On MangaNEXT’s Sunday there were a couple of panels to attend, but by far the one I found the most important to attend was the State of the Industry panel. This post is compiled from my notes and a transcription from a press friend’s recording. On the panel as depicted by the photo above and from the left there was:
- Robert McGuire [RM] (@gen_manga) from Gen Manga
- Robert Newman [RN] (@jmanga_official) from JManga.com
- Ed Chavez [EC ] (@vertical_ed) from Vertical Inc.
- Erica Friedman [EF](@yuricon) president of ALC Publishing as well as representation from CBLDF.
Since there was no official moderator, EC became the de-facto moderator.
EC: Not sure of where the conversation is going to go, but going to play it by ear. The format of this panel is going to bring up ideas that would possibly lead to questions. A couple of us will have points to make and would be making our case. The panelists are here representing an interesting and diverse part of the industry, with original doujins, webcomics, print and publishers. It would be interesting to get their perspective. How does everyone feel about the current playing field, the industry right now? There have been many changes over a short period of time, [in the] last two years or so, and there have been many changes positive and negative. Manga as we know it has existed in the United States for about the last 20 years or so, but it hasn’t taken off until the last ten years or so. Amazing considering the fact that there have been conventions, but there have been so many formats and genres that are now being catered to.
Let’s start with Robert McGuire.
RM: I’ve been a manga fan since early 90’s, before Tokyopop began. I was collecting Fist of the North Star. So I saw the progression and popularity grow as a fan. I worked in Japanese publishing for a while. I learned the traditional route of how the manga publishers did things until now. At least how Vertical does it: they get the rights of already published manga to translate over here in English.
I think one of the reasons though why the industry is changing, and why publishers are considering my idea of when to publish manga is this: scanlation is obviously a problem, and readership is up. You see New York Comic Con is packed. There is so much readership, but over the past ten years since Tokyopop came out, manga sales have consistently gone down. So how can sales go down when readership is up? If you google the name of any manga, one of the first links that come up is a scanlation site. I had kids come up to me at New York Comic Con and looked through my manga. They asked if this was on MangaFox. So I asked back, “you’re asking me if this is on an illegal site.” They ran away, and so this got me thinking: no one wants to go out stealing or ripping off manga artists. Readers just want to read their comics, and don’t want to wait for it.
I have been a huge fan of Vertical, they do these classic comics. But many manga comes out six months after it is published in Japan, and people know about it here. Readers are like, I don’t want to wait and I need to find out what happens, so they want it quickly. I was thinking, how about publishing it at the same time? Of course I publish doujinshis/indie comics, since I don’t have the money to publish mainstream manga. Gen finds an untapped doujinshi market/independent creators and one of our artists did use to work for Shonen Jump back in the 1980’s. So many of our artists do their own comics or doujinshis and we translate it into English as it is being published. So the artist would give me five pages, and I translate to release and place out. We started it in May-June and that took off, so it is going really well now. I know Viz started Alpha which is simultaneous publishing six months after us, that’s a coincidence. Then I know Yen is doing it as well.
So the idea did change the way people think about manga. There’s a huge readership of manga in Japan compared to the United States, but since there’s a readership here, Japan knows about it. So it is just a matter of getting through to the readers. So I know JManga talks with a lot of publishers.
EF: We are in a “pre-Gutenberg” press space. So there was a time when there are a lot of monks. Some are doing a better job than others. So every monastery in Europe had these monks drawing books. But a guy named Gutenberg created a standard, simple way of releasing books. This changed the world.
We don’t have a Gutenberg press right now, but we have a lot of monks and they’re all scrambling to do things in print. So it costs a lot of money to physically get the properties every year. Digitally you’re all like orders ahead before the publishers can jump in there. Technology slams you in the face, and in trying to do the hottest new things you forget the tried model to move onto a newer model. There is no Gutenberg press yet, but we have a ton of different hardware or format models, and readers out there with a homogeneous need to read manga for free. So the model is changing so quickly, that the industry is trying to serve the needs and of course sell. So capitalism is getting in the way.
There’s an audience and there’s a market. The market is the one willing to put the money out, and what happens is that people in the market think that the audience is the same size, but that is not true. There may be tens of thousands in the audience, but the market is only in the hundreds. This puts a gap in the perceptions of fans. Ed right now is largest company in this panel, well maybe JManga with Shueisha.
Publishing is a miserable industry, because no one has ever made any money save for Danielle Steele or Stephen King. There are 800 different layers, and we’re repairing those thin layers in dollars, so the audience may be like, they don’t want to pay $10 for a manga, but publishers usually don’t eat lunch tomorrow.
RM: In Japan people buy manga because it is part of their culture. They go to the konbini to buy food and manga.
EF: That brings up another issue of distribution. It is a giant ax that lives over American manga publishers’ heads, where people are saying it should be easy. Yes, in an ideal world it should be easy, but in reality there are no bookstores left, our convenience stores do not carry manga—why would they when it makes no sense? In Japan they are very efficient in distribution that has an established history. People in the United States come into manga and expect it to be as good as Japan, but it is so much more scattered. In America we only have Diamond as a distributor, and nothing. Even now Diamond is not saying anything. They don’t care, so where are we left? But it should be easier.
EC: Your point about distribution is quite critical, because in Japan it is a funny situation, because publishers exert pressure over distributors, and they exert pressure over stores. In the United States, distributors are ordered, and fueled by the cash given. So if you’re like Random House, maybe.
EF: Can you imagine Vertical exerting pressure over Walmart to get their books on their shelves?
EC: We tried, but they were like why? Serious, yes occasionally you guys [Vertical] pop in there, but we only want to order the top ten in the New York Times. We already have plenty of Naruto.
RN: The reason why manga is so well read in Japan is because there’s an existing infrastructure. We can go to a konbini and find a variety, more than Shonen Jump, classics like Golgo 13. I worked in Akihakara, and I literally tripped over manga on the streets. There’s manga everywhere.
Now specifically in North America, there’s a huge audience, tons of people, but the infrastructure created here is scanlation and illegal content. For readers it is great since it is for free, you can get it anytime. Unfortunately it takes a serious toll on the overall industry, especially on the artist. What we have to do in North America, is that we have to rebuild the infrastructure, and make it so that we can see manga in everyday life. I believe we should go to any Walmart to get a Vertical title.
EF: The other thing that is happening is that the audience is not the market. This lack of infrastructure makes you a potential victim of obscenity laws. You can think of your computer and your phone as your private rights, and can’t be seized. However the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would think otherwise. They would definitely want to keep out pornography or the obscene content. So your yaoi and yuri doujinshi might be okay…but Canadian boarder guards might not.
RM: I want to make a clarification that not all doujinshi are hentai. It means indie. But really it is not about scaring the kid who wants to read comics. The people, who put them up there, are also people who are reading it. If I had a $10 allowance, one comic book can take me two weeks to get. If I can read unlimited comics for free, the temptation is immense. How can I make it easy for the kid to get the comic book at a reasonable price? So I think digital solves this issue.
EF: Definitely, so that’s why we’re in this early stage of pre-Gutenburg. Scanlation is something I supported back in the day when I can’t get anything. Now people who scanalate are doing it out of love. So I am not trashing scanlations or people who carry doujinshi around. But I want to say that there are issues to be aware of. Of course children who read scanlations who do not get punished learned that it is not an evil thing. There’s no sense of consequence or moral weight to the concept of downloading. But I am not angry at scanalators or at people who download; still everything must have a weight and consequence. [Erica brings up the Brandon X case, which is an ongoing issue.]
RM: So that issue is scary, that brings to the fact of the second point. But if the price is affordable, would you buy it? Scanlations are something amazing pieces of translations for amateurs, and at times terrible. Would you pay a little or reasonable price for a better quality?
EF: Isn’t that what JManga or DMP with DMG (Digital Manga Guild) doing? They’re gambling on the fact that people would pay for a decent scanlation translation.
RN: Erica and I were talking about this earlier. Let’s say this is the 80’s, and you found a manga you really like and want to share it with you friends. You translate it yourself and make a couple of copies to pass it off to your friends. It wouldn’t be an issue. Because if the mangaka were to know that this happened in another country with being translated into another language, they would be happy. That a fan in another country would have the passion to recreate their work to pass it along.
So I don’t think the scanalators are at fault. There are some scanlators that may be putting out work for ad revenue, but for the most part, scanlators are people really into the art and have a passion for that. Yet as Robert mention, some are poorly done. Though there are masterpieces, and I have to meet these people, but that is a rare situation. What I see is happening with the manga industry is similar to the music industry a couple of years ago. Something like Napster.
EF: So you can say sites like Mangafox and other aggregators is the Napster of this industry. We have to rebuild it because we have complication of dealing with Japanese companies who have their own models, methods, requirements, and their own expectations, so we’re trying to balance those needs. Now I also license original Yuri doujinshi, not parodies from circles. Even Takashima Rica also began like this, so I can go directly to them and ask them if I can do this. I have heard of decision making as yes and no.
RM: You can go directly to creators to ask.
EF: Especially now with Twitter.
RM: So yes, manga in Japan is a different culture. Mangaka may or may not know much about what is happening over here. They do know that they want to continue to create manga. Why it is costing so much is because of the layers, and everyone wants a cuts. In the U.S. it is the distribution cuts. So guess who gets the smallest cut? Publishers get the second smallest cut.
EF: How the editors then?
RM: Seems like there is an unfair balance.
RN: Changing the question, I have a question for Robert. Doujinshi is an integral and important part of the manga scene in Japan. It is a dream that makes the industry happens. A constant flowing feed of people with this passion of manga working really hard to achieve that goal. I think in the United States, the closest to the doujinshi scene is the scanlation. Do you see?
EF: There are a few independent groups. Small, but whether they have original content is an aspect, since fans really want certain products. There’s not a lot.
EC: It is also challenging, since you want to hit the circuit, it is a lot more complicated.
EF: If you hit Anime Expo, you definitely would see more of these semi-established groups. There’s an artist alley of original content. Scanlation is like fanart or fanfic, you start somewhere. The United States manga industry is really only about five years old.
RM: Tokyopop really exploded the manga scene, they didn’t cut corners, and they didn’t flip it, people liked it. So before for many Tokyopop was the gateway. However in this day and age you don’t really the middle man. That’s where scanlation, and the internet comes in. What I find is that people do know about the circles, but they’re all in Japanese. So how about I translate some, and go from there. You’re never really going to earn money from publishing. But why some companies get big, is because they get a property like Naruto, and then you get the toys.
EF: So if Soul Eater was just the manga, would it get as popular? Now there’s an anime, and people see it. So with a visual component, it can explode the scene. Bleach, Naruto, One Piece are typical Shonen Jump titles, but this is effects of Japanese distribution. In Japan I walk into a konbini, and there’s anime branded everyday ordinary goods. So everywhere you look, there is anime branded goods. Your eyes get bombarded with One Piece this and One Piece that, oh and remember it is Shonen Jump.
RN: That’s the infrastructure.
RM: We have a culture of where people really don’t read. The Japanese has a culture and history where everyone reads.
EF: People’s magazine might be the only thing they read.
RM: The only way we can do is understand how Americans would respond. Now we have a roomful of fans who want to read manga and how they want to get it. Digital might be the answer, but then what is the format they want to get it in? Do they want to see branded goods? What do they want to see? Now going to the NYCC, there was so many people, that there is definitely more manga fans than there was comic book fans. Young people are into manga.
EF: There are the expectations of fans, and definitely business looking in. However businesses also have the pay the bills.
RM & EF gets into talking about the middle man, and the necessity of a conduit, since there is still a language barrier. RM mentions that circles are quite popular in Japan, since it is a creative circle.
EC: What do you see in the future of digital manga, how are you making it in this transition period, and what should we expect from the future?
RN: That’s a great question. JManga’s medium is working in digital, but we work close to 40 print publishers, and majority has a great passion for paper. Though I work for a digital platform, I still love paper. There is a way for paper and digital to coincide harmoniously. It takes a lot of the cost down and takes risks away doing it digitally, so on JManga, we’re releasing a lot of niche titles that is quite difficult to release in print. However I think there are still those fans who always want to have that physical copy, so you can physically share with.
EC: That is the issue with this much formats, but we can’t just share it quite freely as of yet.
RN: You can use the digital platform, to increase the emotional value of the paper edition. You can use digital to get the message out there, metaphorically make it the One Piece onigiri that everyone to see. But the paper for fans who definitely want it.
RM: We do both, digital and print. $2 for digital and $10 for print, we sold half and half.
EF: Everyone in this room grew up with print, it is a natural standard. Nowadays, children are exposed to iPads and so it would be as if that generation would be like this generation’s idea of looking at LP’s and thinking I don’t need the record, when I have the CD. It really is how we grew up, so most of the young people are not going to have that nostalgia for print. In ten years, attendees of MangaNEXT might be saying, why are we killing trees? It is not going to be the format of choice anymore. We like it because we’re use to it, but that would change, and it would be like the way we don’t have LP collections anymore.
RM: I thought of what Robert mentioned on getting digital out there as a promotional tool. What really it can be is a tool for accessories. The weeklies in Japan don’t make money, they’re phone books. Now the whole purpose of them is to get the tankobon out.
EC: It is really interesting to look into specific sectors of the manga industry, since I know in shojo. They can’t get the magazines out anymore; they’re doing a lot more packaging, the little purses etc. to try and get people to buy.
EF: We as a publisher know that our next release definitely has to have a digital imprint. We’ve already had people contact us to see if we’re going to do a digital imprint. What else we’re going to try to acknowledge is with a book, you can put it in your pocket or your backpack, carry it with you. But you don’t always have room for a book, but room for your iPhone. So if I have the digital copy, then I would always have a copy of that. I can promise that all ALC Publishing would be DRM-free. However right now we’re caught in a zone of wanting to be in as many formats and as accessible as possible, but that should continue to shift as time goes on. We currently don’t have a standard, but I know that everyone in the industry is trying to find their own standard methodology and a business plan that makes some money. As a fan it is frustrating if you want Yen, then you have to go their app, same with Viz. There’s no bookstore or library. There’s no frictionless way for you to sample lots of different things from different places. That’s one of the ways that JManga is attempting to do, make that a lot more frictionless. Right now a book has to exist.
EC: Can we imagine a one stop shop for all this in the near future? Or are we all going to continue with different platforms?
EF: This part is bizarre to me, but I honestly believe that every consumer has failed to make their voices heard. We allowed our hardware companies to make decisions, and why does that not enrage you? If Apple said to you, sorry digital manga, you can’t yaoi on your iPad because it is icky. I am so enraged by Apple people letting that happened, that if you want to see me rant for five minutes. So everyone allow overzealous hardware company…[Steve Jobs] St. Jobs… to make your content decisions for you. When Jobs put the iPad out, he said he’s going to protect the world from porn.
RM: I think that would work out, but right now is to focus on the way things are delivered. The future is obviously digital, but the content itself, obviously Japanese has different tastes than Americans. What I really like is how Vertical redesigns and repackages the product for Americans. That is probably a different conversation. Can you release everything in America?
EC: In theory, we’ll have the computer translating everything as it is printed, but that is not possible now. Do we want curators out there, to say this is an awesome book, great for a library or museum? Well at this point I do see Gen as being the one stop shop for doujins. I would to be able to someday have as a fan one place where there would be conversations and reviews to check this out. Social media I think helps.
RN: That is a mission and goal for JManga, to get manga and manga culture out there. There are already wonderful publishers doing wonderful things. That is a stop shop. Currently it is called the manga scene, there’s no real place to get that information on a constant flow. What we’re trying to do at JManga, is that there are some titles printed by Viz, you can get information about the title, read a little of it, and then go to Viz to get it. We’re trying to get the manga scene to the next level. Once we get there, we’re going to have an automatic one stop shop.
EF: Then people are going to complain of monopolizing. I think if we were to have a conversation like this, 20 years ago, it would be the retail comic store, which is your one stop shop. Then those died, so we are seeing what is happening with the corporatization of the comic industry now. So we’re struggling to put these concepts out. If I want to put a book out, how would I be sure that there is a print copy, a digital copy with its multiple formats? It would be just so much easier to do one thing, flick the switch, and everyone just pay me. I definitely didn’t get into publishing for money, but I do see JManga as being one step into being a one stop shop. I would like to see where it would be a place where there are recommendations, blogs, if you like this then you would like that. That is an Amazon of manga. Which they do a really bad job. We’re missing curating, if you like this then you would like that.
EC: At least in the present, we have publishers. All right this is definitely it. Thank you for coming to MangaNEXT, we need to have more events like this.