Digital Manga Publishing has announced a new publishing scheme called Digital Manga Guild. The idea is that none of the people involved in producing DMG products – translators, letterers, editors, Digital Manga Publishing or the original license holders – will take any upfront payments. Everyone will take a percentage cut of sales (what percentage has yet to be stated; I’m assuming “pretty small”). DMG works will be sold as electronic files (i.e. no hardcopies, at least according to the plan as announced so far).
On the one hand, plans like DMG could lead to manga translators (and anime subbers?) having a similar problem as college professors (more on that below). On the other hand, I wonder if this signifies a realignment of the industry. The manga and anime audiences have not been expanding for awhile now, meaning that economies of scale aren’t going to kick in and knock DVD/book prices down any more to open up a bigger, more frugal audience. At the same time, the recession has made many people reconsider how willing they are to regularly spend $10 or more on a book that they might finish reading in twenty minutes. On top of that, five or ten years ago the market was more unified in its interests than it is today. A lot of the consumers who bought Sailor Moon and Card Captor Sakura when they first came out are now interested in josei or seinen works like Butterflies, Flowers or Emma, but the newer, younger audience that became interested in Naruto and Fruits Basket isn’t necessarily ready for works that mature. (This is not to say that no one will read all of the above; I have. It’s just that there aren’t enough of us to sustain an industry.) The industry is at a crossroads. It could try to grow its audience more, although how is not clear and there haven’t been any big titles out of Japan to spark interest like Sailor Moon or Naruto. Alternatively, it could focus on retaining its current audience, but the pitfalls of that approach are apparent from looking at the American comics industry, whose struggles are legion and whose most recent successes lie in the movies, not comics. Given the major problems with both of these options, companies like DMP are getting creative.
That brings us back to the Digital Manga Guild, which is an attempt to monetize something that already exists. Whether it succeeds is, as I see it, entirely dependent on whether it can get people to pay for scanlations. Personally, I wouldn’t, but I’m a bit of a Luddite in that respect – I don’t use Itunes, and I’ve been known to pay extra to have a hardcopy of a software program mailed to me after I downloaded it just in case. (Actually, I’m a bit surprised they’re trying to get people to buy the files instead of having them ad-supported. If they were ad-supported, they could snap up OneManga’s and MangaFox’ users like that. Of course, there is no proof that anyone behind either of those sites ever made any profit.)
But I digress. The manga-reading audience seems to be divided into two groups: casual readers, who will follow one or two series on their own, might pick up more volumes at their local libraries and occasionally go to a convention or dress up as a character for Halloween; and the more hardcore fans, who will follow many series over the course of years or even decades, go to multiple conventions regularly or one (preferred) convention religiously, join clubs, make art, learn Japanese – and translate or edit manga for scanlations. These fans often spend a lot of money on manga and anime, and rarely see any money come in for all of their efforts. Fans also have more particular interests. Every so often they are chastised because their consumption habits are supposedly destroying the anime and manga they love. They’ve seen dozens of high school romance comedies with pretty art and cute leads who initially clash but eventually blah blah blah, so they need more intricate plotting in order to get behind a series.
The Digital Manga Guild says two things to these fans. First, it values their work. Some commentators and some members of the industry have openly derided scanlators for low-quality translations and argued that scanlations hurt legitimate sales (with little and contradictory proof). By embracing scanlators, DMG is also getting seriously good press as far as a portion of its audience is concerned. Second, it sounds like DMG titles will be precisely the sort of little-known, smaller audience works that the current publishing scheme simply cannot adapt to America. Publishing them would require too much outlay with too small an audience to make a profit. By going digital-only AND paying everyone based on sales, DMG simultaneously widens the pool of potentially-adaptable works and lowers the price-threshold for publication. This is an interesting and canny move, even if it ultimately doesn’t work out.
What caught my interest about DMG, though, is that this move keeps reminding me of the rise of adjunct professors at colleges in the U.S. For decades we’ve been over-producing Ph.D.’s, so colleges moved to paying incredibly low rates to “part-timers” to teach classes and thereby combat steadily decreasing state and federal subsidies. This had the effect of making the higher education industry appear healthy on the surface despite deep and long-standing problems. In the manga translation industry, I think it might have the opposite effect.
To be clear, in both cases these developments are negatives for the people being adjuncted. The difference is that I am not persuaded that adjunctification of some kinds of manga translation would necessarily be a net negative. When you adjunct-out your professoriate, you lose a lot of the less-tangible benefits of full-time professors that only become obvious when a student wants to meet with a professor who is only on her campus for the hour before class every week, or when a student who graduated a year ago needs recommendations from professors who are no longer working at that campus and didn’t leave forwarding addresses, or when new curricula need to be designed but only one, overburdened full-time professor knows what the new transfer requirements for English 101 are. Professors also need to be extremely timely on a regular basis. Given forty homework assignments, they must grade and comment on them all quickly. Someone fitting a class around their own job, or trying to fit five classes in at once, will have trouble with all of that.
In contrast, part-time translators, given the large number of capable translators we already see doing it on a regular basis, merely bring the problem of continuity.* That is, if we translate oshare ningen as “Stylish” in episode/chapter one of Princess Jellyfish, we need to make sure that it’s that way in the next chapter/episode as well. However, in the past, the assorted hardcopy publishers haven’t exactly set a pristine example here either, so I don’t see this being more of a problem in the DMG model.
Absent the problems I’ve pointed out with higher education, a supplemental, online manga translation industry driven by part-timers could open up new manga possibilities for older readers who want more mature works as well as other niche groups (like those interested in BL, horror, pornography and yuri) who would not likely see many manga in print that fit their interests. This would entice those groups to continue or even deepen their involvement with manga, in turn opening up new revenue possibilities for manga translation companies like DMP.
It all turns on the fact that this variety of manga consumption is a hobby. Some hobbyists are incredibly keen on it, it’s true, but it is a hobby, in the same vein as model trains or the Society for Creative Anachronism. It is very, very rare for people in this sort of hobby to make a living on their related activities, and those that do (such as costume designers who sell at Renaissance Fairs) rarely make princely sums. Those who have managed to create or work in companies like Viz and Tokyopop can attest to how difficult it is to get such a career – but they also make decisions about what manga to translate based on print audience considerations. The sort of translation that we’re talking about here involves little-known works that only dedicated fans would search out – and that is very definitely “hobby” territory. Since it seems that the initiative is aimed at those works which would not otherwise be published, I’m inclined to view this new initiative as an innovative way of returning some money to those hobbyists whose work contributes to the hobby. The trick is how it develops from here. If we start seeing the further adjunctification of those translators working on bestsellers like Alice in the Country of Hearts then I’ll start to worry.
*Before anyone argues, my opinion about the quality of scanlation versus hardcopy translations is that there are good and atrocious examples of both, but that the best scanlation translations are usually at least as good as the published versions, if not better.