Fast Track Misconceptions

Earlier this week, I announced my “return” to manga commentary, and stated that I wanted to talk about something that may hit a little hard for some publishers – why TokyoPop’s acceleration of Gakuen Alice is a fairly ineffective gesture when it comes to retarding piracy.

For the purpose of developing a conversation with meaning, we will consider the noun “scanlation” to be equal to “licensed manga scans” which will eliminate that tricky grey area where people argue about whether or not it’s “right” to read scans of a non-licensed series. I’m sure that those who know me know my opinion on that slippery slope.

Publishers have been trying hard lately to put a stop to piracy. Objectively, every publisher has a mountain to “lose” from piracy. I put lose in quotations because we have no idea how much manga is not being purchased in lieu of free manga scans, and how much those free scans stimulate purchasing. What we do know is that scanlations are quicker, dirtier, and cheaper (as cheap as free) than an actual published book in the US, at least when it comes to getting the latest content of a series being published in Japan and then being translated and published in the US. Scanners can take a week to put out the latest chapter of a manga, where in the US, it might take years before the book actually has a licensing agreement and an actual copy on bookshelves.

This is a time difference that is too large to ignore. The Japanese Gakuen Alice, for example, is up to 20 Japanese volumes with the 21st coming out sometime in April. This means that right now, in Hana to Yume, volume 21 is being published on a weekly basis, and also, for that reason, it is being scanlated at this rate.  TokyoPop, which is now at book ten, will have to do a lot of work to get the series up to the current Japanese volume. This is at presumably a high cost to publish, since you are either putting off other projects to put Gakuen Alice up quicker, or you’re pulling a Naruto/One Piece a la Viz and publishing  two to three books per release period.

TokyoPop is not in the wrong here. Let me make that clear. They are trying to do something that promotes their intellectual property (if doesn’t protect it), and it’s a nice shot. Let’s be honest though, and think about things logically.

1. Increasing the rate of release on a “late” manga is not going to reduce the amount of piracy, or in fact, increase the amount of reads your book is receiving. I personally was put off by the Naruto/One Piece publishing waves due to financing, but let’s be even more blunt. TokyoPop, you are 11 volumes behind. Every pirate, or close enough to make the numbers irrelevant, has already gotten past where you are. You are not offering a service that can overcome the pirates. Speeding up a release, even to the point where you are publishing the tankoban at the same time as the Japanese company is still too late. They have already seen what you have to offer.

2. Free.99 is cheaper than 10.99.  Pirates are not going (again, this is a generalization that I think we can uphold) pay money for content that they would normally get for no cost. It’s not that hard to see that piracy is cheap, and the places at which these leeches can feed are many and varied.

3. Even the speedier releases have continuity gaps – some of my favorite manga are releasing at a brisk clip, but still are behind the Japanese release. Dedication to  a series can waver if the release intervals are toooo large, but let’s be honest – I’m going to buy the latest volume of 20th Century Boys if I have to wait until I’m 90 years old. I’ve devoted myself to the series. If you have a hardcore Gakuen Alice fan, this person is going to maintain their interest in the series regardless. The only way that anyone can directly combat piracy is by making it less convenient than the actual product – the Rin-Ne experiment from Viz Media’s Shonen Sunday is a prime example.

Woe is the publishing industry, right? Yes and no. These points are simple enough, but they lead to one big conclusion:

Publishers must find paying customers. This seems like a given, but we see publishers looking towards pirates as a way to increase their income. Let us be frank. Pirates are not going to buy manga.  They’ve already made their decision to not buy it. Publishers need to look towards current customers and find out their wants, their needs, and supply material that reaches that demographic. It is unfeasible and unwise to do anything else. Focus on the community that will pay for your product, not the community that are “fans” of your product.

TokyoPop, you will not find more customers by increasing the rate of release of Gakuen Alice. Fans of the series will wait for it to release, and pirates aren’t going to pay for free content. You will, however, incur publishing expense both in terms of monetary cost and opportunity cost, with the net result being more copies of Gakuen Alice in the market than it can probably bear, and no diversion of all that piracy traffic.  This is not an outcome you want or need. Be smart about publishing, and publish material and promote it in such a way that it excites your current customer base, not the pirates who steal your content.

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10 thoughts on “Fast Track Misconceptions

  1. You make excellent points here. To be honest, my understanding of the increased release rate is not to totally demolish the piracy (let’s face it, never going to happen), but to knock it off it’s top spot on Mangafox. It’s more likely an experiment than a new strategy that will be adopted for large number of TOKYOPOP titles.

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  3. Nice new look for the site, Alex!

    You raise some great points here, especially about the culture of scanlation. Though some fans clearly purchase what they read online, there are scores of folks who rationalize their behavior by suggesting the manga publishers are putting out an inferior product, ergo fan piracy is OK because the quality is better. Publishers would be better off courting the first group than the second, and looking for other means of shutting down the piracy: simultaneous release (a la Rine-ne, continued legal harassment of Mangafox and One Manga.

  4. Before Naruto Nation, or whatever the heck Viz is calling the One Piece initiative, both those series were also 11+ volumes behind Japanese publication schedules — which is why Viz was able to publish 3 a month (12 books over four months) for Naruto and a scheduled 30 (30! volumes, from vol 23 released in December to vol 54 http://www.amazon.com/One-Piece-Vol-Eiichiro-Oda/dp/1421534703/ scheduled for this upcoming July) over seven months. Obviously, Viz has more translators and adaptors on staff than TP.

    Sure, folks who would never buy it still aren’t going to buy it. The point of an accelerated release schedule is to get books out there– not instantly, but fast enough that folks don’t even bother looking for illegal scans in the first place.

  5. Alex says:

    Thanks for the insight Matt!

    The problem with a “Naruto Nation” style release, in my mind, is that it increases the cost of publishing the series without actually “protecting” the series from piracy. A publishing acceleration definitely promotes the series to its current readers, like you said, but it doesn’t do any more than that. It definitely doesn’t discourage people from looking for scans. In fact, when there is so much content hitting the shelves, in the shoes of a person with limited income, I think that some would be more tempted to take on the newest volumes via scans than by purchasing.

    With Naruto, where the books are popular regardless of release style, this is much less of a problem, because Viz was practically assured a profit on Naruto, but for other series, this is an issue, especially series like Gakuen Alice. What kind of sales are you getting on the One Piece acceleration?

  6. I think you might be underestimating the benefits of speeding up releases. I’m reminded of the series Samurai Deeper Kyo. SDK was released slower and slower over time, until Tokyopop finally dropped it with just four volumes to go. Eventually I read up to the end in scanlations because I wanted to know what happened, and I was seriously thinking about trying to order the (I think out of print) final volumes in Japanese. Now, Del Rey has picked it up and is releasing it in two-volume packs, which I’m happily buying.

    I have no idea what the cause and effect was; did fewer people buy because the releases were slow, or were the releases slow because not enough people were buying? What I do know is that Del Rey thinks they can make money off of a faster release schedule than TP had. (This is only an estimate, but TP brought out the last few volumes at a rate of one to two per year. Del Rey brought out one two-volume set in December and the next/final pair is due in June, so at least twice as fast as TP.) When SDK was first licensed, there was an anime version in Japan that served as additional, free advertising, but as time passed the anime-derived interest faltered, making it less popular.

    There is also the question of age (of the readers, not the manga). The people more likely to buy volume 50 of a series are those who started off reading it when volume one came out. I mean, I start series that came out five or ten years ago sometimes, and I have to special order them. Borders (much as I love them) simply doesn’t have the shelf space to keep full runs of series in stock. Every now and then I’ll pick up a series in the library, but I actually donated a large chunk of the library’s manga collection to them. Generally, companies probably want to keep the readers that start out with a series, in addition to hopefully adding new readers.

    So let’s say I started reading Naruto as a high schooler – an 18 year old. According to Viz’ website, they released that volume in August of 2003. Let’s say they get two volumes out in 2003, then have about four volumes out per year. By the time volume fifty comes out, I’ll be 30 years old. At the moment I, myself, am somewhere in between 18 and 30, and I really don’t see myself reading Naruto at 30. I think that where some series are concerned, having the audience age out of the series is a serious consideration.

    • Alex says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. :)

      As far as SDK releases, I feel that Del Rey had less faith in the series than some of their others – they decided to release in omnibus format rather than single-edition format, which leads me to believe that the schedule wasn’t accelerated per se, but rather they didn’t believe they could make a profit on four volumes as opposed to two.

      You do have a good point about length of series and age of readers. Maintaining readers is much more cost effective than creating new ones, and you want to be able to finish a book with your original readers intact. I don’t necessarily think that “aging out” is a prime reason to accelerate a release schedule, but it definitely is a consideration for publishers.

      Aging out of a series like Naruto is much easier to do than other series, because of the age of the target audience. Certainly some people quit reading comic books as they age, especially when they start younger, but plenty of the fans of comics (and I mean comics as a whole, not just manga) are that 30 year old that you mentioned.

      (I too don’t see myself reading Naruto at age 30, but then, I never really was a fan of Naruto. Will I be reading comics at age 30? God willing, every day.)

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  8. Sarah says:

    You’re forgetting something of a middle ground in your argument. Yes, many fans like to be absolutely up to date, and many fans are content enough to wait on slow American releases. But there are also those fans who tend to be several chapters behind, for whatever reason, usually because they got distracted by real life and know they can just catch up later. There are quite a lot of these fans, and these are the ones who will be content to follow an American release as long as it’s relatively close to the Japanese, even if it’s behind by a little bit.

    They can still keep up with most of the online discussion (where what was a big spoiler two volumes ago is now common knowledge), and they know they’re only a little behind, so the huge need to read ahead and find out what happens next isn’t nearly as big a factor with a few chapters as it is when you know there are whole exciting arcs you’re behind on. And what if you want to collect merchandise? All the new stuff from Japan is going to be current with whatever’s going on there, not eleven volumes ago.

    A volume or two behind is “good enough” for a large percentage of readers; the same readers for whom eleven (or thirty, as was the case with One Piece) is unacceptable.

    As a side note, there’s also the increased publicity and shelf space that comes with a speed up, and the benefits of keeping a series fresh in people’s minds, but those are more marketing related then anything to do with the online community.

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