Manga has been the fastest-growing category in the US comics market for the past dozen years, outpacing the growth of everything except graphic novels for young readers. Despite there being more manga than ever available to English-language readers, the amount that makes it over to these shores is just a fraction of the total produced by Japanese publishers.
Readers whose appetite for content exceeds the selection offered by publishers like Viz and Kodansha on legitimate apps know they can find what they’re looking for online, but only on legally dubious pirate sites. That leaves room for new companies offering ethical fans legal access to unseen and original material through licensing arrangements with smaller Japanese publishers, as long as the pricing is affordable and the selection compelling.
Azuki is one of several recent entrants into the market. Co-founded by five young industry veterans (Adela Chang, Abbas Jaffery, Evan Minto, Krystyn Neisess and Ken Urata) in 2019, the virtual company launched its app during the pandemic and has seen steady growth, an infusion of capital from Y-Combinator, and a burgeoning assortment of new titles. It has grown to an extended team of several dozen, and still operates virtually rather than out of an office.
“We had all worked at [Sony-owned anime platform] Crunchyroll and had kept in touch,” said cofounder and CEO Abbas Jaffery. “We asked ourselves what we’d want to see in a manga app, since we all saw similar problems in the existing models, and put in a lot of sweat-equity to build the app.”
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At launch, the subscription service featured manga series from Kodansha International and Kaiten Books, and quickly expanded to include more publishers as well as exclusive titles directly licensed and localized by Azuki. Today, Azuki offers over 200 series including The Yakuza’s Guide to Babysitting, BLITZ, Gacha Girls Corps, Attack on Titan, Fire Force, and additional publishers like Futabasha, Micro Magazine, ABLAZE and Star Fruit Books. According to the company, the site has hosted over a million unique active users since launch and served up more than 30 million pages of content.
While the Azuki app is subscription based, the company just announced a program to distribute download-to-own ebooks of its original and licensed content on BookWalker, Amazon
“We want to provide people with a wide range of manga to read, and a wide range of how they can read it,” said Marketing VP Evan Minto. “We do our own scouting of titles that subscribers will like. That curatorial approach gives us the mindset of a publisher, not just an app.”
Azuki has a narrow path to navigate in the digital comics space, which is dominated by Amazon’s comiXology service (which offers manga alongside other kinds of comics), dedicated manga platforms like Shonen Jump and Viz, and Korean-based Webtoon, which offers material optimized for mobile, vertically-scrolling format.
Minto says the combination of Azuri’s subscription model ($4.99 per month for unlimited access), emphasis on localization by professional teams of translators, letterers and editors, curation of diverse subject matter, and passionate approach to the material can help differentiate it from the rest.
“We offer a better discovery experience, because manga can get lost in other kinds of content,” he said. “A subscription model is different from the pay-by-chapter or download-to-own because it encourages people to try new material.” In addition, it allows fans to know that they’re supporting the creators rather than the hosts of the pirate sites.
“We feel we can provide more value in the manga market and help it grow faster,” said Jaffrey. “We’re not even to 25 percent of where manga can be in the English-language market.”