Lessons From the Crater Project

kansaiclubIn May of 2013, an indie publisher, Kansai Club Publishing, set in motion a Kickstarter project to fund the printing of a Tezuka classic, Crater. The critics community was pretty excited. We had seen the successful printing of Tezuka’s Barbara, so we knew it was possible. And Tezuka was the font from which a small, independent publisher could drink deeply. The publishing schedule was ambitious, and people were excited.

I was excited. And I, one of Kickstarter’s evangelists within the manga blogging community, was wrong.


The project hit a few “snags” and had a few revelations that pledgers weren’t expecting; and the initial budget request of $3500 was strange, if not comical.  At the time these things seemed quaint, a little odd, but not too concerning. In retrospect, these were serious issues that really needed to be addressed, but never were.

President/Publisher Andrew Nevo threw a few curve balls at us. By miscalculating the cost of shipping to non-US purchasers, by changing the size and quality of the books, and by adding “free” t-shirts to each order, he generated for himself numerous headaches. Kickstarter has always been about creating something, and Kickstarters that succeed have plans for 1) what is going to be offered, 2) how to make the thing, 3) how to ship that thing. By going off script, by winging it with updated bookbinding which increased the weight of the book and prevented the use of previously budgeted shipping, the project almost crashed and burned.

July 5th, 2013. The expected release date for Crater in the USA, at Florida Supercon. August 2013, the expected ship date for books. January 16th, 2014. Today’s date. Still no book. Part of creating a successful Kickstarter is building delays and setbacks into your production schedule. August, a mere two months after completion of the campaign, is certainly not enough time to get a book’s translation approved, to get it print, to get proofs, to approve proofs, to finalize print runs, to print books, to ship books to a warehouse, and to ship books to backers. It just wasn’t enough time, it never was enough time. I think many of us understood that, but I have a feeling that some folks were very disappointed when they didn’t get Tezuka manga in the mail in 2013.

I’ve been a backer for projects that have been delayed. I backed Ryan Andrews’ Nothing Is Forgotten, which was almost a year behind schedule. But Ryan was really cool about updating his backers with information about the cause of delays. Printer issues abounded. He went through multiple companies to get the right quality of book. He had to work with companies in Japan as a foreigner, which may have added to his difficulties. But every time he ran into an issue, he sent out an update.  I received 25 updates, and he was always available to talk on Twitter if you had questions.

Kansai, on the other hand, fell into radio silence in October 2013 and JUST updated backers in January 2014. Three months of no communication. The Facebook page and Twitter account which were extremely active during the course of the  campaign were abandoned shortly after completion of the project.

Part of what makes Kickstarter work is the connection between creator and backer. If those lines of communication go down, the backer feels isolated. They may gather other backers and start complaining. They might even report a project to Kickstarter. All of this happened with Crater.

What does this mean for future manga publishing projects on Kickstarter? While I know I’m going to be more wary of projects in the future, I think the biggest concern is how Tezuka Pro and other publishing companies will understand the issues associated with this campaign. Fumbles like this will make it substantially more difficult for publishers to bring other books to Kickstarter.

Backers need to be more wary of the people they entrust with their money. Known quantities have published books successfully, such as DMP. But as of now, the new guy should be scrutinized carefully.

The project needs to be outlined, budgeted, and any stretch goals need to be preplanned. Don’t play the game without knowing the rules.

The creator needs to communicate regularly.

And we, as backers, need to understand that Kickstarter isn’t a preorder system. You should only be using money to back projects that you can afford to lose. Projects can fail, even with best intentions. We still haven’t gotten Crater. We still might not.


Another Tezuka Kickstarter – But What Does It All Mean?


Another year, another Osamu Tezuka Kickstarter.

News of a new Osamu Tezuka Kickstarter came at the beginning of April. Previous Kickstarter projects for Tezuka licenses have all come from Digital Manga Publishing (New licenses of Barbara, Unico, AtomCat, and Triton, reprint of Swallowing the Earth). This time though? The publisher is a new-guy-on-the-blocker, Kansai Club Publishing. Billing themselves as a small company publishing manga from the 40s-70s, Kansai is coming out of the gates with a license of a collection of Osamu Tezuka’s shonen short stories titled The Crater.

According to the folks at Kansai ClubThe Crater was a book that was going to be published regardless of whether or not this Kickstarter succeeded  However, the company’s future depended very greatly on what people would be willing to pledge,  and if they could sell their full print run of 2,000 units.

If you’ve looked at my position on Kickstarter on Manga Widget in the past, you’ll know that I am pretty gung-ho for it. Kickstarter gives creators and publishers a way to circumvent the regular restraints of publishing by using an old fashioned patronage model of economics. The patronage model is appealing to folks interested in art because it allows increased creative freedom and more risk-taking, and puts the risk of the venture on the consumer and not the entrepreneur. Unfortunately, this strength can also be a major weakness. Kickstarter does not offer you protections if a project creator decides not to deliver, and people can abscond with your hard earned cash without much retribution.


I’ll give you the link to the Tezuka in English site, where you can read more about The Crater, and find out if you would be interested in backing the Kansai Club Kickstarter.

One thing that I find interesting is the opening orientation of these big Kickstarter projects. Almost without fail, they have started out with Tezuka titles. And while DMP is potentially looking at other works for its Platinum Manga Line, and Kansai Club has mentioned that they are interested in publishing older works and works by more contemporary authors like Junji Ito and Mitsuru Adachi, they’re both primarily focused on the work of Osamu Tezuka currently.

Tezuka has a pretty stable fanbase in the English speaking market.Part of the reason for this is Vertical Inc.‘s curatorial vision for Tezuka’s seminal works like BuddhaMessage to Adolf, and others. His work transcends the traditional manga reader – alt comics fans, historical comics fans, and others are willing to pay for hardcover Tezuka manga. Couple this fan enthusiasm with a creative trust that seemingly wants to have all of Tezuka’s manga published in English, and this leads to license deals for Kickstarted projects that would otherwise have never happened.

The question is, though: Is Tezuka the jumping off point, or an end unto himself? I certainly am excited to see more Tezuka manga, but is Tezuka the opening arena of public fundraising, to be followed by other more exciting works? Is Kansai Club only doing a Tezuka Kickstarter because they know it will be a relatively successful venture? I hate to make this reference, but is Tezuka the level 1 tutorial mission for Kickstarter manga?


Another interesting question: Are there other exciting works out there, or is Tezuka the only product that’s readily available? This is a little bit facetious, because manga Kickstarters have existed in the past. But these Kickstarter projects either did not do extremely well, or were unsuccessful in obtaining enough funding. How many publishers/rights holders are cool with the Kickstarter methodology and risk? What happens if a big publisher allows a Kickstarter project to get off the ground, only to have it fail? What would the result be there?

The Kansai Club Kickstarter has hit $30,000 at the time of this writing, so barring some odd circumstances, this project is going to print, and it looks like the publisher is going to recoup some of its money already invested prior to the Kickstarter. I’m excited for The Crater, but I’m more excited about the future of Kickstarter in manga publishing.

What do you think? Is Tezuka the gateway to build operating funds? Is he the only guy you can get a Kickstarter license for? What do you think the future of Kickstarter and manga looks like? I’m interested in your thoughts here, or on Twitter @mangawidget.


Review: Barbara

Written and Illustrated by Osamu Tezuka
Genre: Geikiga/Seinen
Publisher: Digital Manga Publishing
440 pages | $19.99 US
ISBN-13: 978-1569702826

I’m giving away a copy of this book as part of a series of holiday giveaways (check out the details here!)

Barbara has a very unique story as far as manga published in the West. The simple recap is that is it is the first volume of manga to be successfully published using Digital Manga Publishing‘s Kickstarter initiative. This has included 4 seperate Osamu Tezuka titles, with Barbara being the first, and UNICO, Astrocat, and Triton of the Sea being the others. DMP has also used Kickstarter to reprint Tezuka’s Swallowing the Earth.

Barbara is the story of Yosuke Mikura, an up-and-coming writer who, while in the tunnels of the Shinjuku station, finds a drunkard who can recite French poetry. He takes her home, and the rest of the volume are tales of the two together (and apart).

In some ways, Barbara shows the progression of Tezuka’s craft. In this comic, the beginning is rather segmented. The first five chapters might as well be short stories played with the two actors Barbara and Yosuke. Chapter six is where things start to get interesting. An old friend of Yosuke’s, an African writer, reveals to him that Barbara is a Muse who takes a suitable form to inspire artists and writers. Yosuke is originally incredulous, but things become more and more strange – and as the book progresses, the writing improves. Instead of being segmented, the story becomes continuous, and you don’t feel like you can read one or two chapters and set the book down.

While there are definite colors of “The Tales of Hoffmann” here (a muse visits and inspires an artist and has him fall in love with her), I can’t help but feel that Tezuka was also pulled into writing about an ongoing occult craze. The beginning of the book is much more classically oriented, and as it progresses, we see voodoo dolls and sacred witchcraft ceremonies. The two halves are disjointed. This doesn’t make it bad – the last section of the book is a real page-turner. But people looking for a straightforward story are likely to be disappointed.

This manga certainly falls in line with some of Tezuka’s crazier work (Swallowing the Earth being the prime example here) but isn’t quite as unrestrained, and while it is heavy handed with its discussion of art, the spirit of production, etc. it doesn’t seem to push the themes of moral decay and humanity the way that some of his other adult works have (Ayako, MW, Ode to Kirihito). Yosuke is presented as a sexual deviant in the first chapters of the book, and that theme of deviance could have been critiqued or used as theme in a fuller way, but it seems to have been abandoned for voodoo dolls and a black mass.

Overall, Barbara is fascinating and bizarre. While it isn’t as structurally sound or thematically deep as some of his other adult works, it certainly stands up as a piece of fiction. Tezuka lovers will find this an indispensable part of their collection, and casual readers can find a lot to love, provided you are ready for the crazy.

For Fans Of: Swallowing the Earth, Osamu Tezuka, The Venus of Willendorf
Final Verdict: Recommended


More Thoughts on Kickstarter

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.


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.