Why buy the book when the comic is free?

This week only, Tokyopop is posting the entire first volume of the manhwa (Korean comic) Priest online. Priest is an older title that has built a devoted following, so this is a nice opportunity to sample it for free.

Priest editor Tim Beedle takes this opportunity to post an interesting question on his blog. He admits that he has been skeptical of the online manga previews from the beginning, so he asks his readers: Do you read the previews, and if so, how does that affect your buying habits?

We have dealt with this question before, and I actually have an interesting followup. Last February, I linked to an item about Phil Foglio switching Girl Genius from pamphlet comics to strictly webcomics, except for the trade paperbacks. Foglio said that not only did he save money by not producing the monthly pamphlets, but sales of the trades were up—even though the content is available free on the web.

It seems counterintuitive, but Christopher Butcher, the manager of the Toronto comics store The Beguiling, looked at the numbers and found that his sales of the Girl Genius trades had increased since the switch. And it seems to be bringing in new customers.

In fact, our trade initial orders are up to around 10 copies from 2, and so far we've reordered both of the new trades (since the series moved online) to the tune of around 10 copies each. In fact, just yesterday, a dude I'd never seen before came in, asked for the Girl Genius trades, paid his $51 for volumes 4 and 5, and then walked out. Not that I don't value the conversations I have with my customers, but if our sales were all 3 minutes per $51, I'd most certainly be earning myself a raise.

Back at Tokyopop, Tim’s readers offer a variety of answers, from “I don’t read online previews” to “I do but then I don’t bother buying the book” to “Sampling online previews leads me to books I never would have known about.” In other words, the answers are all over the map.

Back in the olden days (2000), when manga was first gaining popularity in this country, a lot of readers got almost all their manga online in the form of scanlations. Now that much more manga is available through normal retail channels, online readers seem to form a much smaller part of the community (although they are still pretty influential in the blogosphere).

So I was very interested in the little experiment Tina Anderson, who blogs as Gynocrat, tried on the Tokyopop site. Tina is a manga writer, and she has four books on the market right now, so she posted previews of all four. (Note: the previews are SFW but the books are adult titles.) Although all her books are OEL (original English language) manga, two of them look more Japanese to the untutored eye. Those two previews garnered more page views but no sales (and lots of stupid comments). The two more obviously non-Japanese titles, on the other hand, got fewer views but more sales.

So what have I learned? For OEL sales exposure, Previews rock; people are willing to buy a new title that isn’t from Japan, once they get to take a look inside and like what they see. What did RUSH and DI [the titles that readers thought were Japanese] bring me? Retards.

Of course, this response is peculiar to the Tokyopop website, which attracts a certain type of reader. It tallies pretty well with the type of content they post, though. If you look carefully, you will note that most of their previews and manga marathons are of OEL or manhwa titles. I have heard that Japanese publishers are very particular about rights and are more reluctant to allow things like online previews. I don’t know if that’s a factor in Tokyopop’s case, but it does seem that their previews seem to align with their readers’ preferences.

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