Manganovel bites the dust

One of the interesting things about the Internet is the way things sort of bubble up from the bottom and become genuine phenomena without anyone managing it or (until the last stage) making any money off of it, like I Can Has Cheezburger or Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Scanlation is like that. It’s a true grass-roots comics movement, in which people who were captivated by Japanese comics went to the trouble to find them, break them up and scan them in, translate the text (some people actually learned Japanese in order to do this), edit, retouch, and publish them on the web, just to be able to share them with others. Scanlations are free to read, but they also violate the original copyright, and no one makes money on them.

Manganovel was an attempt to create a Web 2.0 version of scanlations. A joint project of the MIT Media Lab and Toshiba, it allowed readers to download Japanese manga, translate it themselves, and upload the finished product. On the surface, it seemed like a neater, cleaner version of scanlation—no copyright violation, no cutting the books up or melting the glue off the spine, no downloading from dubious servers. Users earned points for uploading translations and could also purchase points, which they then used to read the premium comics; other comics were available for free.

It didn’t work. Last week, Manganovel announced that it was shutting down and that all services would be terminated on Feb. 27, 2009. No official reason was given, although this response did appear in the forum:

Unfortunately, we could not find enough traffic of Manga contents trade to support our business and we decided to withdraw.

So what happened? I would guess, from the outside, that they failed to build up a community largely because, despite the MIT association, their interface was awful. The website looks like it’s straight out of 1995, with teeny-tiny type (gray on white, for minumum readability) and no unifying design scheme. Their system was also too complicated, with six steps just to read the free sample. Contrast this with Netcomics, which is run by a Korean publisher but is becoming a web portal for other companies as well. At Netcomics, you can read the free samples with a single click, and accessing the paid content is straightforward as well.

A bigger problem, from my point of view, is that the user has to download a proprietary comics reader, which is Windows-only, in order to read the manga. I use a Mac, so I was shut out. I would cheerfully have read and reviewed the comics on Manganovel, except that I couldn’t. I don’t want to be a Mac snob, but in my experience, people in the arts tend to lean towards Macs, whether for technical or cultural reasons. When I go to comics conventions, and I sit with the other manga and anime bloggers, we’re all pounding away on Macs. You can debate how influential reviewers are in building an audience, but cutting the majority of us out doesn’t seem like a good move.

Finally, the scanlation world is very social and a bit clubbish, and an active forum would have been a real plus. Manganovel chose not to put a Forum link on the front page (you have to click the “Explore” tab to find it), and their forum interface doesn’t allow you to read threads. Furthermore, the forum was clearly designed for technical issues only, whereas manga fans like to have a place to chat about their favorite matchups, which manga will be licensed next, that kind of thing.

Even with a better web interface, it’s not clear that Manganovel could have succeeded. Sometimes getting the grownups involved wrecks things. Scanlation groups are a little society of their own, with their own slang, code of ethics, and customs, and it’s hard for a commercial enterprise to replicate that. But Manganovel missed at the very first step, with an unattractive web page and comics that were too hard to get to. There are lots of sites that offer free manga in the web browser with a single click. To compete with that, you need a simple interface and compelling content. Manganovel failed on the first count, so I never even got to find out about the second.


4 thoughts on “Manganovel bites the dust

  1. Hey Brigid,
    I think your Mac angle is way off. While bloggers might be on their macs typing away there is no denying that PCs hold more than 85% of the American market and an even higher percentage worldwide where in some counties buying a mac (that is not a mac mini) would cost a large part of a year’s salary (compared to two-three months wages in the US).

    MangaNovel went for the biggest piece of the pie and before there were illegal web players like MangaFox, even the majority of scan reading software were for PC. Took me a whole to find one for my mac when I started checking scans last year (settling with comicreader).

    I got to talk to the manganovel people when they launched and I basically felt they were dead in the water back then. Main reason being that .99 is greater than free ( am issue crunchyroll is now dealing with as they removed fan subs as of 1/1/09 and they have gotten thousands of hits on their forums from people who just found out despite email and pr stating the change for more than a month now). They had mac and iPhone plans but never hit to it because they never reached their first objective – getting licences. And from that blurb you referred to I can see they admit that was a key issue. Without the revenue from licences they were just posting free comics that they were supporting on their own. Eventually resources had to dry up and now they as shutting down.

    I am a little confused by the grown ups comment though. Are you supporting scans?as you saying MN didn’t understand the global audience they were going after (their targets were the US, France, Korea, and Indonesia and they got most of their traffic from the Philippines, Russia, Brazil and Latin America). Or wee you referring to the industry’s lack of interest to this project. Hey there already is a major eBook site in Japan featuring comics from Shogakukan, Kodansha, Asahi, Kadokawa and others, with iPhone technology (though region locked and pc only). According to a few pubs they also have a belief that licensees worldwide should handle their own online distrbution issues within their license borders as Viz/Shueisha has with JumpLand.

    MN never had a chance. It didn’t have the industry support. It didn’t understand the global audience. And it never evolved. Hopefully future projects will learn from their mistakes.

  2. It may be true that PCs make up most of the market, but I too was kept from using MangaNovel because I have a Mac, and I have friends who never even checked out the site for that reason. I was curious enough that I sneakily checked it out on my work computer.

    In addition to the website being hideous and impossible to navigate (There’s a forum? Really? But I looked for it several times and never found it!), the reader program is also horrible. It often displays two-page spreads that are the wrong two pages. It has no proper zoom function so that anyone reading on a small screen had better be 100% fluent and used to reading tiny, grainy type. It doesn’t allow you to fit your translations to the picture at all, so you end up with giant, ugly blocks obscuring the picture, forcing you to flip back and forth between the translation and the original.

    However, the biggest problem was the selection. I understand why big-name titles would never appear on a site like that: if a professional translation would actually make money, why bother? But there was also a relative lack of cult titles that might have interested the manga readers I know. Yaoi too obscure or shocking to get published elsewhere would have lured people. Early, obscure titles by authors of more famous works would have lured people. Violent martial arts comics that haven’t been translated due to some controversy or other would have worked fine too. I actually did see some interest in the one geisha-themed title on the Immortal Geisha forums, but it was too hard for people to check it out because of the horrible site and software. Maybe if they’d had more titles like that…

    What does NOT interest most manga fans outside of Japan are cutesy vet stories that could be from anywhere and, especially, josei romance titles that are both boringly realistic and written in rather difficult Japanese. Ok, I have to confess that I absolutely am going to track down a paper copy of Bodaiju no Shita Kimi wo Aisu if I can, but it’s not a good title for attracting people to a site. The last time I looked, no one had even tried to translate it, and I couldn’t read most of the kanji on the shitty viewer program.

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