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Publish (Online) or Perish: The Bullet Manga and Comics Have To Bite (Or Else.)

by on June 10, 2010

Recently, an alliance of Japanese and
American manga publishers announced a crackdown on various manga
scanlation sites. This news itself comes hot on the heels of some
shocking revelations about said piracy sites. First off, some of them
are so popular as to place in the top 1000 googled sites on the
internet. Even more damningly, these sites are not only
profitable, they are being run with an eye towards being sold off,
and for no small amount of cash. This isn’t the Crunchyroll
model of going legit, but almost something like industry blackmail: pay up or put up with it.

There are fortunately two legitimate alternatives for the manga industry. The two major parties – the pirate sites and the
publishers – are going to hate both. However, one of these options will at least keep
the publishers in business, so we’ll discuss that first.

We know these piracy sites aren’t
hurting for money. They have tons of traffic, meaning
there are plenty of ad dollars rolling in, since most affiliate
programs don’t care or pay attention until complaints are filed. Some sites also have donation drives or operate as freemium services
where an account gets extra access to additional goodies. Given such financial incentive, merely shutting down individual
sites won’t do much; people will just keep emulating the
business model as long there is money to be had. This is why every time a file sharing network goes under, several more spring up in its place: its worth it to someone.

Of course, since there is money in it,
the publishers could profit in the same fashion. In other words, get
together, get digital rights cleared from any artists with whom you haven’t already negotiated, and start posting comics online in a single clearinghouse website in a fashion similar to Hulu. They could even post content to their own individual corporate websites, though a single site could be tied into social networking, and it would reduce the overall industry cost of development. Any of the
major comic publishers could probably do this in under two months if
they had a half-decent web design.

Now, with many manga often not yet licensed for US
retail it gets a little trickier, but not at all impossible. All the
Japanese publishers have to do is offer scanlators the opportunity to
go legit. Tell them that if they work for this site by doing
translations, they’ll get a cut of the ad-revenue. Considering most
scanlation groups make no money from these piracy clearinghouse sites
or from any of their work usually, they’ll likely jump at the chance to go legit
and earn something from their hobby. Consider it the next logical
step of the YouTube business model: if you can crowd-source the
entire media creation process, you can certainly crowd-source translations, especially if there is money involved. Yes, the manga-ka would have to sign off on the final product, but if you explain to them that the other option is mass piracy, most will probably be pretty lenient. Having a handful of internal editors to check over work (which you’d already need just to manage the site) and a suggestion system to help fix errors could probably keep translation issues to a minimum.

Better still, any implementation of an online viewing
site could borrow the freemium side of the business model. Just
make PDF/eBook downloads of the manga a 99 cent an issue / 5 dollar a month / 40 dollar a year
proposition. They could even open up access to one or two bonus translations, with page-by-page footnotes, enough to satisfy anyone’s desire for a specific level of localization. Between drying up the source of free translations to
repost (since everything would hit the publisher site first, making re-posting a somewhat silly proposition) and providing people
with the same – if not better – variety and quality of work, you kill
these sites. Publishers stay rich, pirates go broke, artists stay
with whatever the publishers dole them out, and people get everything
they were getting before without breaking the law. On the whole,
following consumer trends has been the best bet for any industry, so it would follow that doing the same here would be profitable.

This may already be under way thanks to the upcoming Open Manga website,
where artists can bypass the publisher and directly post their work
online and get a share of the ad revenue. It’s not existing publishers
doing it, but it often takes a third party to make content
holders come around; the record labels needed iTunes, the movie and
video industry needed needed YouTube, books needed the Kindle and
Amazon.com and manga and comics may need Open Manga. However, one thing all of those distribution methods also have is the lack of needing an intermediary publisher beyond the website/service.

In fact, plenty of artists already
make quite a living by giving away JPEGs online. Which brings us to
scenario two, wherein the publishers and the pirates end up very
unhappy, and very poor. Dozens of webcomic
artists have already quit their day jobs (some of whom haven’t
had them for over a decade now), and some of those comics, like Penny-Arcade and OverCompensating, have been so successful they now employ
multiple people and even provide retail services for other artists. It makes plenty of sense too: for years,
indie bands have been supporting themselves less with records and
more with t-shirts and advertising royalties, so why shouldn’t comics also be
able to sell shirts and ads? YouTube is turning spazzes into
celebs with merch lines at Hot Topic, let alone all the great independent sketch comedy and TV shows that are selling shirts and DVDs via their YouTube fame.

In short, option 2 is artists supporting
themselves by directly releasing material to the internet and selling
ad space and merch, while publishers and pirates are left as relics
of a different era. After all, you don’t need a publisher if you’ve
already got an audience, and there is no point to pirating a
free comic. The most that you, the reader, will do in
subverting the artist is jam all of your favorite comics into an RSS
reader so you can read the updates easier, and you can bet the RSS
feed will stream the ads in anyway. Even if you ad-block them,
you’ll probably still buy a shirt or a sticker or a poster, and with
that you’ve at least done something to put the artists in the black on the pittance of bandwidth you

This is why I initially didn’t bother
to mention the drop in sales that the comic and manga publishers
would love to pin solely on the fans dropping purchases for piracy,
in spite of that fact that there is a very clear possibility it’s
more about the recession and the lack of variety for older fans to
grow into. It
really doesn’t matter how the publishers’ sales are doing or how
much money the pirates are making. If the comics don’t go online then the
artists will, with increasing and devastating frequency, self-publish
online either through their own websites or co-ops. Then the best the publisher will get is a license to print
the hard copy after the fact. What the pirates do, at most, is accelerate the rate at which creators bail from and avoid publishers.

Certainly, many manga-ka are lucky to
pay the rent while Mike and Jerry from Penny-Arcade have homes in the
heart of Seattle bought at the peak of the property bubble and have a number of full-time
employees including two graphic designers, a webmaster and a talented
MBA. Given that, as much as it’d be great for the publishers to take the first option, the second is probably the best for the artists.

As a fan, just sit back and watch. There’s not a lot you can do, especially if it really is the recession or variety issues keeping you from supporting the industry. You can’t buy what you literally cannot afford, and you can’t buy what they aren’t publishing.

Both are issues that are going to change in your favor, one way or the other.

Though. I guess you could maybe file a few complaints with advertisers at piracy sites. Just for kicks.

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