In a recent diary entry, manga-ka Ken Akamatsu (of "Love Hina" fame, among others) waxes philosophical about the state of the comic book industry in Japan today. It's one of an increasing number of reports from the trenches confirming a phenomenon that became obvious last year: the famous titles sell, everything else doesn't.
As discussed previously, if you are the average manga-ka, you make your real money not off the weekly serialization of your work but rather the tankobon, standard-sized collections of your work that are released for sale at fixed intervals. The problem is, as Akamatsu notes, that 2008 tankobon sales were off 4.9 percent as compared to the previous year, and the trend is expected to continue.
"As source material for TV dramas, films, and anime, and as a standalone product, the tankobon is here to stay," remarks Akamatsu. "The tankobon that do sell, sell in incredible volumes. But this means that the ones that don't, slide into obscurity."
Akamatsu ties the problem directly to the sagging fortunes of Japan's ubiquitous comic magazines. "In the past, the major comic magazines had a 'multiplier effect' in which the standout titles would also in turn increase the visibility of lesser-known ones... But this effect is on the wane. In short, the chances to get to know lesser-known manga are disappearing."
But the big issue (and one left unexplored by Akamatsu) is: do fans WANT to get to know lesser-known manga in the first place? The interesting thing is how this dovetails with comments by Toshio Okada and other old-schoolers, who -- despite increasingly sounding like your granddad telling you he had to walk uphill both ways to school -- complain of younger fans' tendency to "ghettoize" themselves into tiny bubble-like individual worlds rather than seeking out new experiences.
Which leads to the real questions: if tastes have truly changed this significantly, how much does complaining about it really help? And what are Japanese creators and media outlets going to change to address the situation?