On December 17th, Weekly Shonen Jump – VIZ Media's Western Hemisphere, English language, digital offering of the famous Japanese manga anthology – is changing its subscription offering from a magazine to an all-access pass, which will include simulpub chapters instead of a compiled digital magazine. WSJ will essentially become for manga what Crunchyroll is for anime: access to a back catalog of licensed titles while keeping up with the newest stuff as it's released (although it's also worth noting that Crunchyroll subscriptions also already give access to manga in a similar fashion).
I'm only sort of interested in this as a comics psuedo-pundit: I'm much more interested in this on a personal level:
WSJ is the only thing in all of comics that I still read regularly.
Granted, when I finally got a job and was commuting four hours a day, I sort of fell off the wagon. But ever since my life has settled down I've made it a point to finally catch up with all of the weekly issues I've missed over the last year. I re-upped my subscription just this month after it having lapsed for several months, which is no big deal: WSJ previously costed 26 bucks a year, and missed issues will only set me back a dollar a pop.
I don't just like the current offering of WSJ because it's the only place for me to legally read simulpub chapters of stuff I care about. I genuinely like the packaging. The weekly digital magazine format makes me feel a connection to the original shitty cheap-paper phonebook Japanese version that I'm missing out on over here (I do have a couple of copies from the local Kinokuniya, but I can't read very much of them). I think that's an earned air of authenticity because these editors, translators, and letterers are like the late night television of comics. They have to turn around a constant stream of adaptations, often working with original artwork in order to make panels work with the English version of text, altering speech bubbles, altering onomatopoetic lettering, redoing graphic design for title pages and covers that hinged on a barrage of Japanese text, etc. etc.
With the new format, the magazine goes out the window. All of the chapters within the magazine will still be available at the same time, but in their own self-contained packages. Presumably what will be lost here is the episodic-in-context nature of reading these chapters among the other new chapters of the week. It feels distinctly different to read "the newest chapter of Robot x Laserbeam" compared to "the new chapter of Robot x Laserbeam on page 147 right after this month's Boruto." Curated experiences – the type that are done by humans and not by probabilistic machine learning algorithms that rely on personal data – are becoming the kind of thing you can only find in expensive restaurants and actual museums. There are titles that I straight up might not ever read because they won't be packaged with the bluster of a WSJ cover and placed right before my favorite ongoing title.
Of course, the selling point is probably the subscription access to the back catalog, and now that the change has been made, I realize that this has been in the cards probably for at least a year, maybe more. It was around some time in the last couple of years that WSJ started pushing free manga chapters hard while the offerings got steadily better over time. I personally never partook in this because the offerings were just limited enough to not be worth my time starting two chapters of a series and never finishing it.
The argument now seems to be that by offering access to these titles for such a low price ($1.99 per month, if I'm not mistaken), this will discourage people from reading illegal manga scanlations. Of course, the flip side for me is that it's a much better situation for people who wanted to buy digital manga but didn't want to pay paperback prices for something they didn't actually really own. Any manga I have bought digitally from VIZ is vendor-locked in their proprietary digital reading tools: I don't really own that. Since I currently don't want to pile up tankobons any more than I already have, the back-issue access is now my best digital solution.
As for the illegal person, I'm weary of these arguments and business models. Anything that involves less money going into a system for more stuff automatically suggests to me that creators are worse off and not getting a meaningful cut of the action of people consuming their work. The retort to this is "they're already getting nothing from illegal scans," to which my response is, this is a low, low bar.
This idea that people should be making business decisions around whether or not people are stealing from them has never made sense to me. If you appeal to the least common denominator wherein the least common denominator is a thief from which you make no money, you're going to price things... really low. At what point does this turn into the company sanctioning internal theft from its own creators? The economics here are pretty simple. My 2 dollars a month – at best – is going to be divided up among dozens of creators (I'm taking liberties with the flow of cash here but just try and follow along). What if I only use this service to read two titles? Is VIZ keeping track of what I read and paying creators a pittance Spotify style?
Also, how exactly are we thwarting illegal manga readers by making the most comprehensive collection of digital English translations available for two dollars to anybody with a computer who can now just screenshot page after page? Honestly, I wouldn't put it past somebody to have thought that this kind of illegal flow would put scanlators out of demand. But the fact of the matter is they're just one small part of the problem. The sites and communities that host illegal scans are the epicenters and the only solution for them is the continued government crack downs. When your customers are literally hand scanning, cleaning, and translating pages practically for free just to upload them for others, you're talking about a bonkers level of initiative compared to almost every other thief: bank robbers don't operate weekly with that kind of dedication. If these people want to rip you off, they will rip you off.
The better solution is for these companies not to rip their creators or their customers off. Digital manga volumes shouldn't cost $9 when I can get a run of quality physical tankobons at $4 a pop. The pricing of digital manga remains a huge mystery to me and it's so egregious that I'll never pay for one; but, if there's some kind of licensing or otherwise contractual restriction that's causing this kind of pricing, something needs to be done. Additionally, the manga needs to be accessible in a public format and not vendor-locked into Viz or Amazon or whoever the fuck else. While this will make sharing quality adaptations as easy as sending files around, this really does take a lot of power out of centralized sites and scanlators.
Ultimately, it's not VIZ's or Shueisha's problem if a lot of people are scumbags and want to come up with shoddy, half-philosophical excuses to justify their own sense of entitlement. If I sound like I'm on a high horse here, I'd say it's more like a miniature pony. Manga-reading culture is by-and-large a strange moral vacuum in this country. VIZ is just one company, and unless all of the other companies follow suit – at which point every dickhead I know who reads nothing but scanlations will complain about "fragmentation" – this will just be a drop in the bucket.
In short, PLEASE DON'T TAKE MY COOL WEEKLY SHONEN JUMP COVERS AWAY.