Libraries; the Answer to Free Online Comics?

The showdown has been coming for years. Voracious comics fans want access to each week’s installments as soon as possible. Others helpfully scan issues and put them online for free (called “scanlation”). Superhero fans, if they are even remotely savvy, can sign up for a weekly  link to download every single comic issue released each Wednesday. Japanese manga fans had it even easier, with sites like OneManga that allowed them to easily browse through and read thousands of titles for free. Comics publishers say this practice is  slowly eroding their business both here and in Japan.

None of these practices were legal; in May, the FBI shut down one of the biggest comics sites aggregating old and new comics, HTMLComics. Publishers both here and in Japan have started aggressively going after Japanese manga scanlation sites. At the recent San Diego Comic Con, a panel of publishers, creators, and industry watchers discussed potential solutions for digital piracy (link here for a smart breakdown of this complex problem).

The fans have raised a substantial outcry, dismayed over the loss of free comics (many of them argue that scanlation sites are just like getting free comics from libraries; see my own take on why this is not at all the case over at This blindness to the actual economics of running a business and unwillingness to acknowledge that artists deserve payment for their work boggles the mind, but an entire generation of readers are now used to reading online, and expect free access to hundreds if not thousands of titles. What happens to them now?

New business models are emerging. Fans may be willing to pay a minimal amount, à la the iTunes model, and they may be willing to pay a subscription fee, like the currently successful online anime service Crunchyroll or Netflix. Comics publishers like Netcomics and DMP Manga, with their eManga site, are already testing out the viability of this approach, but since they are limited to one publisher’s titles they are less attractive than the aggregator sites. ComiXology is gaining a strong reputation as a model for releasing content online from the major U.S. comics publishers. Most appealing? Getting access to comics via a site like Hulu, where fans may have to put up with ads but will have that great price tag: free.

What about libraries? Tokyopop, announced at San Diego Comic-Con that they are making a variety of their titles available via Overdrive. More recently, they announced that the fan favorite title Hetalia: Axis Powers will be released immediately via ereader Zinio and Overdrive, even though the US paper street date is not until September 21st (I’ve already asked our collection development team to snap up the title for our Overdrive collection).

Hetalia is an example of the problem we all face in trying to meet fan interest. As Deb Aoki points out at the Digital Piracy panel, Hetalia is a property that is already astronomically popular here in the US. Every major convention over the past year has been flooded with fans dressed as Hetalia characters, long before the series’ release date. Clearly, these fans have read Hetalia illegally online. Tokyopop’s release, via Overdrive or in print is already behind that market.

Providing Hetalia via OverDrive is a great solution for libraries serving casual fans, but it won’t allow us to keep up with the ravenous demand of fans who were raised on reading unlimited scans.

We hope the Tokyopop deal is just the beginning and that other publishers will see the advantage of working with Overdrive. It would be even better if they could provide titles as soon as they are available in Japan. If we truly want to compete, we need to figure out ways to meet demand quickly.

One Response to “Libraries; the Answer to Free Online Comics?”

  1. Kimi-Chan Says:

    Actually DMP’s Emanga and Netcomic’s carry other publishers as well. DMP hosts independent manga publications, Yaoi press, and harlequin for example. Before Aurora went under, Netcomics also hosted their titles. Also, about half of the readers of scanlations live outside the US, so libraries won’t carry the works as its (foreign language) imported material. legal online downloads (Kindle, Zinio, etc) and e-reader services will help end this, and in the US, libraries can also form part of the solution, but are not a magic bullet. I think only a combo of approaches will help stem it.