I am on the unpopular (as far as the industry is concerned anyway) pro-side of manga being available for free on the internet along with available for purchase. I see it as a weird, skewed, scaled-up version of the free-content model of the webcomics industry.
Let me ramble my way through this and hopefully you will see my point...
Let me first present to you the webcomics business model as I understand/plan to use it. Webcomics GIVE AWAY the main body of their content for absolutely nothing. The actual comic is generally available for free, with no restrictions on viewing, to the entire internet. Essentially, creators are giving their product away to the whole world for free. They then make money off of sales of ad space, merchandise, and often PRINT VERSIONS OF THEIR COMIC.
Oh hey, doesn't that sound kind of familiar? Free content on the internet then being available for purchase in print form? Online scanlations --> Print manga.
Very rarely these days do I stand in a Borders (which, soon, I won't be able to do at all) or a Barnes & Noble, stare at the manga shelf, and buy five or six books. I do not pick up new series on a whim anymore! I cannot afford it! Manga is a bit expensive at $10-$12 a book, and I can't drop $50 to start five series, and end up only wanting to continue one of them. That is a waste of my money.
HOWEVER! I do stand in Borders or Barnes & Noble, stare at the manga shelf, and pick up the first volumes of series I read scanlations of online. Series that I have already invested myself in, know I enjoy, and want to be able to read ANY TIME, not just when I'm at a computer. Prime examples of this are "Bleach" and "Bakuman". Both of these are series I read free scanlations of first. As soon as I began reading scanlations of Bleach, I immediately went and bought hard copies. I wanted to be able to look closely at the artwork, and to be able to plow through pages without having to wait for them to load. But I knew it was already a story I enjoyed, and that buying it wouldn't be a waste of my money.
"Bakuman" is an even more perfect example. I, and by extension several friends, began reading scanlations before Viz decided to license the series and translate it for the US market. When we found out Viz had licensed it, we all marked the release date on our calendars. Within a week of release, several of us were at our local B&N, picking up volume 1, excited about when the next volume would be released for us to buy EVEN THOUGH WE COULD READ IT FREE ONLINE.
Scanlations are great to get into a series, and follow it beyond the current English releases. when you don't want to wait a month or two for the next full volume, you can read a few chapters online. Then, when a more reliable and accurate translation comes out on store shelves, often with extras that you won't get in scanlations (such as the rough draft pages between chapters in "Bakuman"), you can buy them.
Honestly, I'm so dependent on scanlations to "try out" manga at this point, that I worry without scanlations, I'll either miss out on series I would otherwise buy, or get BORED of series I like between releases. Again, I provide as an example "Afterschool Charisma".
"Afterschool Charisma" is a rare example of me picking up a title I know nothing about off a shelf at B&;N. I had seen it, joked about it, and the more I thought about the premise the more I thought maybe it would be interesting. But I didn't pick it up for MONTHS because I couldn't find scanlations online! Eventually, I was with my friend Philip, who works for B&N and offered his discount, so I picked it up.
This series is now my guilty pleasure. I adore it. But there are still no scanlations online. this would be less of a problem if it came out monthly, or even bi-monthly. But VIZ releases one volume of "Afterschool Charisma" once every six months. That is six months of me not reading Afterschool Charisma. Six months of me not psyching myself up for the next volume. In June, will I be as excited for Volume 3 as I was in January when I finished Volume 2? Yes, Viz makes the next volume available to read on their website, but their e-reader is abysmal and impossible to use. So I just don't read it on their site. So who knows if, in five months when Volume 3 is released, I'll remember to go pick it up.
There are also a lot of series that have large followings, but are never localized stateside. (See: "Hoshi no Samidare"/"The Lucifer & The Biscuit Hammer") These are series that I would buy in a heartbeat if they were brought to the US, but my only option is to read scanlations.
Manga publishers in the US are really just missing out on the opportunity to capitalize on this model. They need to make better, more accessible e-readers, make content available, and ENCOURAGE people to read their content online. Provide online versions of first volumes that they plan to publish in the future. Maybe even the first two volumes. Give people a chance to get into the story and to WANT to buy the print volumes. They need to pay attention to what's doing well on sites like MangaFox and MangaReader instead of trying to shut them down like they did with OneManga, and then go buy the licenses for those series and provide good translations that will be available at reliable times.
All of these things have been pushed on me as important in the webcomics business model because time has shown that they WORK. Having your content be good, accessible, reliably available is a key to success in the webcomics world. If you provide that, people will read, if they read they might enjoy it, if they enjoy it, they will be willing to support it.
Why can't this free-content model be applied to the manga industry as well?
The numbers show that interest in manga hasn't decreased. Fandoms are still alive, thriving, and growing. Sales have dipped because we're in a recession. We can't buy $50 worth of manga on a whim anymore. We can't risk $10 on something we're not sure if we'll commit to.
I know this is not true for 100% of manga fans. There are always a few people ruining it for everyone. But I am the FIRST to yell at the people who say "I won't buy it, I can just read it online." and the first to tell them to go support series that they love.
The long and short of it, Manga Industry (and book/music publishing industry in general), is that if you let us find what we want, let us commit ourselves to it, we'll still buy it. We just need to know what we want first. Instead of discouraging this, embrace it and find a way to use it to your advantage.