Many people still associate the word “manga” with big eyes, short school uniforms and excessive violence. But the genre has much more to offer, says Kai-Steffen Schwarz, Editorial Director Manga at the Hamburg-based Carlsen publishing house. And: the market is growing. In this interview, he tells us how business with Japanese publishers works, what content appeals to readers in Germany and what potential he sees for manga in Germany.
J-BIG: The history of manga in Germany is closely linked to the history of Carlsen’s manga business. What made the publishing house decide to take on this literary universe 31 years ago?
Kai-Steffen Schwarz: The manga’s moving relative, the anime, had already existed quite successfully in Germany since the 1970s. “Wickie und die starken Männer” (Vicky the Viking), “Kimba, der weiße Löwe” (Kimba, the White Lion), “Biene Maja” (The Adventures of Maya the Bee), “Heidi” – these are all Japanese productions that were very successful on German television, and some of them still are. In the manga field, that is to say Japanese comics translated into German, progress has been much slower. The first publication I know of is “Barfuß durch Hiroshima” (Barefoot Gen), the strongly autobiographical story of a Hiroshima survivor, which was published by Rowohlt in 1982 – though only the first volume ever made it to market. There were also a few other publications in the 1980s, such as “Japan GmbH” (Japan, Inc.), a manga that tells the story of the Japanese economy. But these first publications were few and far between.
Carlsen had been publishing “Petzi” since the 1950s, as well as comics such as “Tintin” since 1967, and it was the first German publisher to release a longer manga series. That was “Akira” starting in 1991 – definitely a risky move for the publisher. I wasn’t at Carlsen at the time but worked in a comic book shop as a student. But my colleagues from back then tell me: Experience had shown that black-and-white comics sold badly. On top of that, there was the reading direction and the fact that the series was relatively long. All this made publication not very attractive. That it happened anyway was due to a number of circumstances: For one thing, the story had just been adapted as an anime movie, with the author Katsuhiro Otomo participating and directing. In the wake of this, the American label Epic, part of the Marvel publishing house, had also obtained permission for a colorized and mirrored version of the manga. This prompted other Western markets such as France and Germany to give it a try.
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J-BIG: How did the public react? Was there an immediate readership for manga?
Kai-Steffen Schwarz: The publication of “Akira” was a small sensation. Visually, of course, the manga was quite different from “Heidi” and “The Adventures of Maya the Bee” – and to top it off, it was also quite violent. German comic readers were more familiar with “Asterix” or the classic American superheroes. They were simply not used to this style, and that caused some irritation.
Nevertheless, there were subsequent attempts to publish other Japanese manga in German. The reading direction was still mirrored, but of course the titles were only available in black and white. In general, getting hold of the data was not that easy, as well – e-mail and the like didn’t exist back then. We often had to go through a US publisher who had prepared the original data in a Western reading direction and from whom we could license the material. The process was quite time-consuming, and a 120-page format that could be read in ten minutes cost 25 to 30 Deutsche Mark. Of course, this only found a very small audience – not only at Carlsen, but at all the publishers who got on board the manga adventure. That almost marked the end of manga in Germany – if publishers like Carlsen or Egmont (then still called Ehapa, under the Feest label) hadn’t said to themselves at the end of the 1990s: Let’s try this again, but in a completely different way. More cost-effective and with mass appeal. The result was “Dragon Ball” at Carlsen and “Sailor Moon” at Egmont. For me, that was the big bang moment of today’s mainstream manga market in Germany. Incidentally, “Dragon Ball” was also the first longer series to be published in Germany in the Japanese reading direction. That was quite controversial at the time, even in the publishing industry. Anecdotes circulate that a competitor had allegedly commissioned a market research institute to find out whether the young target group would accept the format. The verdict at the time was clear: German teenagers will never read from back to front, it will be an absolute flop.
In the end, the decision to go for it anyway came down to very practical reasons: The reading direction was prescribed by the Japanese publisher. Allegedly, the representatives of the Japanese licensing agency came to Germany at the time with the assumption that no one would agree to this condition. But we gave it a try, and from today’s perspective, we can say that young readers in particular are much more willing to experiment and more flexible than some people give them credit for – that was true then and it is still true today.
J-BIG: What is the typical manga reader like? Does the manga range at Carlsen still appeal mainly to younger readers?
Kai-Steffen Schwarz: For many, manga still has a false but very stubborn image that was formed in the 90s – much like was the case with comics for a long time. Although it is now fading in many places, this image has not yet disappeared among the general public. The big eyes, the reading direction, all the visual codes – people who didn’t grow up with these things often don’t know what to do with them. On the other hand, it is precisely this otherness that intrigues people, including young readers. We sometimes hear sentences like: “Finally something my parents don’t understand!” In a time when parents dress the same and listen to the same music as their kids, manga are a way to set yourself apart, and at the same time become part of a very active community. Many manga fans like to draw in the manga style themselves, practice dances or musical numbers, and when book fairs will finally take place again, we will once again encounter many cosplayers. These costumes are often completely homemade and incredibly creative in their design. The prejudice that many associate with manga fans is that of a loner who withdraws into a fantasy world and isolates themselves. The opposite is often the case: This is not about passive consumption, but immensely active appropriation and engagement.
Our readership is definitely mixed, though there are certain focal areas. About 50 percent of our publications are aimed at the so-called “Shōnen” segment, that is boys aged about 10 and up. The second-largest area for us are publications in the “Seinen” segment, which is explicitly intended for a more adult audience. We’ve always had this section, but we and other publishers have only started to focus more on manga for adults in the last ten years or so. The third area is called “Shōjo” and is primarily directed at girls and young women. In comparison, this segment is rather smaller for us; publishers like Tokyopop or Kazé have a much stronger focus here. However, I have to add: This categorization into girls’ and boys’ manga exists primarily on paper. Even though we are historically seen as a “boys’ publisher”, we know that a considerable part of our readership is female – up to 50 or 60 percent depending on the series.
J-BIG: What was your personal journey like? Were manga your focus at Carlsen from the very beginning?
Kai-Steffen Schwarz: I’ve been with the publishing house since 1998. Back then, I started as an editor for the comics section, which manga was a part of at the time. In addition to Western comics, we published an issue of “Dragon Ball” every month, plus maybe two or three other series, all in relatively small print runs. In 1999, I moved into distribution, and in the period up to 2005, “Dragon Ball” really started to take off – first as a manga and then as an anime. That gave the whole program section a real boost, and when I became program director of our manga division, the parameters were already quite different. Today, I’m responsible for the editorial program as well as for licensing negotiations. Editorial supervision of all the titles is handled by the six-person Carlsen manga editorial team.
J-BIG: What role does the manga sector play for Carlsen’s overall business?
Kai-Steffen Schwarz: The revenue share of the manga segment in the publishing house fluctuates somewhat from year to year. 2020 and 2021, for example, were very good years for manga – not only for us, but also for other publishers. During this period, manga accounted for about 20 percent of Carlsen’s revenue; our net sales in 2020 were just under twelve million Euros. No one would have dreamed of that when we first got started.
We are currently trying to verify the reasons for this growth through market research, but the development doesn’t really surprise me very much. In other Western markets, the development is almost identical or, in some cases, even stronger. Compared to the previous year, the manga market in German-speaking countries increased by 80 percent in 2021 across all publishers. During the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, the figures initially dropped, but many readers quickly discovered the bookstores’ online or delivery services. For many, books and manga were a good way to entertain themselves during the Corona period.
On top of that, manga and anime have become much more mainstream. About 20 years ago, maybe one or two new series a year were broadcast on RTL II or similar niche TV channels. Today, with Netflix, Crunchyroll, ProSieben Maxx and other platforms, you can easily choose from 200 series to watch legally at any time – which naturally leads to more and more people discovering this genre for themselves. What’s more, the series make it from Japan to German screens much faster, either dubbed or with subtitles. With the so-called simulcast, new episodes of a series are sometimes available with English subtitles on various platforms one day after the original Japanese broadcast. These developments are all having a strong impact on the manga sector.
J-BIG: How does Carlsen currently compare to other publishers in the market?
Kai-Steffen Schwarz: We can actually estimate our market share very realistically: There is a neutral source called Media Control which covers about 80 to 85 percent of the market, including bookstores, online sellers like Amazon and the like. Comic stores are not included, but for the manga sector, they make up a relatively small part of the total market. In the bookselling business, we are the market leader with just under 36 percent. The runner-up is Kazé with 18 percent.
Most recently, the German book retail industry grossed around 50 million Euros a year with manga. Across all sales channels, it was even over 80 million in 2021. That’s not bad, but in France, for example, the manga market is three to four times as big as in Germany – that also has something to do with the strong tradition of the native Franco-Belgian comics scene. In Italy, too, the manga tradition is stronger than in Germany. But we’re growing and still see a lot of potential.
J-BIG: The role of digitization for the book industry has been hotly debated for years. What impact do you see specifically on the manga sector?
Kai-Steffen Schwarz: We have to differentiate between a number of developments. One is the interaction with the readership: The young generation is used to being online every day, and of course it’s important for us to be present there and get in touch with people. We naturally want to be where our readers are, and alongside book fairs, social media platforms are a key element here. On the one hand, we can actively communicate the latest news – a new publication, a giveaway, or special events, for example. And on the other hand, it’s just as important to find out what’s happening in the community, like how people react to new titles and book formats, or what they would like to see next.
Digital manga content is a completely different area, and I must say that it doesn’t play a very big role in Germany as of yet. Between 25 and 30 of our titles are also published digitally every month, but that doesn’t even account for three percent of our sales. It’s different in other areas – there are definitely novel titles where e-books make up 50 to 60 percent of total sales. In my opinion, there are several reasons why this doesn’t work in the same way for manga. For one thing, manga is a very visual medium, and that also influences reading behavior. When I open a new page, I usually first take in the double-page spread as a whole before working my way through panel by panel. It’s difficult to reproduce that digitally. Either readers are constantly zooming in and out, or this interplay of all the panels on a page is missing. There is also the question of what a reasonable business model would look like: Do you rely on micro-payments for individual volumes or even chapters? Is there a flat rate? Particularly in the case of short digital offerings, consumers tend to expect that this content should be available for free, but at the same time, of course, additional costs are incurred on the publishing side. So far, we don’t have a model that really breaks even.
The development is somewhat different in Japan. There, e-manga are increasingly replacing the role of print magazines as pre-publication platforms, and digital sales now exceed print sales. The fact that not much of this has materialized in Germany yet also has to do to a certain extent with illegal platforms such as scanlation sites. Here, fans offer their own digital translations of manga – without the permission of the copyright holders, of course. This is not at all compatible with Japanese views on copyright and, to a certain extent, respect for the author. Japanese publishers therefore immediately said, “We can’t allow that.” To counter this trend, many have developed their own platforms on which selected titles or at least chapters are made available digitally free of charge – internationally, for example in English. In the case of a longer series, for example, the latest volume might be available for free, while older titles can be purchased digitally. The model also works in a similar way with free chapters. There are also manga that were initially only published digitally in Japan, but which we were able to license as a print version for Germany. We may be in a transitional phase here, but at the moment, digital purchase options are neither particularly in demand nor economically profitable in Germany.
J-BIG: How much freedom do you have in creating the German editions?
Kai-Steffen Schwarz: As a rule, we stick very closely to the specifications of the Japanese original. This not only has something to do with strict copyright requirements – although that of course plays a role – but also with respect for the mangaka and his work. For example, the Japanese reading direction is now the absolute norm. There are some individual exceptions, such as Jiro Taniguchi’s works. Here, we were saying that this work is explicitly aimed at an audience that didn’t grow up with manga, so we tried to make the graphic realization a bit more “European”. But that is the absolute exception. Of course, we generally also assume that we’ll use the Japanese cover – unless we have a particularly great idea in mind. In all cases, we have to get each cover, as well as the imprint with the copyrights, approved individually for every volume of a series. If the approval isn’t given, we can’t go ahead with printing and publishing the book. There are publishers who put everything out in a uniform format, but we try to go a different route and follow the formats of the Japanese editions. “Dragon Ball” or “One Piece”, for example, conform to the Japanese paperback format, and a special edition like the “Perfect Edition” of “Monster” is published in a larger format. Again, though, there are exceptions where we see a different readership in Germany. The “Lovecraft” series by Gou Tanabe is a good example here: The drawing style is so detailed that we opted for a larger format, not least to honor the artwork. We weren’t sure at first if the Japanese publisher would agree, but in this case, it worked out.
After more than 30 years, the processes are quite well-rehearsed, but there are always details where things don’t run so smoothly. These can sometimes be tedious and lengthy discussions, but it is of course absolutely crucial that a consensus is reached. If we simply did what we thought was right without getting the green light, then that would be it – we wouldn’t even need to contact this publisher again about further projects.
J-BIG: How does the licensing process usually work? Do you talk directly to the publishers?
Kai-Steffen Schwarz: With a few exceptions, the Japanese manga publishers usually work with licensing agencies. They are mostly based in Japan, but there are also some that have offices in Europe. These act as intermediaries and brokers and are our direct points of interaction. We also maintain contacts with the publishers themselves, but as a rule, we keep to these official processes. A typical case might go like this: We discover an interesting series that we would like to license. Then the first thing we do is find out which publisher publishes the original. Are we already working with them or the licensing agency that represents them? If not, we start researching and send a licensing offer; depending on the title or project, this might include corresponding marketing ideas as to what exactly we are planning. After a while, we get an answer and enter into negotiations. Sometimes, on the other hand, the licensing agencies or publishers have an official offer deadline three or four times a year – a bit like the transfer window in soccer. If we want to get something new, all the offers have to be submitted within this time corridor and the publisher decides which German publisher gets the rights. And then there are many smaller publishers who are interesting for us in terms of content, but who don’t have a licensing department at all. These are exceptional cases for which we have to come up with a different approach.
J-BIG: Does such a licensing agreement apply to the entire series, or do you first try out one volume to see how it performs?
Kai-Steffen Schwarz: The general assumption is always that if we decide to publish something, we’ll publish the whole series. To a certain extent, as a licensee, you always buy a pig in a poke. At the same time, you naturally want to be on board for the really great new titles. This is not possible without risk. There are therefore only very few exceptional cases where we suspended the series after a few volumes because it was simply no longer justifiable from a budget point of view. But that only happens when you completely misjudge the situation and discover that no one is actually interested in this manga. Suppose a paperback manga is sold for 6,50 Euro. A large part of that goes towards production, the trade discount, licensing agreements, translation and so on. Simply put, we have to sell a few thousand copies of each volume, all the way through to the end of the series, to make a profit. In the usual cross-financing model, bestsellers inevitably have to help finance the flops.
J-BIG: Are there framework agreements with certain publishers or mangaka – so does someone like Naoki Urasawa always work with the same publisher?
Kai-Steffen Schwarz: In this specific case, the mangaka has changed publishers in Japan, but historically, this is not very common. Usually there is a long-standing and lasting relationship between a mangaka and the publisher who represents him or her. This is not necessarily the case with German publishers. The “20th Century Boys” series by Naoki Urasawa, for example, is published by Panini, while the “Monster” series and also the latest work “Asadora!” are published by Carlsen.
Nevertheless, there are things like first-option arrangements where a publisher with whom they work regularly has a right of first refusal – in certain countries or in relation to certain titles. For example, we used to publish the boys’ manga magazine “Banzai!” At the time, this was important for us from a content standpoint, but also because this arrangement gave us first access to new Shōnen material from Shueisha Publishing. For girls, we had the magazine “Daisuki”, which was crucial for Shōjo subjects from Hakusensha Publishing. And there are indeed different arrangements in particular countries. The American publisher VIZ Media, for example, is owned by Japanese companies, so it’s safe to assume that they will have first access rights to the relevant Japanese publishers. The German publisher Kazé originally belonged to VIZ Europe, but has since been sold to Crunchyroll, which now belongs to Sony. So there are various and sometimes complex entanglements.
J-BIG: What criteria do you use to decide which titles fit into Carlsen’s program, and how do you find them in the first place?
Kai-Steffen Schwarz: There are actually many different criteria. The way the market has developed in Japan and also in Germany in recent years, finding interesting material is usually not much of a problem. Our challenge is rather to decide which ones have priority for us: Which do we consider suitable for German readers, and when? I must say though that the readership itself is very communicative and approaches us proactively about which series they would like to read in German. And we also have a certain editorial vision of which authors and contents we want to present. If something has been successful, it makes sense, of course, to take a close look at a new series by the same illustrator, for example. And in the Shōnen area in particular, if a series is successful, it typically runs for quite a long time. In the case of “Dragon Ball”, for example, there were 42 volumes, and for “One Piece”, the 100th volume has already been published in Japan. In Germany, it’s scheduled to be released at the end of March. And even when a series has officially ended, it often lives on in other ways. Take “Naruto”, for example: The classic series comprises 72 volumes, but now, there are also anthologies and a spin-off. The people who buy these anthologies today are usually not the same people who bought the single volumes – apart from the cover, the content is the same, it’s just three volumes in one book. That’s what I find really exciting: “Naruto” is 20 years old now, and yet the story is still fresh and interesting to younger readers today.
Ongoing series like this are a given and make the choice easy for us. Many series are usually published bimonthly or tri-monthly to keep readers hooked. Beyond that, however, we try to maintain a balance in terms of content – between boys’ and girls’ content, between familiar series and new titles, between manga for teens and more challenging standout projects for adults. On average, we currently publish about 20 new titles per month, plus a few anthology editions. We make sure there’s always something for everyone.
J-BIG: Which manga is your personal favorite – from Carlsen or another publisher?
Kai-Steffen Schwarz: That’s always the hardest question, there are just so many good options. Right now, I’m very impressed with the “Search and Destroy” series, in this case actually a Carlsen publication. It’s a re-adaptation or even re-interpretation of a work by Osamu Tezuka called “Dororo”. Drawing-wise, it’s very interesting and actually atypical for a manga. Something I’ve liked for a long time, but which unfortunately can’t be licensed for Germany for the time being, is a story called “Dōmu” by Katsuhiro Otomo – in German, the series used to be called “Das Selbstmordparadies” (Domu: A Child’s Dream). The story was written in the late 70s and early 80s and won some science fiction awards back then. We very much hope that we will get the opportunity to bring it to a German audience again someday. But there are quite a few other authors who I find very exciting, even if some of them were not so commercially successful. For example, there’s the autobiographically inspired orphanage story “Sunny” by Taiyo Matsumoto, or, looking at our competitors, the works of Inio Asano – I could go on forever.
J-BIG: Is there any new publication in the pipeline that you’re particularly looking forward to?
Kai-Steffen Schwarz: Quite a few. For example, I’m especially excited about an adaptation of “War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells, which we will publish in three volumes. We are also planning a new edition of Osamu Tezuka’s work “Adolf”, which will now be called “The Story of the Three Adolfs”. In terms of both illustration and content, I also think a story called “Folge den Wolken nach Nord-Nordwest” (Go with the Clouds, North-by-Northwest) is great. It is set in Iceland and the author and illustrator has also visited the island herself. All in all, rather unusual and very exciting, in my opinion. The first volumes have already been published, but I really want to know what happens next.