The anime site Crunchyroll is Exhibit A for those who think digital distribution and copyright can coexist peacefully. The site began in 2006 as a place for anime fans to upload bootleg anime with fan-made subtitles (fansubs) but went legit in 2008, when they got some venture capital and swapped out the bootleg anime for the real stuff, making deals with the publishers to stream their content legally. It’s as if OneManga.com cut a deal with Viz and Tokyopop to host their content, rather than illegal scans.
So why can’t they do that with manga? Clearly the demand is there — witness the lengthy laments at the demise of OneManga. And indeed, Crunchyroll CEO Kun Gao discussed the possibility with Deb Aoki in an interview for her manga blog at About.com. Gao says the site won’t actually host manga, but it recently snagged a $750,000 investment from the Japanese e-book publisher Bitway to develop manga publishing tools. Says Gao:
That sounds like a trick question, like who is buried in Grant’s tomb—you read webcomics on the web, right?
Not exactly. Sam Costello (him again!) is guest blogging this week at ComixTalk, and he asked the readers how they prefer to read webcomics. As of this writing, the majority of commenters have mentioned RSS feeds, with a few using the webcomics tracking service Piperka. No one seems to just pop open a window and read the comic in their browser, which is important information for webcomics creators who want to maximize their ad views.
What doesn’t get mentioned at ComixTalk is webcomics apps. There has been a bit of controversy lately about iPhone apps that display webcomics; Lauren Davis wrote about Dale Zak’s Web Comics app, which caused a twitterstorm because folks thought he was stealing content. He wasn’t; the app is basically a mobile RSS feed that specializes in comics sites. That’s OK, because creators control the RSS content and can put in ads and other content they feel is appropriate. More recently, Gary Tyrrell of Fleen called out the creator of an app that seems to pull just the comics off their sites:
Unlike the last one of these that made a splash in the community, this app does not appear to be a simple RSS feed aggregator — it appears to pull comics from the creator’s site, present it outside of their preferred context, costing the creators bandwidth and advertising revenue (I don’t have an iPhone or iPad, so my apologies if I’m wrong on this one). One more time for those in the back: RSS readers = cool, scrapers = not cool.
It’s a fine distinction that often gets lost in the hurly-burly of the marketplace, but the bottom line is this: There are plenty of different ways to read webcomics, but since most are presented as free content supported by ads, it seems rather churlish to use a method that deprives the creator of that thin stream of income.
Split Lip creator Sam Costello has written a series of four articles for iFanboy about the publishing life, and they are all worth a look, but the last one is particularly compelling because he reveals the real numbers behind his publishing operation.
Sam is the writer of Split Lip, a horror anthology comic that he describes as “along the lines of the Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt.” He hires artists to draw the comic, and he pays them up front; it starts as a webcomic, then he collects the stories into print editions, which he self-publishes. How’s that working out for him? Sam figures he lost $7,863.32 between July 2009 and June 2010. Publishing is hard, especially when you pay your artists up front (unlike, say, Bluewater Comics, which does everything on spec).
Sam spends a bit of time debating whether he should simply regard the comics thing as an expensive hobby, but he decides in the end that it’s more of an investment.
David Brothers of Comics Alliance talked to representatives of three big manga publishers about how they have weathered the difficult economy. Ed Chavez of Vertical, Michael Gombos of Dark Horse, and Marco Pavia of Tokyopop all discussed how piracy has affected their sales (the unanimous answer was that it hurts them), how they have retooled to face hard times, and what their strategy is for the future. As it happens, Erica Friedman, who runs Yuricon, specializing in yuri (female/female romance) manga, also has a post at her blog, Okazu, looking at the market from the point of view of a small niche publisher.
One thing that emerges is that large and small publishers face the problem of a market that is too small to support everything they want to publish. Says Gombos:
There might be three great titles we’d like to publish, but in some cases, we’ll have to think about how much our infrastructure can support, what other titles we’d have coming out around that time, and perhaps pay a little more for the rights to the title we REALLY want out of three, and focus on that.
Viz and Tokyopop may be bigger, but Del Rey manga has always been the prestige manga publisher, the home of smart, mature titles like Love Roma, Mushishi, and Nodame Cantabile, as well as solid genre favorites like Kitchen Princess (arguably the shoujo-est shoujo manga ever), Air Gear, Negima, and Basilisk. Sure, there was the occasional dud, but overall their line was strong, their production values were high, and the translations didn’t insult your intelligence.
Lately, though, things seem to have slowed down over at the Del Rey shop. Ali Kokmen, their affable and well-liked marketing director, was let go. Their website got swallowed up by a generic graphic-novel website run by parent company Random House; their old site got everything I talked about in yesterday’s post right, and the new one gets everything wrong. And a reader who pre-ordered volumes of Nodame Cantabile and Gakuen Prince got this e-mail recently:
Volumes 17 and 18 of “Nodame Cantabile” have been cancelled prior to publication, as have volumes 4 and 5 of “Gakuen Prince.” We have no additional information available as to why this may have occurred. At the present time there are no upcoming releases scheduled for either series within the next 12 months.
Comments at the site indicate that another series, Pumpkin Scissors has also been canceled (although in the word of comics retailing, “canceled” may simply mean postponed).
Is Random House is washing its hands of manga? I e-mailed Del Rey associate publisher Dallas Middaugh and asked some pointed questions; here is his answer:
The Twitterverse was all abuzz yesterday about this post, in which a cynical game producer advises skipping the professionals and trolling Deviantart to find game artists. A few of the comments really set people off:
These guys aren’t used to making a lot of money for their work so they will be more appreciative of the chance even if they are being payed slightly less than what professionals are payed. Second of all, they’re better… Unless you have a specific price you want to pay in mind, ask THEM what they are willing to charge for the project. This usually causes people to give offers that are lower than what you normally pay, and will make them happy.
If an artist knows how much their artwork will increase the value of the game they will then feel they deserve that amount of money. This is not how a market economy works, you hire whoever is able to do the best job for the lowest amount of money, anything else is a loss of money on your end.
The original post has garnered 948 comments so far, and there’s a lively discussion going on at The Beat and Colleen Doran’s blog as well. Meanwhile, Bleeding Cool has another cautionary tale, about Bluewater Comics offering an artist two copies of their Justin Bieber comic in exchange for the copyright to the painting he posted on DeviantArt.
Joey Manley has a provocative post up this week about where the energy is in the digital comics scene. While webcomics are the realm of individual creators making a name for themselves in nontraditional ways, it’s a different story on the iPad and other devices:
On my iPad, the best comics reading experience, bar none, is not from small, scrappy innovators. It’s from the big companies, via Comixology’s apps (the “Comics” one, which includes DC and a lot of other familiar publishers, and the “Marvel” one, which is exactly the same application, but limited in content to Marvel comics only). The deal is this: you buy “issues” of printed comic books, which have been repurposed and re-engineered to be read more easily on the device.
Manley gets right away that these devices are a digital newsstand bringing DC and Marvel comics to a new audience, and he thinks the publishers could be doing a better job of repackaging them, but his main point is that the big, clumsy comics companies of yesteryear are doing the best job of exploiting this new platform. Of course, that’s because they have ComiXology to do the tech work for them; DC and Marvel are really just supplying content, and in this case, it’s mostly content that has already been published in other forms.
In the comments, SLG’s Dan Vado complains that indy comics are getting swept aside:
This is pretty much dead on. Comixology has all but stopped converting SLG titles in favor of, their words, “higher volume” sellers.
UPDATE: ComXology’s David Steinberger responds to Vado and the others in the same comment thread, saying that they remain committed to indie publishers:
To be clear, we’re dedicated to the indie market, and are investing a ton of our resources to make the access to our platform more equitable. We took the opportunities that we created with this platform, and now we’re catching up to being able to continue to get great books from all publishers.
Digital Manga Publishing mostly publishes yaoi manga, essentially Harlequin romances with two willowy men in the lead roles, although they do have a handful of other titles. Yaoi manga, also known as Boys Love (BL) or shounen-ai, are generally one-shots, rather than series; from what I have heard, their sales are modest but pretty consistent from one book to the next.
There are yaoi scanlation sites, but most of the big pirate sites leave BL alone, so it’s not too surprising that Digital did not join the coalition announced last week to fight online manga piracy. Hikaru Sasahara, the president of Digital, told Publishers Weekly reporter Kai-Ming Cha that the problem wasn’t piracy, it was the high price of licenses from Japan and the reluctance of the licensors to part with digital rights. And now he is thinking of attacking that problem.
Last week, the website The Yaoi Review caught word of a “secret project” and confirmed the details with Sasahara: The company would publish manga online only (at least at first) and have scanlators translate it. Translators would apparently not be paid up front but on the back end, based on sales. The problem with the current system, Sasahara explained, is that publishers must pay the Japanese licensor an advance of $2,000 to $5,000, but it takes about a year to get a book translated, lettered, printed, and distributed, during which time their money is tied up. This makes publishers reluctant to license any title that’s not a sure bet. Sasahara’s idea is to have scanlators do what they have been doing all along, but legally and with the possibility of getting cut of the sales, the idea being that a lower up-front investment minimizes the company’s financial risk and allows it to publish a greater range of titles.
The late, lamented (by some) HTMLcomics.com looked like a bootleg site. Most manga scan sites do not. They feature nicely designed home pages, a scattering of unobtrusive ads, and an impressive array of manga. In addition to series that haven’t been officially licensed yet, they post recent chapters of Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece from the latest issues of the Japanese Shonen Jump and full volumes of older series, not fan translations but simple scans from the American editions. It’s all free, and the interface is simple and easy to use. Several of the sites even have iPod and iPad apps that draw from their databases. It all looks legit, and many users may not realize they are reading their manga on a bootleg site. In fact, one of them even has the following legal disclaimer (name of site obscured to avoid giving them any more publicity):
MangaXXX and all of it’s original content and images are the sole property of the staff of this site and it’s contributors. Furthermore, MangaXXX is protected by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Unauthorized use of any original pieces originating from MangaXXX are subject to criminal and civil penalties. If it is found that you have taken original work from MangaXXX, you will be asked to remove it willingly and peacefully within 24 hours, or risk possible legal action against you or your website.
This is hilarious on many levels, from the misuse of “it’s” (no apostrophe in the possessive—don’t they teach that in law school?) to the fact that what MangaXXX is doing is in fact prohibited, not protected, by the DMCA, to the mere idea that a site that consists almost entirely of stolen content would attempt to take legal action against anyone who stole their “original work.”
Yesterday, the manga publishers fired the first shot across the bow by announcing they had formed a coalition to “take aggressive action” against 30 sites that it has identified as infringing their copyrights. A quick check this morning showed that the better-known ones were all still up and running, and no one had taken down the latest chapter of Naruto; if they are quaking in their boots, they are hiding it well.
The webcomic Goats has been running for 13 years, and creator Jonathan Rosenberg is about two years away from the big climax of the story, but now he’s having second thoughts and putting the comic on hiatus while he rethinks this whole comics-creator-career thing. He writes in the blog:
While I’m happy with what I’ve done creatively, the webcomics medium rewards quick, easy updates with traffic. Long, continuity-filled stories like Goats that take a long time between updates tend to stagnate, although there are certainly folks more talented than I who can pull off this difficult feat.
That’s a pretty basic issue, and Rosenberg isn’t the first one to run up against it. The blog growly beast has done a whole series of interviews with creators of longform webcomics (sadly, also on hiatus), and my former Digital Strips colleague Jason Sigler rounded up a bunch of links to discussions on the topic back in 2008. Some creators, like Spike (Templar, Arizona) continue to update their comics regularly, while others, like Meredith Gran (Octopus Pie) update a chapter at a time. RSS feeds make following a comic like that a no-brainer.