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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
The quiet demise of Shojo Beat. 
12th-Jul-2009 05:45 pm
A reader of this blog sent me the following question a couple of days ago:
Do you know anything about why VIZ shut down Shojo Beat and why it was done so hastily and hush-hush? I just looked for news articles about it on Google News and found virtually nothing.

Now, I know there was a lot of blogosphere buzz when the demise of Shojo Beat was first announced, and I saw no reason to chime in at the time because quite frankly the writing was on the wall as early as 2007, but I suppose it still may be worth telling the story as I perceive it. Please bear in mind that although I have friends who work for Viz in various capacities, I do not have privileged knowledge of the publisher's inner workings (with the single exception that I disclose below).

Let's start with the original Japanese context of manga magazines: In Japan, manga magazines are bald promotional material for their publishers. They advertise the publishers' products, they drum up buzz for new campaigns, they're a place to test out new content, etc. What they do not is make Tons 'o Money for publishers. At best, profit margins are razor thin. Tankoubon sales are where the "real" (but generally not lavish...remember that these are book publishers) profits are to be had.

Magazine sales in the United States work differently. Often low-cost subscription-driven, they do ideally make money for their publishers--in the form of advertising revenue solicited and acquired from entities that are not the publisher. Cigarette ads in Vogue, as a hypothetical example (though many magazines no longer carry cigarette ads on moral principle). In other words, the money coming from you the reader is not what makes U.S. magazine publishers money. They make money by selling your eyeballs to their advertisers. The rates, of course, that they can charge are dependent upon their circulations numbers a.k.a. the number of pairs of eyeballs they attract.

In an ideal world, manga magazines published in the United States would function according to the U.S. model of magazine sales: The content--in this case serialized and/or one-off manga titles--would attract enough eyeballs every month to interest potential advertisers and justify ad sales at a profitable rate.

Unfortunately, the fate of almost every manga magazine published in the U.S. has instead been the following: Sales start out reasonably strong and then start to drop off. Readers start losing interest in ongoing titles and stop subscribing, while proportionally fewer new readers take up the magazine once a serialization is in mid-stream.* The publisher is then faced with a dilemma. Does it maintain the status quo in order to please those few devoted readers it has left? Or does it revise the content--switching out old serials for newer ones, experimenting with new content, etc.--and risk alienating the loyal readership base while potentially failing to attract new readers anyway?

From Pulp to Animerica Extra to Shojo Beat, Viz's strategy has always been to rage against the dying of the light at it were and institute the latter of the two options (rapidly accelerating the churn of new types of content)--and nevertheless, it always fails to stop the steady drop in readership. (I have it on good authority, for example, that Shojo Beat's sales numbers were not good, though honestly all you need to do is look at the sorts of ads they're running to know that.) By these manga magazines' sunset, they have become de facto manga magazines in the Japanese style: glorified promotional material which, like all advertising activities, costs the publisher money. And like with most advertising activities, the publisher actually knows very little concrete about how much investment in advertising of this form actually returns in profit through the sale of its other products.

And so, when your back is against the wall financially, as is the case for pretty much every publisher in the face of The Great Recession, you start making cutbacks everywhere you can. Kiss things like glorified promotional material bye-bye.

As for why Viz did this quietly, well, I suspect that has less to do with the hard realities of the financial bottom line than the symbolic shame. Your promotional material is the face you as a corporation show to the world, and the ability to sustain even a loss leader magazine is a show of strength and thus prestigious in the global manga publishing world. Widely announcing the discontinuation of Shojo Beat, one of its major branding vehicles, would be like a young career woman trying to save money by using less shampoo and then telling everybody at work that she hasn't washed her hair in three days. It would be a sign of weakness, and Viz does not want to look weak...even if there isn't but especially if there actually is underlying weakness.

*Why this is so is arguable. My pet theory is that it has to do with the culture of manga readers in the U.S. Most of them were raised on manga in book form, not in serialized magazine form (or comic store-style floppies form), and thus prefer books to magazines. Japan in general has a much stronger culture of serialization in both comics and prose literature.
12th-Jul-2009 10:59 pm (UTC)
So why is Shonen Jump still operating? That's what seems so unfair to me and my daughter. It doesn't seem to have any more non-Viz-related ads than Shojo Beat did.

She's particularly miffed because she used Shojo Beat as a lifestyle magazine too. She particularly appreciated the clothing websites the editorial content sent her to.
12th-Jul-2009 11:44 pm (UTC)
There is a two-fold answer to your question:
1) Shonen Jump sells better.
2) It's also tied much more to Viz's perceived brand (Naruto is related to SJ after all) than Shojo Beat and is more prestigious (as media for males and possibly females is virtually always more prestigious than media for specifically females).

EDIT: Neither point is any guarantee, of course, that Shonen Jump won't also go belly up someday for reasons related to what I outlined in the original entry.

Edited at 2009-07-12 11:46 pm (UTC)
13th-Jul-2009 12:02 am (UTC)
I had the feeling I would see the name "Naruto" in your reply.

Although I feel the world and the media are highly sexist, it seems to me that women are the audience for the vast majority of US magazines, including some of the most popular, such as People. I'm not sure Maxim and the like are any more prestigious than Vanity Fair or, to take fairer examples, Glamour, Mademoiselle (if it's still being published; I don't remember seeing it anywhere recently) or Cosmopolitan.
13th-Jul-2009 12:20 am (UTC)
Yeah, the Naruto elephant in the room. But didn't Bleach just overtake Watchmen on the Graphic Books Bestseller List? ^^;

Well, there is always the tension between what sells ("mass culture") and what is prestigious ("highbrow culture") in the publishing industry. The fact of the matter is that women do buy more books than men in most categories (and *all* fiction categories), but economics isn't the only measure of success, and prestige is still very gendered. In the US, only the feminine is routinely marked. It's why we have a derogatory institutionalized category called "chick lit" but not one called "dick lit"...though I'm all for calling The Catcher in the Rye "dick lit." I suspect that "shoujo manga" speaks with more ideological force than "shounen manga" for that reason.

I really don't see your point about Vanity Fair vs. Maxim. They aren't even in the same genre, are they? Vanity Fair isn't sold as soft porn. Compare the reputation of Vanity Fair to that of The Atlantic or Harper's, perhaps. But anyway, manga magazines are an offshoot of the book publishing industry, and the rules of prestige follow book publishing, even when they have to play by the rules of magazine publishing.
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