Last week I mentioned how surprised I was to see Osamu Tezuka’s “The Book of Human Insects” on the New York Times’ manga bestseller list. This week had an equally unexpected and welcome surprise as vol. 17 of “20th Century Boys” debuted at #7. While seeing a Tezuka work on the list was gratifying just to see proof that a sizeable audience does exist for his work, the presence of the latest “20th Century Boys” volume is remarkable for a different set of reasons. After all, I doubt that Viz would have gone through the trouble of releasing three lengthy series from the man if there wasn’t an audience for his work, and he’s one of the few authors to get consistently name-checked on the American-comic-centric sites that I visit. Plus, like Tezuka, Urasawa now has an Eisner award to his name as well.
No, the presence of this volume on the list is notable for what it allows us to speculate about the overall sales for the series and the health of the manga market in general. Seeing as how this is the first volume of the series to make the list, the immediate assumption would be that there was some kind of sales spike for it. The problem with that assumption is that there’s no obvious reason for it. Yes, the previous volume was great even by the series’ lofty standards, but continuing excellence only helps to sustain sales for a series in the long run. In other words, if you tried to sell someone on the merits of “20th Century Boys” based on the quality of vol. 16, it’s more likely that they’re going to start at the beginning rather than rush out and buy vol. 17.
What I think its placement on the bestseller list actually represents is a side effect of the “softening” of the overall manga market. Though the actual sales data is nowhere near as complete or even available as I’d like it to be, overall sales for manga have been declining for the past few years. It doesn’t mean that the category is going to go away anytime soon, but as best-selling series end, new series fail to sell as well, and sales for long-running powerhouses like “Naruto” fall prey to standard attrition, it means that manga may not be the dominant force in book sales that it once was. In fact, with the folding of Tokyopop and the bankruptcy of Borders it’s almost certain.
My point here is that with the overall softening of the market, series and works from authors with established audiences now have a chance to make their presence known on the bestseller list. Even if “20th Century Boys” hasn’t sold in “Shonen Jump” hnumbers, I imagine it has at least sold consistently enough so that once the bar for entry into the list was lowered, its numbers allowed it to sneak on in. Of course, this could just be a softer-than-usual week and we’ll never see it on the list again, but I hope that I’m wrong. To that end, I’m hoping we’ll see the latest volumes of “Black Jack,” “Gantz,” “A Bride’s Story,” or even “Tenjo Tenge” on the list in the coming weeks. Knowing my luck, we probably won’t see any, but hope springs eternal.