently secure to afford paying book prices for digital content. Those kinds of people aren't going to run to scan sites as a rule, and they're okay waiting for the kinks to be worked out. They want obscure manga, and if JManga makes it, it looks like they'll get it in spades.

My issue stems from the fact that I do not think people like that make up a large enough portion of the North American manga audience. When I went to Borders, not only were people not buying the manga (so why are they now going to pay more than a Shonen Jump title in print?), they weren't reading anything more exotic than One Piece, Naruto, Fruits Basket or Nana. At these prices, I don't see the average manga fan going "Oh boy, a comic about a specialized nurse! Why wasn't this ever on the shelf at Barnes and Noble?"

I don't think JManga intends itself to be a site that caters only to a small, exclusive crowd. I personally will subscribe, but I'm already annoyed by the high prices, lack of selection for opening day, and the fact that the dollar amounts offered for purchase seem in no way to link with the cost of the manga.

Was JManga rushed? I dunno. It sure feels like it once you get past the cool looking main page. I understand they're working feverishly to change things, but the biggest flaws (cost and no Apple) are far more difficult to change that a few coding adjustments or title clarifications.

Right now, I wish the project well, because I want more digital manga. But I don't think I can recommend the site to any but those longing for lesser-known titles who are willing to pay to get them, because they refuse to patronize pirates. I'll be using and watching the site, and will be happy to report any positive changes that I see. At the moment, however, I would say proceed with caution.