CRN Interview: The Dawn of Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha

We talk with Viz Media SVP & GM Alvin Lu and get the scoop on what to expect in the coming months from WSJA

With two issues left of Weekly Shonen Jump in print and the launch today of its digital successor, Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha, there has to be a lot going through the minds in manga publishing at Viz Media. Lucky us, we got a chance to sit down with SVP and General Manager Alvin Lu to go over some of it. Read on to hear how Viz is thinking of this transition, what the manga business is like these days, plus details on features you'll find in WSJA these first couple months.

 

CRN: I guess since you're the general manager you're a good person to ask for a quick state of Viz Media address right, general health and wealth?

 

Alvin Lu, SVP and General Manager, Viz Media: Uh, it's about as good as it's been in a while; I guess that's the good news! The bad news was that there was a lot of bad news (lol) for the last couple years. The manga business—I don't think it's a big secret—it's definitely off its peak and a lot of the key players have exited the market (Tokyo Pop being the most prominent one), but we're still here. We survived; we survived Borders closing. That was a huge part of our growth back when we were first starting up, especially, and the nice thing recently—we're not seeing the same kind of growth that we used to, but I think we're moving towards sustainable business. There are some nice signs. 

 

AO NO EXORCIST © 2009 by Kazue Kato/SHUEISHA Inc.

 

Blue Exorcist is doing fantastic for us, so it's nice to have a new hit title on our hands, and it's nice to see new people enter the market like Kodansha. They've got a hit title on their hands, so the market's definitely stabilizing. It remains a key core of book retail, the graphic novel section, so I dunno if it's anything to be bragging about yet, but things are for the moment quite ok. 

 

Are you seeing more growth in print or digital?

 

Well, the relative growth is in digital, but that's starting from zero effectively (lol).  Basically what I was talking about was the print graphic novel market, which was the core focus of our business for a long time. So, obviously, that was good news last year, but the other very exciting news was launching a number of our digital initiatives, and in the initial stages, the growth has been quite rapid, which would be to be expected. Is it as much as we would like? Well, you'd always want more, but  it's pretty significant at this point. It's getting to the point where we can start taking it into an account as it starts to make a difference in our bottom line business.

 

One thing I wanted to ask about was how, like when I go to a comic book store? I always hope that they'll have manga and they very rarely do. Is that your experience as well, or am I just going to the wrong comic book stores? 

 

You're probably going to the wrong comic book stores (lol). That's my public statement. The reality is, the market share manga has in trade book stores, trade retail, is quite different than what we have in comic store retail. and that's been the case for a long time. There's a lot of different theories and reasons behind that, but ultimately it's about servicing your customers, and your local comic book store knows better (they better know) what their customers want. But I think it's on the publishers too, in terms of marketing and speaking to the audience, and one of the things that we're seeing in a lot of our customer surveys (or feedback) is that there's more crossover in terms of readers of manga and American comics than you might think. Or I think there's conventional wisdom that they're like completely separate tribes.

 

Part of that made me wonder if it's just comic book store owners who are just stubborn and are like, "No, we will not have this manga!"

 

I almost like to think it's like consumers themselves treat it like a split identity—like when they go into the comic shop, "I am a superhero comics fan," but when they go to Barnes & Noble, "I am a manga reader," or something—because we're seeing some fairly significant crossover, at least in the samples we see. So, I think there's an opportunity there, and it's kind of incumbent on us to market and be more aggressive.

 

Yeah, do you have any plans to reach out to...?

 

I've said this elsewhere and then I don't think we've made a serious move yet, but yes, there's definitely the intention, and we're starting to pull together some serious plans to do that. 

 

NARUTO © 1999 by Masashi Kishimoto/SHUEISHA Inc.

 

I'm trying to get the picture of when a chapter of Naruto comes out, what the timeline is between Japan and the states. So the new chapter comes out there, two weeks later it's in Alpha...

 

Yeah, so basically, it comes out every Monday in Japan, and it'll come out here Monday here two weeks later. Or the other way of putting it is: on the day that you're reading it in Shonen Jump Alpha here, in Japan they have read two chapters (two weeks) ahead.

 

So that chapter then later gets into tankobon format in Japan. Are those also going to be simultaneous digital or?

 

They're not…—what we're seeing with the graphic novels with the day and date, having it on exactly that day is not quite as sensitive. [lost comment] but the goal is to align our graphic novel schedule, so it's more in line with Japan and tracking closely to the Japanese graphic novel releases.

 

So the volumes will be up-to-date but not necessarily same day or two weeks?

 

Exactly.

 

And for something like Naruto that would be digital and print? Or would it be digital then print, or print then digital?

 

The other thing is that we're trying to align our digital and print schedule so they're in line with each other as well. At this point in the graphic novel market it doesn't make sense for us to jump out too far ahead in digital, although we're doing that temporarily to kinda align the release schedules.

 

And all the Alpha titles are gonna be up to date by the 30th, is that right? Or almost all of them?

 

Almost all of them. 

 

[Publicity and Events Manager Jane Lui tracked down the specifics of how far along each WSJA series is towards the two week gap. See the chart below!]

 

 

And the rest will…be pretty soon?

 

And the rest will catch up eventually.

 

That was the most complicated part of the whole operation, actually. Well, there was the actual system of having that two week delay with Japan, but then there was also just catching up all the titles.

 

ONE PIECE © 1997 by Eiichiro Oda/SHUEISHA Inc.

 

Is the fan reaction really good to getting the Warp releases? Cuz that seems really exciting to me. I'm not quite up-to-date on One Piece etc. but if I were I'd be like, "YESSSSS!"

 

To be honest, I haven't followed that much chatter, but I guess perhaps more importantly (lol) the sales have been quite good.

 

And then with the magazine ending in…April...?

 

In March (the April issue comes out in March).

 

how are you guys thinking in terms of the kids who are reading it, or grabbing it at the grocery store or wherever they go and saying, "Mom, buy this for me!!" How are you going to replicate that relationship and reaction without…

 

I mean, the reality…I think it's nice to think of it as that Shonen Jump Alpha is a continuation of the print magazine, but in actuality—and we take this in all seriousness (we've traded this decision in all seriousness)—the reality of the switch is that we're closing one publication, the print magazine, and we're starting up another. And they don't completely overlap in terms of their reach and who they're reaching. At the end of the day, the print magazine was successful for a reason and there were certain people who liked that format. And you know, we're sorry to see it go as well. 

 

The newsstand is a great tool for reaching certain kinds of readers, particularly those kids who are in Wal-Mart or in the supermarket, and we're not gonna reach them on newsstand. That was something we definitely had to take into account when we made this move. We are jumping into something that's a lot less clear-cut and at the same time, it's rapidly evolving. At this point, it's probably too early to say how kids are gonna interact with handheld devices, where we think a lot of this business will take place.

 

 

I feel like for kids it's like whether their parents will allow them to do that, spend the time on the computer vs reading [books]. I also had a friend who, when we were in high school, I would hide issues of I think it was Jump under my bed for him cuz his mom wouldn't let him read it, so maybe you have that issue anyways, but I feel like it might be even harder when parents are already trying to limit their kids' online time.

 

There's an understanding of that behavior now; it's been evolving very rapidly. We think the market for kids publishing on tablets is going to evolve very, very rapidly, if you've got things like textbooks that will be happening as well. Even—you know actually textbooks is an interesting example; in some ways Shonen Jump's wheelhouse is not so much those really young kids (although there is a readership there) so much as that kind of tween, early teen. Being able to reach them through the digital devices is an evolving game, but something I think we're excited to be a part of.

 

Are there any, I guess, strategies that you're coming up with to try and push from different angles?

 

It's gonna be a lot of different things. I probably don't want to go into too many specifics right now, but we do have a host of online marketing tools that we use in a fairly targeted fashion, which is nice with a category like manga, where the audience tends to be fairly self-selective and make themselves kind of easy to target. 

 

I think some of the lessons that we've learned from online publishingbeing able to speak directly to the audience and reach them in very direct ways is something we've tried with the younger audiences as well…

 

And then plus parents as well, actually, as you pointed out. The younger the audience gets, that means the purchasing power is with them. That's something we've been learning how to do as well.

 

By marketing directly to parents too, [I see.]

 

We do have a kids line of manga that's something we'll be focusing on sort of.

 

For digital as well?

 

Yeah.

 

NEON GENESIS EVANGELION © khara・GAINAX

 

How is releasing Evangelion by chapter instead of by volume going?

 

Good! That's been a very interesting experiment. I'd like to get the full report. What I saw was the numbers were good, and we hope to be able to do more of that kind of thing because the response was really positive, I think, both in terms of chatter and also just in terms of interest area. The sales were quite good, and if you look at the little chart that tells you what the top sellers are, they're always up there, but that kinda makes sense because they are the cheapest things there, too. But it's a nice way…we wanna definitely try more of that kind of thing. It was nice of the licenser to give us the flexibility to try something like that..

 

Is it more up to them?

 

Well, we're licensing the content, so if we want to try something like that we would propose it like, 'Hey, we'd like to sell this by chapter." I think in a lot of situations for now it's easier to just negotiate a single graphic novel because it's the same as the print graphic novel, but obviously in digital you can cut things a lot of different ways.

 

DRAGON BALL © 1984 by BIRD STUDIO/SHUEISHA Inc.

 

Have you guys done (digitally) bundles or? Cuz one thing, I'm like "OK, I wanna read this series!" and...

 

Yes, I know. That's actually very high on our list, and that's one of those things we're getting quite a lot of feedback on, so it's definitely something we wanna implement. We did a kind of pseudo-bundle a while a back where there was basically 20% off, or some certain percent off, of certain volumes of a story arc in Dragon Ball, but you still had to go in and purchase them individually, so bulk purchasing or bundle purchasing is definitely high on our list of priorities.

 

Jane [Lui] mentioned you guys are gonna do video content and stuff for Alpha too? Like feature-y stuff?

 

We're gonna be moving a lot of the feature coverage stuff we did in the print magazine online and take advantage of that.

 

In online ways?

 

Yeah, and taking advantage of some of our backstage access.

 

…such as? :3 

 

Uh, I dunno what I can tease. [Read on below, because Magazine Approvals Associate Misaki Kido knew exactly what they could tease!] We're gonna have a slew of creator interviews, which I think will go a little bit beyond your standard manga creator interviews (lol).

 

That's good. Video, or?

 

I'll tell people to stay tuned, yeah.

 

Ok,  "Stay tuned," I like that. I heard you guys went to Jump Festa, too.

 

Yeah, we're gonna bring back a ton of stuff from Jump Festa. 

 

If Alpha takes off and the digital format works well are you gonna start doing other magazines too like Shonen Sunday, or something else, which is really just a resource question, but...

 

It is…Yeah, I think we'd like to. It's not even a question of whether we'd like to; what it boils down to is I think there is a customer demand to get the chapters as they come out in the magazines. I think intuitively there is, and so in some ways the model that they have in Japan, where the magazines come out that's sort of like the live event and then it's collected in graphic [novels], is a nice business model, and to the degree that we can replicate that here more, that'd be great. But it's a lot to keep up with, that much content.

 

Is there anything else that you wanted to point out or mention? 

 

Not really… We're trying a lot of new things right now. I think that the manga industry has a rap for being kind of staid for while, and I highly encourage feedback, for people to let us know how we're doing. At this point we've got enough social media outlets, or just snail mail's fine—we still get snail mail. So, let me know how we're doing; that's the message I would leave to fans, especially with some of these new initiatives like Shonen Jump Alpha. These are new products and they're gonna be evolving. 

 

The general managership is shared with Ken Sasaki, who covers anime, but one anime related tidbit Alvin did let us know is that they will be working towards finding a solution for streaming in Canada if Hulu doesn't open up there soon enough, which is good news for anime fans up North considering Viz currently has 30 series streaming.

 

Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha: iPad Impressions

 

While I was over at Viz HQ I got a chance to check out the first issue of Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha, which is out today.

 

Table of Contents: One Piece 652, Toriko 171, Naruto 569, Bakuman 162, Bleach 476, Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan 185, Kishimoto Interview

 

I've been wanting to buy an iPad for a while—pretty much exclusively to read manga, but punking around with this app intensified that feeling quite a bit. The page slider is handy to move through the issue quickly, but what I really wanted was to tap Mashiro's face to go straight to Bakuman; as fate would have it, a hyperlink feature is in the works! The bookmark function is also nice to have for those of us who can't while away an entire afternoon reading manga. 

 

My favorite part of the app, though, is how clear the and crisp the images are against the white background. Not that I have anything against the magazine paper, but the art just looks fresher digitally. You can get the same effect on vizmanga.com, but it's so nice to hold it in your hands.

 

In addition to Issue 1 of Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha, remember that Origins is available for free with the chapter ones of all six Alpha titles, and Issue 0 offers (also for free) the chapter from each series "that is kind of loose and not in tankobon format right now,"—how Jane Lui explained it. 

 

Jane also had some heads up on other stuff Viz has going on, including:

 

- Dawn of Arcana in print—volume one came out in December

- Arrietty titles coming soon including film comics

- Naruto and Bleach character books

- Lagrange: The Flower of Rin-ne simulcasting on the anime site.

 

But let's move back to focus on WSJA, because Misaki Kido, as I mentioned, did indeed let us know what's up. You may have noticed above in the table of contents that the first issue has an interview with Masashi Kishimoto, the creator of Naruto, but what other upcoming features can we expect? 

 

Bleach fans should get stoked for a Tite Kubo interview in February and One Piece followers can anticipate an Eiichiro Oda interview for March. Also, it turns out subscribers have access to bonus content on the website including feature-related videos. Misaki gave me a sneak peek of the Kishimoto clip, but I won't spoil it! Another upcoming subscriber bonus comes in the form of a cross-over, One Piece x Toriko, in March-April. 

 

If you feel like you need more chances to show some love 'n feedback for Weekly Shonen Jump (and Alpha!), keep your eyes peeled for meet-ups at conventions like Wondercon and Sakuracon.

 

Finally, remember that the print mag is not over yet! The latest issue is actually a double cover of Blue Exorcist and Tiger & Bunny that folds out to reveal a T&B poster on the flip-side. Inside you'll find spotlights on both titles, including interviews with producers Takamitsu Inoue and Masayuki Ozaki.

 

How do you guys feel about Weekly Shonen Jump's transformation into Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha? Is this going to change the way you read manga, or have you already mostly adapted to digital? 

 

Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha launches today on vizmanga.com. See Viz's FAQ for more info.

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