Once upon a time during business hours on any given day in any given city, you could walk into your local Borders bookstore and see stacks and stacks of manga fans sitting cross-legged, reading “Naruto” or “Fruits Basket” and obliviously blocking access to the shelves.
If you’ve never heard of manga, or Japanese comics, you may never have noticed this spontaneous human obstacle course formed daily between you and your product of choice. But for fans of manga, Borders has long been the go-to destination. Indeed, the bookstore chain was instrumental in fueling a substantial publishing boom in translated manga over the past decade.
The demise of the bankrupt book retailer, now in liquidation, could presage an equal and opposite bust in the fast-growing market niche.
Between 2002 and 2007, the manga field grew by 350 percent, from sales of $60 million to sales of $210 million, according to sociologist Casey Brienza in her 2009 paper, “Books Not Comics: Publishing Fields, Globalization and Japanese Manga in the United States.” In a mostly flat book industry, such success was breathtaking.
The manga phenomenon was built on a partnership between Borders and Stu Levy, owner of manga publisher Tokyopop. In the early 2000s, Tokyopop stopped “flipping” manga - that is, it no longer reversed Japanese pages, so manga volumes read from right to left, just as they would in Japan. This made it much quicker and cheaper to reprint manga volumes. Tokyopop also adopted a 5-inch-by-7 1/2-inch size and a $9.99 price point. And, finally, Tokyopop began changing its audience focus. Before this, most publishers had tried to sell adventure manga to boys, since comics in the U.S. were mostly read by males. Tokyopop, however, began to focus its attention more and more on girls’ manga titles, such as the fashion romance “Paradise Kiss” or the hugely successful melodrama “Fruits Basket.”
The format and genre changes all made it possible for Tokyopop to move away from comic stores, with their male, superhero-obsessed audience. Instead, thanks to Borders’ then-buyer of graphic novels, Kurt Hassler, Tokyopop manga went to bookstores, where there was a much bigger audience and, especially, a much bigger female audience. Soon, Tokyopop books were flying off the shelves, and other manga publishers, such as Viz, were scrambling to copy Mr. Levy’s innovations.
But what Borders gives, Borders can also take away.
First, Mr. Hassler left to co-found Yen Press in 2006. Then, the financial crisis hit.
As the chain began to struggle in 2008, its manga partners also faced serious problems. Lillian Diaz-Przybyl, a former senior editor at Tokyopop, said that while Tokyopop had strong relationships with other bookstores, Borders remained central. “They still remained about a third of our market up until the end,” she said in an email, “so the final impact of the bankruptcy troubles from the beginning of this year were significant (it directly led to me being laid off, for one).”
In April 2011, Tokyopop, which had changed the face of American manga, closed its offices, shutting down its U.S. publishing division.
The twin demise of Tokyopop and Borders signals a turning point for manga in the U.S. Ms. Diaz-Przybyl noted that manga confronts some of the same problems - especially digitial formats and the concomitant problem of piracy - as regular books. “If a huge portion of your potential customer base is just as happy reading comics on their computer (which they are), that has to be addressed,” she said.
Shaenon Garrity, a freelance manga editor, agreed via email that digital publishing would be important in the future, but added that “big manga titles are still popular and selling well.”
“It’s just that publishers’ overall output is settling to a less artificially inflated level.”
Borders’ closing may have a big effect on one niche market, though - Boys’ Love, or BL. BL refers to romance manga featuring love stories about gay men written largely by women for women. Very successful in Japan, BL has also made a mark in the U.S., where part of the reason for its market inroads is that Borders enthusiastically stocked BL titles. (Other outlets have, however, been leery. Amazon.com, for instance, pulled some of its more explicit BL titles, sometimes referred to as yaoi, from their Kindle platform in May, and Barnes and Noble has also been tentative about stocking the genre.
There are certainly some manga that won’t be affected at all by Borders closing. When asked, if Borders shutting down would hurt sales of his company’s high-brow manga releases, Eric Reynolds, Fantagraphics’ associate publisher, replied with a terse “No.”
But for the manga industry as a whole, the end of Borders is the end of an era. At the very least, it means most readers will no longer have to vault over prone bodies to get their manga fix.