How to Read Manga Legally: A Guide

It’s common wisdom that there’s never been a better time to be an anime fan. More anime than you could watch in a lifetime is legally available streaming online for free; for only a small monthly subscription, you can access another lifetime’s worth only hours after it airs in Japan. Gone are the days of paying $30 for a two-episode VHS, of gathering around a fuzzy fansub VHS at anime club, of tolerating nonsensical edits and low-quality dubbing to watch a show on TV. For people who have been into the hobby for fifteen years or more, it’s an age of miracles.

But if you’re a manga fan? Not so much.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still much better than it used to be – manga volumes are inexpensive and plentiful, with a wide variety of series being released. However, compared to the land of milk and honey that anime fans inhabit, it can feel a bit frustrating. Many fans end up turning to scanlations, scanned versions of manga volumes available for free online, using either amateur translations or sometimes outright pirating the official English releases. It’s not hard to see why this is popular or commonplace – manga is almost never free and convenient the way anime is, and fans weaned on online streaming are used to instant gratification. Many fans don’t even realize that these sites are illegal, since they’re often among the first results when you plug a title into a search engine.

Manga fans, there is a better way!

Brick and mortar

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The most straightforward way to buy manga hasn’t changed that much since the old days: walk into a bookstore, exchange money for goods, and walk out with fresh new paperbacks. The main difference is that now, you get at least a dozen times the selection for about half the price. There’s a special appeal to stepping out of a bookseller with a bag of books ready to be experienced for the first time that ordering online lacks. Barnes and Noble is the obvious choice, since they’re everywhere and have devoted a huge amount of floor space to manga and graphic novels; your area might have local shops as well. Comic book stores, unfortunately, are rarely a viable choice because of some nonsensical rivalry between American comic fandom and manga fandom, but there may be an anime specialty store in your area.

The downside? For one, you’ll almost definitely end up paying full price, which has come to be a rarity online. Manga is pretty cheap overall, but after a while, those extra dollars tend to add up. The second disadvantage is that they’re never guaranteed to have that one book you’re looking for, unless you’re after the latest volume of a popular series. Sure, they may have volumes 1-3 and 5 of Niche Romantic Comedy, but volume 4 is the one you really need – otherwise, the ending won’t make any sense!

Internet retailers

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There’s little that can beat the convenience of online retailers. You can buy pretty much everything you need without ever leaving your bed! Who doesn’t love that? Unless you’re looking for something particularly obscure and out-of-print, chances are you’ll be able to find it somewhere on the internet. My preferred source is The Right Stuf, a long-running anime specialty store that started off as a mail-order catalog company with a few licenses of their own; they generally sell for somewhat under the MSRP, have some incredible sales, and I get the satisfaction of knowing that my money goes to people who truly care about the medium. However, if you’re in the US, there’s a solid chance you’re part of the 50% of the population that has Amazon Prime, and unlimited free shipping is hard to pass up. Plus, if you can’t afford the lightly-discounted new copies, the marketplace is a great resource for finding cheap used copies. It’s also very useful when it comes to filling holes in your collection of older, out-of-print series that may have gotten lost in the shuffle over the years.

All the disadvantages of buying online stem from shipping issues. Free two-day shipping is great, but Prime comes with a steep price tag that not everyone can afford or wants to shell out for – myself included. If you’re shopping without Prime, or through a specialty retailer, they may have free shipping for orders over a certain amount, but those options are usually fairly slow. It’s not bad if you’re willing to wait a few days, but people are impatient. Marketplace sellers usually charge for shipping as well, so that one-cent copy is more like four dollars; usually you have to pay separate shipping on each volume, unless you’re careful to always order from the same source.

Manga Ebooks

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Okay, let’s say you need to read this manga right now. Getting to a bookstore isn’t an option, and you can’t wait for even the fastest shipping methods. You will lose your mind if you can’t read the new volume of Assassination Classroom the moment it comes out. I have good news: in the last few years, ebooks of manga have become a thing. Ebook reading apps are easily available on pretty much any tablet or smartphone, which I’m willing to bet you own. Even better, they’re cheaper than print copies, since data is endlessly reproducible while the means of production for creating books cost money. They’ll never go out of print, and you never have to worry about losing a random volume while moving. You can carry your entire library in your pocket and never be without manga to read – what’s not to love?

Well, there’s a few things not to love. For starters, apparently not all manga display correctly on all screens. I haven’t bought any manga ebooks, so it’s not something I personally have experienced, but this has been relayed to me by a librarian so I trust this information. Besides, most people prefer the tactile experience of holding a physical book in their hand and leafing through it, especially when it comes to visual media. Another drawback is that you’re not paying for the book itself, but a license to read it – a license that can be withdrawn easily at any time and is enforced by companies deleting the data without your consent. Also, not all companies have gotten on board or released all their series, so you may not be able to find that one series you’ve been hankering after.

Subscription services

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Most anime these days you can watch through subscription services, so why not manga? Pay a monthly fee, and you get access to all the manga you can read. So far, this method of distribution has three major players: Crunchyroll, which mostly distributes Kodansha series; Weekly Shonen Jump through Viz; and Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited service has a number of manga titles available. The biggest advantage to this is, as I stated, it’s an all-you-can-read buffet in a world of a la carte manga volumes. Much like anime, you generally get new chapters fresh out of Japan, although that varies based on the original publisher. For staying up-to-date on Japan’s top series, there’s no better source than subscriptions.

Of course, as with buffets, the issue is always one of quality, not quantity. A Shonen Jump subscription is a boon to fans of shonen manga, but not everyone loves tournament arcs and panty shots. Okay, maybe that’s a little mean – there’s a lot of shonen series I have a great deal of affection for – but the fact is the selection for subscription services is extremely limited. There are a few manga I’ve read through Crunchyroll and enjoyed, but the vast majority I just kind of scroll past in my fruitless search for more content I don’t have to pay extra for. Compared to anime, what you get for what you pay each month can be hard to justify.

Libraries

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This is my favorite way to obtain manga. I make weekly trips to the library, hauling a huge tote bag full of books the mile or so each way to the library. The Seattle library website is one of my most-visited websites as I regularly search for series that have struck my interest. Thanks to SPL, I’ve been able to catch up on What Did You Eat Yesterday, Kimi ni Todoke, Goodnight Punpun, and over a dozen other series ranging from schlocky to prestigious. Libraries are wonderful for reading manga because they are free unless you are, like me, an ADD-riddled scatterbrain who can’t keep track of due dates. If you want to follow a long-running series but can’t spare the cash or bookshelf space, have a series you enjoy but not enough to invest in owning it (hello, Assassination Classroom), or want to try before you buy, libraries are the perfect resource. Most circulation these days is done through holds over the internet; you find a title you would like to read and make a reservation. You may have to wait in a queue, or it may already be available and you only have to wait a day or two until it shows up at your local branch. If your local system doesn’t have it, Interlibrary Loans make it possible to borrow pretty much anything!

Okay, maybe it’s not perfect. They have limitations, and big ones. Much like bookstores, you’re limited to what someone else decided to make available. I’ve been checking to see if my library has picked up the first volume of Anonymous Noise for weeks now, but no luck. Interlibrary loans cost $5 – a bargain for many things, but at least half the cost of most manga volumes. That plus the elevated late fees can quickly make it not worth it. Hold lists can get long, especially for new volumes of popular series, and volumes in the middle of a series can get lost or ruined in the hands of others. Furthermore, while many cities have fantastic, vital library systems, other places may not, and eliminating libraries is high on the governmental to-do list in a lot of conservative areas.

Overdrive

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Overdrive is an ebook lending service through libraries, with all the positives and negatives of both. Manga on overdrive is, by and large, a relatively new thing, and something libraries are still adjusting to. I haven’t had a chance to test this out yet, since SPL has thus far opted not to buy the licenses to any manga series, and you do need a library card from a system that has access to them. The biggest advantage over physical library books is that there are no late fees – the books are returned automatically through the internet!

But, why not scanlations?

There are loads of ways to read manga legally, including for free and online that provide a far better experience than scanlations. Using these sources is ethically gray at best, and more often than not is out and out unethical.

The debate over whether or not views on illegal sites translates into lost sales has raged for years, ever since the internet simplified the process of acquiring fansubs. I don’t doubt that a sizable proportion of people who read scanlations would never buy the books, whether or not they were available legally and conveniently. However, even if only a small proportion of scanlation readers started paying for what they read, sales numbers for manga localization companies would increase dramatically. Sales matter. Sales lead to higher profits, to more licenses of both high-profile and niche series.

Besides, the translations in scanlations are rarely up to snuff. There’s a myth that scanlations are more faithful to the original because they are done on an all-volunteer basis by people who are passionate about the original text, and thus superior. They may be more literal, but that doesn’t make for a better or more faithful reading experience. Quite often, they are translated from Chinese or Korean, making for clunky wording and two layers of translation obfuscating the original text. Professional translations are smoother and more natural while still preserving the original nuances as much as possible, and I have never in my life met a manga translator who didn’t love the medium. They are on your side and are doing their best to bring you the best possible version of their work. No matter what, something will be lost in translation, but there’s really no way to get around that. The only way to experience manga as the creator intended it is to become proficient in reading Japanese, period.

Support the industry. Support the hard-working artists and publishers and translators and localizers. Read manga legally. It’s important.

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6 thoughts on “How to Read Manga Legally: A Guide

  1. Morgan

    You didn’t mention it in your article, but there are a few more ways to read (some) manga legally for free.
    Viz has a free manga section on their website. There are certain series(such as Astra Lost in Space and The Emperor and I) that are basically free for anyone to read for an unlimited time. Other series have free chapters released for a limited amount of time before the print volume comes out.
    There’s also MangaBox, which is an app that lets you read manga on your cellphone. It is a legitimate app, but I’m afraid that I don’t have any experience with it as to whether it’s good or not.
    I don’t know know if you wanted to list every possible source, but a lot of people don’t seem to know about ’em. Thanks for the article.

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  2. Pingback: Don’t Drill a Hole in Your Head: April ’17 Roundup | The Afictionado

  3. mdmrn

    Great set of links and resources here! The library is also one of my favorites to pick up manga. I’ve been thankful for the Baltimore County library network having as much manga as it has!

    I’ve used Overdrive a few times for novels on my Kindle family products (both original Kindle and Kindle Fire). It works rather well and just erases the book from the hard-drive the moment your renewal has expired. Our library network has some manga in this format, but I haven’t tried it yet. My interest in reading the Labyrinth sequel manga may eventually cause me to take the plunge!

    Anyway – good job encouraging people to legally obtain their manga! It matters.

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  4. yamadayamada

    The main issue I never see addressed in discussion from the ‘anti-scanlation’ side of this debate is series that aren’t licensed for official translation, especially stuff that for one reason or another it seems reasonable to assume will never be licensed. I know the old guard’s notion of honor among thieves and removing links if something does get licensed isn’t as in vogue these days, but in cases like non-yaoi otokonoko manga (for some reason the yaoi imprints will pick up slashable otokonoko stuff, but nothing else ever gets brought over…) where it’s obvious that the title will never get licensed, what are your feelings on scanlation? Also what are your feelings about the handful of anecdotal situations (statistics are impossible to get, otherwise the lost sales debate would have been put to bed long ago) like watamote, where scanlations drove purchases of the Japanese manga by English speaking fans and the dialog around it drove eventual licensing and solid sales numbers?

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    1. It’s certainly a gray area. I try to stick to legal releases as much as possible – there’s so much stuff out there, why turn to an illegal source? However, I’m not super judgmental about people using scans for various reasons, especially if you have a special interest that isn’t being taken care of by the mainstream, etc. My main issue is that a lot of people don’t even realize just how many legal sources there are, or that scanlations are illegal and almost invariably an inferior product.

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