This past week Square Enix officially opened it’s online manga store. You can check out their press release for all the nitty-gritty details and of course visit their website yourself to have a surf around. In short, the company is offering volumes of the manga they hold the rights to through their site for a set price. The volumes, once purchased, are available to be read via a browser based reader on their site, a very similar set-up to Digital Manga’s eManga website.
Square Enix’s site has been in the works for a while and it offers up unique possibilities for North American manga readers with its selection of manga from different publishers, currently Viz Media and Yen Press. Unfortunately it’s launch has left some readers cold and I can’t help but look at it as an embodiment of many elements I think are what have been holding digital manga back. This isn’t meant to be anything against Square Enix specifically but browsing through their site got my brain going on the concept itself. It’s got some good things going for it but has some big scare-away first impressions for consumers.
For many in the same boat as I, the “can only be purchased by U.S. residents” is the big kicker and end-all right there but I’ll go forward looking at this as a more broad look at digital manga. WhileI share my thoughts under the cut, I’m interested in knowing what our readers here think of digital manga – yay or nay, why and how? What are you looking for in the format, price and content of digital manga?
Square Enix’s website utilizes an online reader to view their manga, very similar to the readers utilized by Viz Media, Tokyopop, Digital Manga and Yen Plus. Their players works well, it loads quickly and the pages turn smoothly – it even has a snazzy page-turn effect by ‘grabbing’ the corner of the pages. It’s not anything that makes the reading experience any easier but it’s a nice visual touch.
Right of Ownership
This is for many the biggest issue of them all when it comes to digital content- when paying to buy something digitally, do you really own it? For sites like Square Enix’s, when you pay for a volume of manga you’re not paying to own it, you’re paying to have access to it (as quoted from SE: “a license to view”).
“You do not have any property rights in the Manga; instead you have a terminable, revocable license.” – Square Enix’s Term of Use
Sure it saves on needing to buy a special device to play it or have the space to store it, but it also means you’re restricted to reading what you’ve paid for only when you have access to the site itself (and thus internet access). And what if the site goes down for technical issues? What if the site completely shuts down someday? What is the extent that this purchase price entails?
Recently issues have arisen with Amazon and their KINDLE device that really drive home the issue of ‘ownership’ and just what kind of rights we have with digital content we’ve paid for. If you buy a paper book, it’s yours – you put it in your bag, take it home, read it and put it on your shelf. It’s yours to keep, sell, donate or lend how you please. Recent claimed acts by Amazon (I personally can’t confirm this happened) have shown that despite downloading onto your own system, presumably then ‘owning’ it, Amazon reserves the right to take it back. At their discretion, it was said they were deleting eBooks off consumers devices after they’d been paid for. I don’t know about you, but that’s a pretty scary thought to me and hardly the relationship between consumer and seller that I’ve come to appreciate.
Paying for something on a subscription basis, which generally comes with a pre-established time period, is one thing perhaps but when you’re buying to own a volume, has digital found a way to truly offer the security and dependability many buyers are looking for?
“SQUARE ENIX reserves the right to discontinue all or part of the Service at any time with or without prior notice to you, at which time the User Agreement will be terminated for all affected users.”
Content is something that really stood out to me with Square Enix’s site in particular. The offerings of books from both Yen Press and Viz Media was nice but it’s hard to get excited about volumes that have already been available in English in print from these companies for a long time, and are still easily available today. Full Metal Alchemist, Soul Eater, Record of a Fallen Vampire… Is there still a big audience for these books?
On one hand you have those who’ve already bought and read the original books – what reason would they have to purchase these from Square Enix’s site? The restriction of being able to read them only on the site means they don’t have any more accessibility then before as an eReader addition could offer, and from what I can see it doesn’t offer anything new such as extras that the original license holder could offer making such a repurchase worth it. It’s really disappointing to see no ‘new’ titles offered to really show their ability to offer more than we’ve already got.
Looking at this from the perspective of new readers, the original books are still available for them to purchase or borrow – so what benefit does this online store offer to them in terms of purchasing complete volumes? The site does thankfully offer free previews of the volumes but even then they seem more useful for those considering purchase of the books. This is especially easy to presume when taking into consideration the price of the volumes…
Square Enix is currently selling their digital volume access at $5.99 per, this being the “special introductory price”. It leads one to wonder what the regular price will be per volume. Even simply looking at this special price, it’s pretty darn steep. $5.99 for the right to view a manga volume through their website, when for only a couple dollars more you could own the physical copy?
I see these prices and I feel confused as to what Square Enix feels the value is to the customer to warrant these prices (when comparing to what we currently pay for print editions). At least when buying the book copies from publishers, I understand the costs of licensing, translating, adapting, lettering, printing and then distribution, all while trying to keep the costs as low as possible for buyers. In this instance with the digital copies, the adaptation and lettering has been done already and I can only assume they don’t have much else in the way of licensing fees as they themselves own the original series, though I don’t fully understand if Viz Media or Yen Press receive compensation for these versions.
Unfortunately for both Square Enix and buyers like myself, I simply don’t see the benefit of these digital volumes past a quick fix online, and frankly we all know the big looming shadow word that’ve long been the easy quick fixes. A $5.99 price-tag is not about to inspire many to seek alternative means of getting their manga, especially when it just seems to scream cash-grab with little innovation to support it. Where’s the new content? Out of print content? The totally-worthwhile convenience?
“The prices for each license will be set forth on the Service website and may change without advance notice.”
This line from their ToS doesn’t invoke the most faith either, even if a fairly common thing to hear for any such sites. It’s worrisome more so if Square Enix ever tries a subscription route, I never like those uncertainties when my manga or money is involved!
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Square Enix’s manga store is another jumping into the fray to see what works, but I think they may be starting with expectations too high for what they’re offering. Online manga should be aiming to offer readers what scanlations are always touted as providing in their purest intentions – manga the reader can’t get in their language or in print at all. Until sites start offering this, and at prices comparable to the value manga readers are used to paying for a fully-owned, physical copy, I don’t think digital manga will be fully embraced just yet.
Reading manga digitally in general has yet to win me over, and with my overwhelming preference for reading on paper I doubt it ever will completely (my eyes see enough screen time as it is!), but I still look forward to the day when manga is widely available in a format that works for consumers and creators alike. Digital manga is clearly that future whether paper purists like me like it or not, and the past two years has been full of new ventures offering just such a thing as publishers experiment with formats and distributions, such as the launch of Viz Media’s SigIKKI and Shonen Sunday, Yen Plus going fully digital and Digital Manga’s fledgling DM Guild, to name a few.
Whether it’s offering manga for free reading online to promote book sales as Viz Media is doing, offering chapter previews of each volume as Tokyopop is doing or simply offering manga to buy cheap-ish through devices such as the iPad, be it as a new reader or an owner of the paper book, there’re some initiatives that seem to be working well for their audience. Still, companies are really in a position of throwing the proverbial spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks, and while it’s bound to make a good-sized mess at first (or maybe a slight dull thud for Square Enix), it’s still good to see them going at it.
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Vaguely unrelated fun note: Check out Square Enix’s ‘Submission Guidelines‘. Honesty is the best policy!