Multi-volume manga masterpieces published decades ago are seeing a resurgence in popularity on the e-book market.
New hardware platforms, such as smartphones and tablet computers, are bringing new readers to older works of manga, which are easier to digitize because they are less likely to compete with paper editions.
eBook Initiative Japan Co., the Tokyo-based operator of eBookJapan, one of Japan's largest e-book shops, said manga accounts for 80 percent of its 52,000 available titles.
Last year's list of top sellers included long-running, middle-of-the-road manga that began to appear serially in magazines between the 1960s and the 1980s.
They included: "Oishinbo" (story by Tetsu Kariya, art by Akira Hanasaki), themed on gastronomy; "Shizukanaru Don" (The quiet Don) by Tatsuo Nitta, about a man who doubles as a company employee and the leader of a crime syndicate; and "Golgo 13" by Takao Saito, the story of a sniper.
Monthly sales of "Golgo 13" have quintupled over the last three years. Other multi-volume classics have also more than doubled their sales.
eBook Initiative Japan's corporate performance improved drastically after it began distributing e-books to Apple Inc.'s iPhones in 2008 and to Android-based devices and Apple's iPads in 2010.
The company topped the 5-million mark in accumulated number of copies sold in August 2008. That number doubled to 10 million by January 2011.
At eBookJapan, the combined number of e-books sold for smartphones and tablet computers in the second half of 2010 was 6.13 times the corresponding number in the first half of the year.
The main customers of eBookJapan are in their 30s and 40s.
"People of generations that are unfamiliar with onetime long-sellers and bestsellers are embracing those works as something totally new to them," said Akira Takashima, managing director at eBook Initiative Japan. "Works that have lost none of their sheen and allure over a decade or two, much like Shakespeare's and Beethoven's works, have started to take off."
The prices per volume are mostly set between 400 and 600 yen ($5.20 and $7.80), or 20 to 30 percent cheaper than paper editions. An increasing number of customers are making bulk purchases of multi-volume series, such as "Golgo 13."
The e-book editions are beneficial both to the customers and the publishers. For customers, the e-books take up no space and are available in bulk even after their paper counterparts have disappeared from storefronts. Some eBookJapan customers have told the online shop's operator that they are thrilled to be able to carry all volumes of a manga series with them on vacations.
For publishers, e-books allow them to secure a stable income from sales of established works without competing against their paper editions.
At Jitsugyo no Nihon Sha Ltd., a midmarket publishing house based in Tokyo, the long-running "Shizukanaru Don" series accounts for one-third of all proceeds from e-books. While the 100 existing volumes of the manga have sold 44 million copies in the paper edition, 3.3 million copies have been downloaded digitally, with women accounting for 60 percent of all readers.
The stream of female customers was small at the outset, but that readership expanded through the "recommendation" feature of the e-book store website, Jitsugyo no Nihon Sha officials said.
That illustrates how a publisher can tap into a new category of readers.
The takeoff of manga classics in the e-book market also reflects a change in readers' attitudes at a time when hardware platforms have evolved from cellphones to smartphones and to tablet computers.
The top seller at eBookJapan in 2011 was the "Grappler Baki" (Baki the Grappler) series by Keisuke Itagaki, themed on combative arts, which became available online in February 2011. Akita Publishing Co., the Tokyo-based publisher of the series, said 42,000 copies were downloaded by the end of the year.
"Baki," a sequel to the "Grappler Baki" series, sold more than 20,000 copies over a three-month period following its digital release in August. It was eighth in eBookJapan's annual sales ranking.
"The spread of smartphones came at a time when fans had long been waiting for digitized editions (of manga)," explained Hirokazu Takahashi, an executive producer at Akita Publishing. "The pictures drawn with a mighty touch are suited for digital editions because they look so real against the backlight."
While cellphones can only display one frame at a time, smartphones and tablet computers allow users to see entire pages, and at enhanced image resolutions.
According to the marketing firm Impress R&D, the e-book market in Japan was worth 65 billion yen in fiscal 2010, up a robust 13.2 percent year on year.
Growth of the e-book market has traditionally relied on manga for cellphones, and especially on pornographic material.
Adult manga have small numbers of frames per page and small numbers of pages, which have made them ideal for reading on cellphones.
In recent years, though, adult manga seldom make the list of top 30 annual sellers at the eBookJapan store. The increasing number of available classic titles is expected to accelerate the departure from dependence on adult manga.
NTT Solmare Corp., the Osaka-based operator of Comic C'Moa, Japan's largest online retailer of manga for cellphones, in June 2011 started distributing 35,000 titles for smartphones of KDDI Corp.'s au brand. Toward the end of last year, the company also began serving NTT DoCoMo Inc.'s smartphones.
NTT Solmare, which did not want to lose the clientele it won through the distribution of e-books to cellphones, designed the menu for smartphone screens in exactly the same way as the menu for cellphone screens.
The user does not need to do anything to continue using the website after upgrading his or her device from a cellphone to a smartphone.
"An e-book store will simply be ousted from the market if it fails to broaden the selection of available titles and image resolutions to cope with different types of user devices," said Hiroki Oohashi, the president and CEO of NTT Solmare.
(This article was written by Naoki Takehata and Shigeyori Miyamoto.)