A Discussion on Crowd-Sourcing and Digital Manga’s Barbara Kickstarter Campaign

This weekend, I learned that Digital Manga Publishing had started a new Kickstarter project to publish a previously unlicensed unpublished manga in English. The work is Barbara, one of Osamu Tezuka’s adult-oriented works that have been the source of much of Vertical Inc.’s manga success. While the project has funded itself very quickly, there have been some skeptical voices, including Lissa Patillo at Kuriosity.ca.

I respect Lissa quite a bit for her work in manga blogging, and we’ve had the opportunity to talk about manga on Ed Sizemore’s Manga Out Loud podcast. The business of publishing is something Lissa and I both have a lot of interest in, and Lissa has essentially revealed herself as an “old soul” of publishing mentality in our podcast, while I consider myself more progressive, at least in matters of digital publishing. Lissa has been an excellent community member, and has done me a great service in multiple occasions by helping me get copies of comics from Canada that I would not otherwise have access to in the United States.

Why do I preface my entire article with all of this? Because while I think that Lissa is a great person and a wonderful member of the manga blogging community, I absolutely and vehemently disagree with her entire argument against Kickstarter campaigns, and I want to present the opposite argument without offering any personal insult.

What I want to argue in this article is that there is a stark difference between what the use of Kickstarter actually means for manga fans and the perceived attacks on fandom that have been presented by Lissa’s article. I feel that the bulk of Lissa’s argument is predicated on the idea that the traditions of analogue publishing are the only correct way to publish content, or that the publisher has an obligation to the traditional methods of licensing and publishing content in English. I disagree.

The Barbara Kickstarter campaign offers manga fanatics and Tezuka appreciators the ability to commission the translation and print of a volume of manga currently not published in English. I use the word commission because this is really what is happening with the Kickstarter campaign system. DMP is essentially saying “If you give us X dollars, we will do this project, and we can give you access to our process and input into the final product.”

Commissions are a vital part of the art industry, and comic publishing to a very large extent is a system of commercial art that does not run on this system.  There have been recent Kickstarter campaigns, such as Womanthology, Ashes, the Transmetropolitan Art Book, and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and Other Stories, to name a few, that have challenged the idea of comic publishing as an industry with traditional methods of content delivery.

With the Barbara Kickstarter campaign, DMP is essentially asking for a commission for a book. This is unorthodox considering what the traditional publishing model is (the publisher licenses material, translates, edits, typesets, and prints it, then sells it to bookstores and hopes to recoup its costs and make a profit). Just because this system is unorthodox does not make it bad. In fact, being able to have input in the way that the industry works and makes decisions offers fans the direct ability to be involved and get something that they want.

As publishers of Japanese content continue to dwindle in the United States, DMP is making a small move from the traditional publishing model to a commission model because commissions are what work for microniche consumer materials. We are at a place in the anime and manga industry that is stressful for publishers, because one flop, like Bandai’s overproduction of the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya product, could lead to the failure of that company. DMP is readjusting its game plan to determine what markets will bear prior to taking the intial risk by asking consumers – something that no manga publisher has truly done before. This is a smart business move.

The idea of crowd sourcing risk has been a standard practice in the wider business community for a long time. The crowd-sourced model that DMP has adopted is a much more open and malleable process than the standard operating procedures of the banking, credit, and private equity industries. Also, unlike those systems, where you take on the risk without being explicitly made aware of it, you are being made aware of that risk when using Kickstarter.

Lissa makes some strong arguments about the role of publishers in the market. She states that Kickstarter is a program for individuals without corporate backing, and that traditional publishers should continue to publish manga traditionally. I have two issues with this statement. The first is that this argument denies the publisher the ability to experiment and change the relationship between producer and consumer. Experimentation, trying new business models is one way that microniche publishers like DMP can stay ahead of a recession economy, and continue to publish.

Second of all, as a rule, companies do generally take risks and hope that these risks lead to sales and a positive income. Just because that is what happens now, does not mean that is what DMP has to do. They do not NEED to bear the risks of a new title because they are a traditional publisher. They are under no obligation to do so. If DMP has a program that allows consumers to decide whether they want to pay for a possible license, it is perfectly fine for them to do so. This tradition of “risk to profits” in business only exists because it was the only way business could be done until the past 2-3 decades. If you as a consumer do not like the model that the publisher uses, then you do not need to purchase their products. But it is not an obligation for a company to take risk.

In fact, many other small businesses are using Kickstarter to produce content. Small Box Games is a great example of a small board-game publishing company that is using Kickstarter to fund games like Omen of War – and other companies are doing projects like this more and more frequently as time passes.

Lissa takes crowd-based risk a little personally, I think – she states that because the impetus to publish Barbara is left to the fan, the fan is accountable for the failure of it to meet its goals.

“There is definitely excitement and enthusiasm from fans fueling this drive, but it also feels like driving the pledging frenzy is the underlying sense of guilt and worry. After all, if you don’t pledge, you may never see the book. If you don’t pledge, it means you don’t want the manga at all. If you don’t promote this book you’ve likely never read and this initiative you only have on a promise will deliver, there will be no book. If Digital Manga Publishing isn’t able to create and print this book it is your fault.”

I think this is a gross overstatement of the relationship between the publisher and its customers. Never in a million years would DMP blame customers for not supporting a Kickstarter campaign. That’s the easiest way to go out of business that I can currently think of.

You have no obligation as a manga reader, consumer, or even as a Tezuka fan to purchase or fund Kickstarter campaigns. If you have doubts about the system, that is your chance to not purchase, not make that jump. If you decide not to buy from Kickstarter, you have made your choice as a consumer. That’s your right.

The idea that guilt is an emotion that should be considered in the use of Kickstarter projects is farfetched. In no other industry is there guilt associated with not buying an item because the manufacturer or project will fail if you don’t. This is antithetical to the idea of modern business – if the project/product does not succeed, it is not your failure as a consumer. It is a failure of the business to meet the wants/needs of the consumer.

Feeling guilt about not buying into Kickstarter because you think the project will fail is equivalent to the false guilt for allowing certain titles like Gintama die. Gintama didn’t succeed as a business venture and was cancelled. If you didn’t buy it, it was because you didn’t want it. Why should you feel guilty if the product is discontinued? Neither of these is a rational view on the relationship between a consumer and a producer.

I have discussed my thoughts on traditional publishing with Lissa and many of the manga blogging community, but as a restatement here, I feel that traditional publishing is becoming antiquated in this largely digital world. There are certainly products that can exist without direct consumer input, but in a microniche world, this is becoming less and less the case.

The way we license product from Japan is an antiquated system that is being threatened in a small but significant manner.  As we move forward in the next 10 years, it is my hope that licensing and publishing in the United States continues to grow out of the system created in the 90’s and in a more open, more consumer-oriented way. For this reason, I fully support the Kickstarter campaign that DMP is running and will continue to support these projects provided that the product they are offering is something I want to buy.

And if I don’t buy? Well, I won’t be feeling guilty about it.

About these ads