2002: The Odyssey
From 1987 through 2002, there was a model for publishing profit-making manga. It was derived from a fusion between the Magazine-to-graphic novel formula of Japan and the American publishing model of pamphlet comic that, for important stories, is reprinted in graphic-novel format.
The standard model was to first publish the manga in pamphlet comics that were 32 or 48 pages long (priced between 2 and 4 dollars), then collect them into approximately 180-page graphic novels that sell for about 16 dollars. There were several advantages to this publishing model. First, even if one did not make back all of production costs in the pamphlet comics, as long as it made back more than the printing costs, it worked to the publisher's advantage by making back at least some of the production costs. Then, over the course of the long-life of the graphic novel, the manga could eventually start showing a profit. This was an effective publishing strategy for its time because the number of pamphlet comics far outsold the graphic novels, and usually the pamphlet comics more than made up for production costs. That way, the graphic novels could enter the not-very-welcoming bookstore market only risking minor production costs (the time the designer and editor took to do the additional work needed for the graphic novel alone), printing and shipping costs.
The big variation on the above strategy was where the Japanese model of magazine-to-graphic-novel was used. Viz always had several magazines going, and publishers such as TokyoPop (then called Mixx) and Gutsoon started out with the magazine-to-graphic-novel model. Although TokyoPop moved to the pamphlet-to-graphic-novel model for some of their titles pretty quickly. (Magazines have never been very good for profits. Returns are high, so one usually has to sell in the hundreds of thousands before a profit can be seen.)
There were plenty of experiments done on format. Mini comics, 100-page low-priced graphic novels, colorized manga, weekly releases, colored paper, different kinds and weights of paper, different sizes, etc. TokyoPop in the late 1990s wouldn't go more than a year or 18 months without making some drastic change to their name or format or policies. (Remember the 2-manga-pages-per-page experiment?) Viz usually experimented with individual series. Something quickly forgotten among the fan community is that Viz was the first company to push shôjo manga and the first to publish right-to-left manga, although neither took off in popularity at the time.
In fact, since TokyoPop had experimented so much, the announcement in the 2001/2002 winter season that they would switch their entire line from right-to-left, not translate sound effects, and drop their prices to under $10 was greeted with a healthy load of skepticism. Viz had Evangelion as both left-to-right and right-to-left versions, and the left-to-right version sold at least twice as well as the unflipped version.
But TokyoPop launched their titles very well with display stands in the bookstores and some very strong titles such as Chobits. The fact that they did very well in June wasn't such a surprise, but by August, it was obvious that TokyoPop had found the secret formula for success.
Viz started to scramble. It wasn't completely for sure that it was the unflipping or the under $10 price tag. Viz was pretty sure it wasn't the lack of translation of the sound effects, although the cost-saving aspect of that wasn't lost on Viz's finance people. The main problem was that to change the price or change to unflipped required a renegotiation of every contract. I honestly still don't know how TokyoPop managed to change their entire line in the course of a few months. Viz pretty much caught on to the new reality in August, and it wasn't until March of the next year at the earliest that the first of Viz's low-priced manga could come out.
From and editorial standpoint, it was a difficult change. Producing pamphlet manga meant that each graphic novel was coming out once every 6 months. A switch to quarterly graphic novels meant that production was doubled. By 2002, the Pokémon bubble had long-since burst and Viz wasn't a very cash-rich company, so it was impossible to increase the editorial department. And finding enough freelancers to double production quickly wasn't easy either. But it had to be done. The sales on the pamphlet manga had been declining for years, so it was something of a relief to get rid of them, but the entire editorial department worked late pretty much everyday between the years of 2002 and 2004.
The change has been a great thing for manga as a whole, but there has been a downside to it. Since manga no longer has the cushion of pamphlets to eat up production costs, it becomes more difficult to experiment anymore. Format experiments have all-but disappeared, and content experiments such as were found in the pages of PULP magazine are pretty hard to find these days. Second, since a book has to make up its costs in the book-store market only, the wages for freelancers went down pretty drastically in some companies. (Other companies were low to begin with.)
Still, because of the changes that 2002 brought about, manga is one of the few healthy book markets in the United States today. There are several publishers devoted to Yaoi manga (which I thought would never happen), there are other specialty publishers, and bookstore distribution is wide-spread and knowledgeable. Today is a good day for manga. (I wonder how well it'll do tomorrow.)