Saturday, July 3, 2010

Manga Publishers F-Up Again

I am an independent professional who relies on the support of fans and readers. Because of this, I also tend to support creators whose work I enjoy. I lean towards 'indie' sorts and the type that are like me in terms of the way they create, but I have a wide variety of creators that I support.

There is an unfortunately large number of people online (and offline, for that matter) who come along with the attitude that they are entitled to anything and everything online for free. I agree that it's a problem, especially when they read something, enjoy it, and then don't support it. I always go out of my way to support the things that I enjoy, because I know that the individual, unique voice that created it will never be seen again.

Even if I find something similar, it will never be the same. Each creator is different. Each creator brings something different to anything. And if I allow that voice to go silent, then I am betraying my own love for what it has shared with me.

However, the recent actions by a group of publishers in Japan and the United States have gone much too far. This group banded together for the chief purpose of stamping out scanlations.

'Scanlation' is a portmanteau term of 'scan' and 'translation'. Scanlations are essentially the manga equivalent to fansubs, which are fan-subtitled episodes of anime. Scanlations are, in turn, scans of manga that are translated by fans.

The motivation behind scanlations is to expose a new audience to a series to which they otherwise have no exposure. The translations are done out of a love for the series and an enthusiasm to share it with a new audience. When the series is licenced for official release, scanlators typically cease their work and point interested readers to the official release.

In another parallel with fansubs, this is essentially the same approach that fansub groups have. As someone who has known several fansubbers, I can say that the vast majority of them work very hard purely out of love for a series and, when that series is made available to their region in a quality release, they are only too happy to stop their unofficial efforts and point others to the official ones. The goal of fansubbers, as with scanlators, is to provide something that is not being provided, to broaden the exposure of a series that they love so that it can be shown that there is an audience for it.

The publishers have all but stated that they believe scanlations are the Antichrist. It is their intention to stamp scanlations out entirely, with claims that they have ruined the manga industry and other such hyperbole. There are, naturally, a few things that have been left out of this discussion.

The first is that the exact thing has been attempted before. In the 80s, anime releasing companies invented the 'Maison Ikkoku effect', which they claimed explained how fansubs were destroying any chance of anime retaining a foothold in the US marketplace. Because of fansubs, companies such as Viz asserted, their release of Maison Ikkoku failed to be an overwhelming success.

Then, as now, they failed to consider a few points:

- First, Maison Ikkoku was a relatively obscure series outside of Japan that was also nothing like the only other well-known series from the same creator at that time.

- Second, Maison Ikkoku's pace is slightly slower than that of a Tolstoy book. With an emphasis on iyashi-kei slice-of-life situations, Maison Ikkoku was suited even only to a certain Japanese audience, certainly not the sort of series that would take a US audience at the time.

- Third, Maison Ikkoku's aforementioned tone was completely different from what was wildly popular at the time, which happened to be action-filled, flashy-effects spectaculars, typically with sex and violence. The attempt to release such a series so completely untested shows tremendous lack of foresight on the parts of its releasers.

- Fourth, dubs at the time were a crap shoot. Some were decent. Most were mind-numbingly awful. This period of slapdash dubbing instilled an entire generation with knee-jerk hatred of English dubs, and for good reason.

- Last but not least, a typical anime VHS at the time cost around $20...for a dub. Usually they were priced at $30 for a subtitled version. These tapes were usually an hour long, but some were longer. None ever exceeded two hours in length.

Despite all of this, it was claimed that fansubs had ruined Maison Ikkoku's chances, that fansubs were entirely responsible for its commercial failure, and that long-running series like Maison Ikkoku would never be able to be released to a US audience.

Those of us who knew better suspected that it was a case of sour grapes from a company who had made a mistake and simply looked for the most convenient scapegoat. Fansubbers could hardly answer these accusations, especially as it was before the age of widespread internet access. Companies like Viz could make whatever allegations they pleased, and fansubbers and fans alike had no recourse to answer them.

Now, twenty-something years later, we see how fansubs have completely ruined the anime industry...since one of the most profitable booms in history has essentially integrated Japanese animation and comics into American culture. Long-running series, which would never be able to be released to an American audience, are everywhere.

But now the publishers are saying that scanlations are the imminent destruction of manga. Once again, Viz are at the forefront of these claims; you'd think they'd have learned from the Maison Ikkoku incident. I'd like to bring up a few points to this discussion:

- In Japan, I could go to any given bookstore and be reasonably confident of finding a recently-released tankouban. I could also go online and read others' opinions of that series, or even ask friends if they think the series would suit me. Conversely, in the US, the limited number of titles released, many of which are years old, are often not even available to libraries. I can't always find opinions from anyone who may have read a certain title, even if it is available in English. And although I am at a great advantage because I can read Japanese -- and typically buy manga in Japanese, and can browse the internet in Japanese to find reviews -- most readers in the US do not share my ability.

- In Japan,  most tankouban cost somewhere between $4 to $6, with an odd few actually closer to $10 and beyond, an exception rather than the rule. In the US, tankouban prices typically begin around $10, with an odd few dipping under or over that figure. When manga were first released in the US, it was not uncommon to see books priced at $20 or more. Like the high prices for the tapes, the ludicrously exorbitant price tags do not exactly encourage people to take a chance on a series they don't know, haven't heard of, and may not like.

- The creator typically receives little to nothing for manga released in other countries. It's the publishers who really profit from publication outside of Japan. This is why I tend to prefer to support creators whom I can contact directly, and whom I can be certain receive the support I want to give them.

- There are so many companies, like Tokyopop, who are absolutely deplorable in the way they do business. I never want to support their spurious business practices. Because of this, I do support the manga titles, but in Japanese.

- Plenty of companies blithely butcher a series with terrible editing that doesn't even bother to involve the original artist, or they simply flip the panels or pages, resulting in disconcerting layouts. Flipping pages was common practise for some time and is still done by some companies. Some companies will just omit pages they don't like, resulting in a confusing final product, which makes one wonder why they even bothered to licence it in the first place if they didn't intend to release it intact.

- Many companies licence a series and then never finish it, even going so far as to do up to the next-to-last book and then no more. While that's no problem for me -- I can just look to a friend in Japan, Kinokuniya, Celga, and so forth -- not everyone has access to those resources and, as mentioned before, not everyone can read Japanese. Now more than ever, now that these companies are becoming so vehement about obliterating manga scans and fan translations, I want to say this: don't start something if you don't intend to finish it. Licencing something and then dropping the release and whining about low sales is a good way to get people not to buy anything from you again, because they can't be sure you'll see it through to the end. At the very least, scanlators work for free and most who are passionate enough about a project will either see it through or hand it off to someone else who will.

There are so many reasons why this latest witch hunt will only serve as detrimental to these publishers and everyone around them who is tangentially involved.

People aren't going to take a chance and spend over $10 on series they don't know if they like, aren't sure if they can count on, and can't trust to be finished. If anything, this will simply increase the occurrences of people checking the books out from their local libraries (if they can find them) and reading them, then picking them up once the series is finished...much later.

People also are less likely to take a chance on a completely unfamiliar series. If they haven't heard anything, can't find anything online (ideally a preview to read), and don't know the author, they're not as likely to just pick it up. Scanlations provide a way for potential readers to see different works from the author and see if the style suits them. Some of the titles they peruse may never become available formally in their language.

All series, naturally, cannot be licenced. Ultimately what publishers choose are series that they think will make the most profit. For whatever reason, be it age, obscurity, or any other justification, many books will never see the light of day in other languages. Is it really a detriment to the profits of the creator if a work that is never released officially in another country is provided in scanned form? I say it is not. Most readers of manga I know would go out of their way to buy a book they love, even if it isn't in their own language. But they have to read it and understand it first, or else they will never know that they love it.

An additional point I would like to make is that not all manga is collected into tankouban. I dearly love the Yes! Precure 5 and Yes! Precure 5 Go Go manga that ran in Nakayoshi alongside the TV series. Yet they were never collected into tankouban and, likely, never will be. If I had not seen a chapter of the manga scanned, I would never have known it even existed. Even now, trying to seek out the series, I've only managed to collect a handful of Nakayoshi with the manga. Is it really right to obliterate any scans of that existing? Many of the 'telephone book' manga magazines like Nakayoshi are discarded after they are read. That means that these Precure 5 comics stand a good chance of never again seeing the light of day. How is that helpful to the talented creator who composed them?

The scanlators are not all pure, blameless entities, just like the fansubbers are not. People are people. But by and large, the majority of the fansub community, just like the majority of the scanlation community, are people who have a passion for what they do, and what they do is done out of love and admiration. Once the titles are licenced, to be made available in their region, they stop doing what they do because they don't have to now; their goal is achieved. A wider audience will be able to share their appreciation, and easily.

mp3s were not wiped out. Fansubs did not vanish from the face of the earth. And scanlations will not go away. All that has happened is that now, people who want them will have to look in different places. And now, all these manga publishers who were so concerned about profits and revenue will receive even less because people will be less willing to take chances on things they can't be sure they will enjoy. All they have done is create yet another inane buzzword. I am reminded of a friend who worked professionally in voiceovers and struggled to find a host for his website back in 2001, because many hosts refused to host him due to him using mp3s for his portfolio samples. The mp3 format, at the time, was the most economical combination of space and quality. And yet, because it was another stupid industry buzzword, everyone was put through tremendous inconvenience simply because an industry could not get over itself.

I encourage people to support the things they enjoy. There are too many people online who think that everything is theirs for free, and they need not support creators who give them enjoyment. It is not an infinite resource, and each voice is unique and deserving of support if it touches you. I agree that there is a problem with some people online, and that they have caused the rest of us to suffer. I am not endorsing rampant free everything. But I am endorsing being able to make an informed decision since the majority of consumers all have a limited amount of space for things we buy.

Essentially, there must be a middle ground. If publishers are going to insist that scanlations and manga scans in general are made pariahs, they must provide something to compensate for that. If they refuse to allow unofficial product, then it is their responsibility to provide official. That is a fundamental aspect of capitalism. If they can't provide something that is desired and someone else does, then that someone else will receive the support they deserve, which the original party lost.

I might also mention that, as per usual in both Japan and the US, many of these publishers completely flooded the market during the Japanese culture boom that occurred years ago. Japanese animation and comics have become an integrated part of American culture. They have lost their novelty. Because of that, companies can no longer just put out whatever they can licence cheaply and rely on it selling simply because it's Japanese. And yet, actions like this attempt to sweep away scanlations are the kind of thing that such overconfident firms tend to do. They think that they can do anything, produce anything, make any move, and have no end of support. It is actions like this that communicate a belief that even if they lose customers from this, there are always as many customers just waiting to replace them. But that is a fallacy in reasoning. Customers are now a very finite number for larger manga publishers. Antics like this only alienate increasing portions of that finite number.

Essentially the publishers are using scanlations as a scapegoat for declining sales, rather than looking to themselves for the much larger reasons. Manga have lost their novelty. Many series in the past 10 years have become homogenised and formulaic. A consumer public more familiar with the medium will no longer buy arbitrarily and blindly, but instead will become more discerning. That is what has happened.

It's the same thing that happened with Maison Ikkoku, essentially. And in twenty years' time, I would imagine we will see a more completely integrated medium of sequential art, with manga, American comic books, and European comics, all melding together into a cohesive whole...and all who are surrounded by this looking back and laughing at the idiots who tried to blame their own poor business sense on the most convenient scapegoat. It's one thing when you're a sole proprietor and don't have a lot of money. It's quite different when you're a multi-million-dollar publisher who should know better.

Shame on everyone involved in this.

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