I’m handing over the keys to Jake Forbes this morning. Jake is a longtime manga editor and writer who has worked for many American manga publishers, so when he asked if he could post this editorial on MangaBlog, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. All opinions are Jake’s, of course, and you are welcome to share your take on this in the comments.—Brigid
Dear Japanese Publishers,
It’s time to start thinking globally. You have a product in manga that people around the world love. Do you really want everyone outside of your tiny island nation to experience manga via second-hand scans and translations dependent on guesswork? And I’m not talking about scanlations here—the totally legit publishers you work with often have no choice but to scan Japanese books and figure things out on their own. Yes, I know things work fast, and you might only have a day or two between when a manga-ka submits pages and when they have to head out to the printers, but you know what? In the time it takes to prep a chapter of Naruto to appear in tomorrow’s edition of Shonen Jump, a translator, editor and production artist could localize those pages. I’m sure the idea of organizing the simultaneous localization of dozens of dozens of titles has got to be a hassle, but if you treated your international licensors as partners and not an aftermarket, you really wouldn’t have to do that much work.
Yes, it’s hella impressive that One Piece sells 3 million copies in Japan alone, and it’s true that the U.S. can barely sell 1 percent of that as printed books right now, but if you really make an effort to make a legit version of One Piece available in English, Spanish, Tagalog and Arabic and whatever other languages have sufficient untapped audiences, surely you can find a way to monetize a few million more. Your biggest audience doesn’t have access to a well stocked bookstore—they are getting their content online. Scanlation sites are reaping profits from Google ads by giving away your content—if you were the one giving it away, you could not only track how many readers you really have, but you could get more $ out of each reader with targeted ads and links to licensed merchandise. You could take a page from the Free-to-Play gaming market, where companies are finding ways to give minors a free shared culture while still making a nice profit.
Scanlations aren’t the problem of American or other international publishers—they are YOUR problem because with rare exception, you don’t consider digital distribution options as a fundamental part of the license. Do scanlations hurt the sales of licensed printed books? Probably. If you don’t step up and recognize the demand for faster, cheaper and digitally available content, you’ll never know what market you’re missing. Transitioning from print-only to a hybrid print and digital world isn’t easy, and there’s going to be some hiccups and belt-tightening along the way. Either empower your licensors as partners or bring localization management in-house as a serious endeavor. How else are you going to know what kind of business digital manga represents?
You missed your chance to monetize on the iPhone app explosion of the past two years. There’s a new window to do right with the introduction of the iBookstore from Apple, and no doubt Amazon is working on tech that will do justice to your work (whereas current generation grayscale Kindles don’t). Of course, you don’t have to pay attention to what’s relevant and who’s paying for content in the US and abroad. Manga fans abroad have no right to translated manga—it’s your prerogative to ignore that demand—but the longer that you leave the means of consumption to pirates, the harder it’s going to be to convince honest readers to accept your terms down the road.
Dear American manga publishers,
Why do we need you? Seriously. There’s not a lot of sympathy for the industry, because frankly, you guys aren’t doing much to earn it. You didn’t convince me Bleach was cool—I figured that out on my own, 6 months before you announced it. And you want me to spend how much to read it legit? $300?! I could buy a PS3 or the entirety of Buffy, Angel, Firefly and anything else Whedon produces for the next five years for that price, and either of those will give me so much more bang for the buck. And that’s just one series. To stay up-to-date with just the biggest hits, the cost is astronomical: Naruto: $400; Fruits Basket: $250; Vampire Knight: $90; Negima: $300. No wonder more people are reading your books on the bookstore floors than buying them—your value sucks. And it’s not fair to say “well, readers should pick and choose just the few that they can afford and read only those,” because you know perfectly well that the lifeblood of fandom is a shared passion—that’s what allowed the manga boom in the first place. You embraced the manga conversation going big—you put 500 titles a year on the shelves. Like it or not, American Publishers, your core audience doesn’t have credit cards, and they are hungry for content. Scanlations aren’t authorized, but the convenience and value they offer is awfully compelling. Fans expecting to read any manga they want for free isn’t reasonable, but neither is it reasonable to expect your audience to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to stay up to date with content that their Japanese kindred spirits can get for a quarter the cost.
And, frankly, licensed manga publishers, are your editions that much better than what the free (albeit, unauthorized) scanlations offer? Sometimes, sure, but you hardly make quality a selling point. You are supposed to be the PROS, right? And yet you treat your unique creative staff (translators, adaptors, production artists) as interchangeable cogs in the machine. American publisher, you can’t assert quality control on Tite Kubo, but you do have your own pool of talent who play a key role in differentiating your version of the product form others. If you truly believe in the value of your translation, shouldn’t you empower your translators as part of the team, then compensate those people by allowing them to share in the revenue? Studio Proteus, RIP, might not have created the objective “best” localization possible, but they did put a face and a voice to their work that most current localized manga lack. Bill Flanagan and the Nibley sisters blog about their work, and maybe their public presence nets them more work in the long run, but publishers don’t respect them as talent in the same way they flaunt the creators they can’t work with directly, which is a damn shame.
American publishers, there’s no doubt that with your resources, you could deliver a superior product to scanlators. Heck, if you had the freedom to release authorized digital versions, you could offer multiple translations on different tracks to provide both “authentic” versions and naturalized versions. But it’s not fair to blame you for the Japanese publishers’ fear of embracing a digital/international market. Tokyopop in particular, I know you’ve been trying to go digital for a decade. But if all you can publish is a print edition, then let’s see the best damn print edition the market can afford. A one-size-fits-all model, especially when the default price is the middling, but not that attractive, price of $8-$12, can’t really be the best option, can it? GoGo Monster is a gorgeous book! Maybe if you did a few thousand copies of Bleach with that level of production artistry for serious fans, as Marvel and DC do with their perennials, you could offset a more reasonable price for those who just want to keep up with the story? Give your readers something really special—an experience they can’t get from digital. You really can’t control the conversation, but you can certainly do a better job of capitalizing on it and keeping yourselves relevant.
Dear Manga Fandom,
Where did we go wrong?
Let me break that down. First the “we.” For the past 10 years, I’ve been an “industry guy,” starting as a Junior Editor at Tokyopop and moving up the ranks there, before working as a freelance editor/adaptor for Viz and CMX, as well as serving as Editorial Director at GoComi for the company’s first year. So why do I say “we” when talking about fandom? Let me give you a full disclosure. My introduction to anime (outside of episodes of Robotech that I ate up as a kid) came from crashing the local college’s anime club as a young teen with a couple friends, one of whom had an older brother who was a member. This was at the very beginning of the modern anime industry when Akira was first making waves. Authorized content was scarce, so we’d watch a combination of legit VHS copies, product brought back from Japan (laserdiscs with subtitles, if possible!), and sometimes even rips of TV of newer shows, static and all. Sometimes the club leader would pass out transcripts or summaries of the raw stuff so that we could follow along, or else you’d want to sit close to the one guy who spoke Japanese so he could fill you in. One of the club’s favorite series was Ranma ½, which Viz was releasing pretty close to its original release. At one point though, we caught up and I distinctly remember the energy in the room when someone would bring in tapes of the very latest, untranslated episodes. I distinctly remember the collective thrill of being ahead of the curve.
Eight years later, when I attended my first anime con as a “pro,” it seemed like things really hadn’t changed. There were still the dark rooms abuzz with the excitement of being a part of something new. There was still the same mix of big spenders, freeloaders, and the majority that fell in between. I hadn’t been active in the subculture for many years, so it took me a while to realize the impact that high-speed internet was having on “sharing;” to understand how the checks and balances of media mail and 2nd generation dubs had disappeared. Anime torrents and scanlations made it possible for fans to put out an all-but professional product and control the means of distribution so much more efficiently than the pros could. Fans captured the golden goose and now we’re cutting it open to get the all the eggs when we want them, damn the bird that lays them.
Where does passion and innocence become something more nefarious? Before I can do any finger pointing, I really need to be honest about my own experiences. Was my passive involvement in an anime club, watching unauthorized screenings of frequently unlicensed work, strictly legal? Not really. Did I think I was doing something wrong? Well, sorta in that I was watching cartoon boobs that my mom probably wouldn’t have approved of, but did I think I was stealing, no. I didn’t think so then, I don’t think so now. What I was doing was mooching. Most of what we watched was a legit purchase, whether licensed or imported, either owned by a member or paid for with club dues. At the time (mostly this happened when I was 12-14), I didn’t have the money or the laserdisc player or the access to buy legit anime on the scale that the club made possible, but my attendance did turn me onto the local comics shop where the owner was a serious otaku. Even if I couldn’t afford laserdiscs, I could buy an occasional die-cast mecha. My tweenage freeloading also planted the seeds for my teenage spending, so that when Evangelion, Macross Plus and the next wave of anime releases hit, I saved up and bought a few series of my own, and the OSTs to boot. At the end of the day, I consider myself a responsible fan. Naïve at times, absolutely. Professional work aside, I think I’ve done my part to feed the industry both by buying what I loved when I had the means, and by contributing to the greater anime/manga fan discussion through legitimate channels (in my case, primarily by contributing articles to the online fanzine animefringe). I would wager that most fans think of themselves the same way. Solid citizens. Even so, I do think something has changed in fandom over the past 10 years. It happened slowly and without malice, but this change has turned fandom’s relationship with the industry from a symbiotic one to a harmful, parasitic one.
Widespread availability of unauthorized content, be they torrents or scanlations, enabled this change, but that’s not the root of the problem as I see it. What changed was fandom’s concept of ownership, and the product itself is only part of that equation. Way back in my open letter to publishers, I made several mentions of “The Conversation.” Japan, Tokyopop, “the man”—they don’t own The Conversation. Fans do. Marketers want to shape The Conversation (and in plenty aspects of fandom, we let them), but the joy of being a part of a subculture is that we can decide for ourselves what’s cool and what’s crap. The Conversation takes many forms—from blog posts, to convention panels, to Tumblr memes to Deviantart networks to good old-fashioned club meetings. The Conversation can include both licensed and unlicensed works. It can include fanfic, slash doujinshi and official merch. The Conversation can include SPOILERS. Who says you can’t talk about the events of Bleach, chapter 265, six months before it comes to the U.S.? No one!
But here’s the thing—freedom to discuss copyrighted works is not the same thing as freedom to access them. Today’s fandom, empowered by torrents and scanlations and a glut of legit licensed content, takes unfettered access for granted. We think that we’re entitled to watch and read it all. And with that change, The Conversation is now dominated by cataloging and playing catch up. “Here’s what I read.” “Here’s what happened and how I rate it.” “Here’s what I want next.” And, occasionally, “Here’s my outrage at not getting what I want!” Frankly, The Conversation has become pretty boring most of the time. That’s what happens when a counterculture becomes a consumer culture.
Anime and manga’s growth is inherently intertwined with the rise of online sharing, first message boards and webrings, now blogs and Facebook fan pages. Aren’t scanlations just a natural evolution of sharing? No, they aren’t. This isn’t 2000 anymore—collectively we can’t claim naiveté as an excuse overstepping our bounds as consumers. Let us be completely honest here. Scanlations don’t fall in a legal grey area—they are brazenly illegal copyright violations. A single purchase can be infinitely propagated without the copyright holders receiving any compensation. It’s a far cry from sharing a single laserdisc with twenty people in a dark room or even selling a thousand dubs of Kodocha fansubs on VHS.
Argue all you want about whether or not scanlations are a net positive for the industry, but the simple truth is, YOU AREN’T THE INDUSTRY—YOU ARE THE CONSUMER. You can’t know because you don’t have the facts. You don’t know the true cost of making manga, so how are you qualified to know the harm that lost sales causes? As I covered before, I whole-heartedly believe the Japanese manga industry is doing itself a serious disservice by not leaping to fix the system. Baby steps like releasing all of ONE mainstream series simultaneously in English and Japanese is a joke. A noble joke, but a joke nonetheless. Is free, ad-supported online manga the future? Maybe. But unless your name is Tite Kubo or Shueisha Publishing Co. Ltd., you have absolutely no right to make that leap for them.
A few days ago, Johanna Draper Carlson on Comics Worth Reading made the claim that “Legal doesn’t matter” in regards to scanlations. When it comes to the relationship between a reader and the unauthorized reproduction, I agree completely—either you’re too naïve to understand the legality, or you know what you’re doing is wrong and you chose to ignore that law. She uses speeding as a comparable breach of the law that normal, honest people choose to break on a regular basis. I’m still with her. But she goes on to make a statement in the comments that, whether or not it’s what she intended, sums up where fan entitlement crosses the line:
“More to the point, there are laws that most people agree everyone should obey (like the ones against killing, to be dramatic) and laws that most people choose to ignore (like speeding, as I said above). Just because it’s against the law doesn’t mean people agree with the law, based on their behavior.”
The legal avenues for getting manga are clearly not up to the task, and indeed, the rampant proliferation of scanlations show that many fans don’t agree with following the rules. But just because you don’t like a law, doesn’t mean you’re not guilty when you break it. Copyright laws, digital “ownership,” and piracy crackdowns are such messy, hot-button topics, and I don’t feel the least bit qualified to get into what the law “should” be. I’m not going to point fingers at scanlation readers, because unless it’s my copyright being violated, I have no business telling you whether to obey the letter of the law, and if I did, I’d be a hypocrite. What I do ask is that you don’t take “free” for granted. Sooner or later Japanese publishers will address how manga is made available digitally abroad. Most of the legitimate frustrations we have now will go away in time. I hope that collectively, we true fans will give the legal copyright holders of the works we love a chance to make good. And if in a year or so, you’re still into manga and you can’t get your fix except by reading unauthorized editions—get a new hobby. Manga is a luxury, not a right.
Why should we respect publishers, Japanese and English, if it’s only the creators we care about? Because creators rarely create in a vacuum. Even if a creator writes and draws everything alone (which with manga is almost never the case), it takes years of thankless work and sacrifice before a creator makes that breakthrough hit that captures the attention of the world. When a publisher takes on a new creator, it’s a gamble—maybe it will yield the next Naruto, or maybe the creator will never develop the discipline or the unique voice to succeed. Sure, Viz isn’t responsible for the creation of Bleach, but there are dozens of people aside from Tite Kubo who helped make it a hit, and every sale that Viz makes pays royalties into the system that pays Kubo’s support network and ensures that there will be a new breakout series down the road. You can’t have an economy of nothing but creators and consumers anymore than you can have an ecosystem of nothing but predators and grass. And if you truly believe that only creators should be compensated, then you might as well give up TV, shopping in stores, going to movies, listening to the radio, and especially reading a slick, corporate product like manga.
Before I end this unexpectedly long rant, I would like to turn this conversation back to the concept of “The Conversation” by offering some suggestions for how we might redirect some of the passion that’s currently going into scanlations:
A common justification for scanlations is that the authorized translations suck. You think so? Great! Talk about it, explain why, even offer up your own translations under a creative commons license and work out the kinks with your peers. Technically scripts for manga aren’t 100% legit either, but as they’re only useful if you have another source for the art, just go for it.
Keep digging up undiscovered manga treasures! Read them in Japanese, summarize if you want, but more importantly, add something unique to the discussion—something personal and NEW that you can really claim as your own. Real criticism is an art form; it’s not just product reviews.
If you want to help bridge the gap between cultures, look for Japanese bloggers who have interesting perspectives and ask if you can translate their content. We spend so much time reading about otakus, but there’s practically zero dialog with our kindred spirits.
And finally, if you’re truly passionate about manga and want ownership of something, then for God’s sake, stop using scanlations as a crutch and create something original! I’m sure that warm, fuzzy feeling you get at knowing that your peers like “your” work when you upload a scanlation must be pretty great, but don’t let that feeling get to your head. Anyone with a couple years of college Japanese and access to photoshop can help make a scanlation. Instead, take a cue from Japanese fans and try your hand at doujinshi. It’ll be hard. You’ll get plenty of “likes” for your pinups of Kakashi, but don’t stop there. Learn to do sequential art. You’ll probably fail—a lot. Maybe you even copy the style of your favorite artist, or, God forbid, TRACE, but you know what? That’s okay right now because you’re not finished yet and you know better than to try and pass it as your own work. You get better. You make a real comic. Your friends won’t be nearly as excited about your crappy comic as they are about reading the next chapter of Soul Eater. They’ll try to marginalize your potential by trying to put a label on your work. Screw them. You’re better than that. Put it online for anyone to read—this time it is your right. The page views won’t be pretty, not like they were when “your” scanlations went up on OneManga. Don’t give up. Whether or not you make it big, at least you can look back at your comic and say, “that one’s mine,” and no one can tell you otherwise.