Earlier this week, Digital Manga Publishing (@digitalmanga)’s UNICO Kickstarter fund hit its $20,500 publishing goal. This means, without snags or any unforeseen problems along the way, DMP will be publishing UNICO at the end of 2012, and will likely be publishing Tezuka’s A•TOMCAT in March of 2013 if the project meets its $26,000 funding goal.
As it was last time, voices have come out from the blogging community (Chris Butcher, Comics212, Johanna DC, Comics Worth Reading) questioning the use of the crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter. Last time we discussed the use of the Kickstarter platform, it was about the use of Kickstarter and its emotional heft, the use of guilt and marketing, my thoughts on the fan’s ability to commission work, and it eventually led to a fantastic discussion on Manga Out Loud with Digital Manga’s own Ben Applegate.
Christopher Butcher made some very pointed remarks in regards to the use of the platform for publishing that Johanna echoed:
- The basic acts of publishing are printing and promotion. If you are a publisher but you can’t print or promote, are you still a publisher? Some very smart people say yes, and I’m honestly not sure, because you’re unable to fulfill your basic roles and are counting on others to do that, and that’s where my conflict is.
As I, and many other more eloquent people of mentioned, the act of publishing a Japanese comic is not merely printing and promotion. the act of licensing the book, translating the original language into English, lettering and cleaning the art, quality control, and project management are all a large part of what a publisher does with a manga project: this is just the stuff that is apparent to me, someone who is not a part of the industry.
The question again comes back to what was originally posed in our original debates – if the “publisher” does not accept any of the risk associated with the printing of material, are they actually a publisher? To get to my answer, we need some background information.
Kickstarter plays by a completely different set of economic rules that the regular capital market. In the “old” publishing world, a publisher takes a risk on a property and decides to publishing it. Depending on the format, the author might get an advance on royalties and the publisher has to print the book; in the case of manga, there is an upfront licensing fee, all the costs to adapt the work for an English-speaking audience, and a printing fee. The publisher fronts the risk on this property and hopes/expects to get their money back from sales on that property.
Kickstarter changes the math significantly by changing the initiating question. In business, we ask the question, “Will this sell?” Kickstarter has no qualms about selling or not selling. Kickstarter’s question is, “Do enough people want this to happen?” This difference impacts the entire process of publishing. The change in question manipulates the model in such a way that we are moving from a supply and demand style economic system to a commission-based system.
I think that any person who is focused on “what a publisher is” or “publisher’s responsibility” or who has said anything like, “I don’t think DMP should be using Kickstarter because they are an actual publisher,” misunderstands the basis from which Kickstarter is working from and the fundamental change in monetary need. If you are working on Kickstarter, you are no longer working in the direct market model. You can pull books back into that model later, but once you are in a Kickstarter, you are operating outside of that model for as long as you have pledges to fulfill.
I’ve had my words about commission-based systems before, but for publishing, I will put it simply – while the Kickstarter system isn’t the most ideal (there is a lack of consumer protections, for example) it is a form of commerce that has existed for thousands of years. Consumers are still purchasing books; the publisher is still printing books. The format of how money exchanges hands changes, and how risk is applied changes, but that direct relationship, where the publisher creates a bound book, and I buy it, does not change. As long as that relationship is intact, and with the other duties that a publisher must perform (as previously mentioned) I feel it is downright silly to say that a publisher isn’t “real” because they are using Kickstarter.
TL;DR – a publisher using Kickstarter as its funding source? Still a publisher.
This is not even mentioning Kickstarter’s other potential uses for a large company, such as potential for publicity/marketing, research, community outreach, etc., which I don’t have the space to get into today.
However, this isn’t the only content bouncing around the web right now.
To complicate things, some publishers have also voiced their opinions about the Kickstarter platform:
While Manga University’s opinion originally seemed to be just a bunch of sour grapes, after a bit of thinking, the line of thought is very valid. Twitter right now is a veritable tweet-storm of content regarding DMP’s efforts to get UNICO published and all the fans ticking down the dollar count. Certainly there is no storm of attention surrounding the release of one of Manga University’s “How to Draw Manga” books.
I think that the reason for this is the way fans currently interact with properties and artists that they love. Fans of a specific manga (say Negima! for example) have the ability to interact with other readers via chat boards or forums online, interact with the writer in some cases by sending letters or fan mail; they can manipulate the content by writing or drawing fan fiction; they can meet up with other fans at conventions to discuss the series. They can buy merchandise, buy the manga, buy anime spin-offs, and even buy a second manga spin off if they so choose. They can try to interact with the publisher by sending letters or meeting them at big comic conventions.
Something that is missing from this list that Kickstarter allows fans access to? The ability to impact the publication of the final manga. This allows fans to get into a whole new level. They have the ability now to pledge to help their favorite (or even not so favorite publisher) get a book they want from concept to the printer. They have the ability to get cool backers-only rewards. There is a feeling of direct involvement in the project even without having a say in the production values or images or anything of that nature.
DMP has actually stepped it up by allowing a select number of people to be on the UNICO and A•TOMCAT Steering Committees, which, for all intents and purposes, allow fans to become even more entrenched in the workings of the publisher. This is hands-on in a way that most fans can only dream of, and it stands to reason why some people are very excited about these Kickstarter projects.
Ed Chavez, from Vertical, pointed out that his issue stemmed not from the Kickstarter platform itself, but rather from the content:
One could easily argue here that DMP has essentially been exploiting the hard work that Vertical has done for the past 7+ years bringing quality Tezuka products to an English speaking audience. Indeed, Tezuka’s works are generally thought to be good enough sellers that they could be sold using the regular publishing model.
But this brings up the differences between two publishers, and an area of speculation I don’t really care to walk into; the way that Vertical does business compared to the way DMP does business is fascinating, but ultimately, the decisions they make are theirs.
Ed seems to be making the point that Kickstarter is a fine platform for works that are tenuous, risky, or have the potential to fail, but Tezuka is none of those things. I tend to agree, although DMP may differ based on their financials or printing estimates. That being said, Tezuka is a powerful brand. His work commands an amount of attention only held by three or four other mangaka in English-speaking countries right now. It seems to me that any book published with the Tezuka name would sell a decent number of copies. What is less clear is whether most companies would take a “traditional risk” on a majority of these titles. Ed has gone on record saying Vertical would only like to publish another “half-a-dozen Tezuka titles,” meaning that something like a Kickstarter campaign from DMP might be the only way to get a Tezuka fix in the near future.
I think that what DMP is doing with Tezuka titles here is great. But, as some have mentioned, DMP runs the risk of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs if they continue to run Kickstarter campaigns focused only on Tezuka material. I would love to see DMP utilize Kickstarter for josei and seinen projects outside the scope of Tezuka, and hope to see that in the next Kickstarter campaign.
Kickstarter is a fantastic tool; but as a tool for publishers, it is one that if not used properly, could fall by the wayside. I think that the newness of Kickstarter campaigning and the strength of the Tezuka brand have a lot to do with the recent successes of current Kickstarter programs. It is certainly not something that will fix all the ills of the manga publishing industry, nor will it be the tool that revives all of the long lost licenses still stuck in limbo. It may offer a solution to some publishers in order to print a select number of products, and it hopefully will allow publishers to explore less traditional content. I am looking forward to a less well known manga series being presented in a Kickstarter campaign before I make any longer-term prognostications about its use long term in the industry.