Publishing Trends has an interesting article looking at the problem of manga scanlation, which a number of manga publishers feel is retarding the potential international market for their product. Scanlation, the manga equivalent of fansubbing, has been around for a while, but really kicked into gear around 2007. (I covered this in detail a couple of years ago.)
[Kurt Hassler, Publishing Director at Yen Press (Hachette’s manga imprint)] argues that rather than “pushing” manga publishing into the digital age, the genre’s robust digital piracy-base has retarded its progress. As if the challenges of image-rich content weren’t enough, Japanese publishers have feared that licensing digital editions internationally is as good as hanging out a “pirates welcome” Jolly Rodger. Consequently, digital rights have been all but impossible for US and other international publishers to negotiate.
Aside from scanlations, the manga publishing industry has been hit hard by the collapse of Borders, which represented around 30% of manga’s (legal) US market share.
Echoing the relative lassitude of anime studios’ stance on fansubbing, manga publishers have been fairly slow to come to grips with the scanlation situation. A group of Japanese and US manga publishers formed an antii-piracy coalition in 2010, but only recently started issuing cease-and-desist orders.
Of course, scanlators don’t really need commercially-licensed digital editions to do their work—just someone in Japan with a scanner and email. As with comic books, OCR isn’t really necessary since the medium is graphical. Also, there’s a bit of chicken or egg situation going on here; in at least some cases, scanlations are a response to a failure to license the material in any form. For example, Viz gave up on the Detective Conan manga after about 25 volumes, and has never bothered to publish it further—so the only way English-speaking fans get to read it at all is through the scanlations.
If the manga publishers do succeed in putting scanlation web sites out of business, it won’t put an end to piracy. There are plenty of English comic book collections circulating on BitTorrent, and I have little doubt there’s a lot of manga, too.