Stumbling toward the future in niche media markets

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Burning the Midnight Oil for Breaking the Silicon Cage

A Chinese firm exporting knockoffs that threaten to undermine the sales of an American industry. It seems like a common enough story. Who I feel the most sympathy for are the poor workers toiling long hours creating the originals that are being pirated, mostly at low wages, and add the high cost of a Tokyo apartment and a surprising number still live with their pare….

Huh? Tokyo? American industry? Ah, yes, the small segment of American publishing that translates and publishes the work of Japanese mangaka. While the superstars of the industry in Japan are quite well paid, as in most creative arts, the majority live on far more modest incomes and beginners working as assistants work at quite miserable rates of pay.

And while it is a niche industry, we find a fascinating interface of old media and new media, copyright and bootleg crowdsource, not quite there yet legitimate Internet distribution versus … well, the massive hosts in China.

This story is part of the story of the creation of the next economy: the dematerialization of information promising substantial material gains, but the collapse of old ways of doing things threatening the livelihoods of vulnerable creative artists.

How massive? The biggest is OneManga, which according to Alexa.com, has ranked in the top 400 sites on the internet over the past week. Average reach over the last week is given as 0.169%. I have seen a figure of 1.8b connected to the Internet … if that reach is based on 1b, 0.169% of 1b would 1.7m. At over 50 banner advertising laden page views per user per day, that is potentially billions of page views per year.

Even at the extremely low ad rates for internet banner advertising, this is $100,000’s or $m’s, for a business model originally based on:

  • Person A scans the Japanese publication;
  • Person or Persons B translate the text into English;
  • Person or Persons C digitally scrubs out the Japanese text from the Japanese scans and replaces with the translated text
  • Person or Persons D distribute the “scanlations”, often by Internet Relay Chat (IRC) or torrent download
  • Person or Persons E upload the “scanlations” to predatory scumbag manga viewer site
  • Predatory scumbag manga viewer site cashes the advertisers checks

Note that any or all of A, B, C or D can be the same person or people. Some manga viewing sites get direct uploads of scanlations, but the biggest, the uploader is a volunteer member of the viewing site, and not a member of the group doing the “scanlation.

A Solution In Search of a Solution

I should stress that under the original scanlation model, the process from A to D was at one time close to a victimless copyright infringement. When scanlation first got started, it was often based on those who could read Japanese buying original manga from Japan and creating translations for a small circle. As Erica Friedman of AniLesboCon Publishing, and my hero, says of the original development of scanlation:

In order to fix the problem, we have to step back and realize that scanlations are not the “problem” – they were the solution.

I’m speaking here as a fan of manga, comics from Japan. When I started to read manga there were – to be generous – very few titles licensed and translated.

The fans who loved manga saw the problem clearly  – there was a lot of cool stuff being drawn in Japan and very little of it was translated into English. So, they formed groups called “circles” – passionate volunteers who pooled skills and resources into scanning in manga and translating them. This way, they could share the series they loved with other people who would never otherwise get a chance to read them. It was (and largely still is) a love for a title that leads a person to scan it – not a desire to harm, but a deep desire to share and expand the audience.

Scanlation was the solution to the problem. It wouldn’t hurt anyone – none of those books (or anime series) were ever going to make it over here, so no harm, no foul. At least one person had to buy the book (or VHS tape) in order to render and scan it, so there was at least one additional sale to “pay” for the work. No scanlation circle ever made a cent on their efforts. They gave their love away for free, so they could call it fair use. And they were very specific – if you paid for a version of their scans or subs, you were ripped off and you were committing a copyright violation,

… except, uhm, it didn’t stay that way. For one thing, Manga now dominates the bookstore side of the Graphic Novel segment. When I left to work in Oz in the mid 90’s, it was rarely there to be seen. When I came back in the mid-noughties, there was the full size manga shelf at the front of the suburban strip mall bookstore at the end of the bus route (and you know its outer suburbia if I can simply say “the” bus route).

And OneManga is not getting millions of people visiting by displaying niche series that cannot find an audience in that established print publishing channel:

Then the digital revolution really hit and suddenly more series than ever were being scanned and subbed. It isn’t hard to get a scanlation – all one needs is a browser and a search engine. What had formerly been distributed to dozens of people was now being distributed to thousands or tens of thousands worldwide. Hits on popular scanlation aggregation websites go into the millions, bringing at least one such site onto Google’s list of top-visited sites.

And, in the middle of this, distribution companies started to license more series than ever. But now it was even easier to scan than before – often a scanned raw version is available, so no original copy is bought. Scanlators can put out a whole volume in days in just about any language a group might want. And the more popular, the more ubiquitous the content becomes, its economic value drops ever closer to zero.

The (Aggressively Alliterative) Two Tiers of the Nascent New Media Market

Erica says:

For the sake of meaningful discussion, I am going to ignore the existence of overtly criminal scanlators and subbers. These are people who illegally distribute books and series that are legally licensed and available in their country. They know they are committing a criminal act and do not care. Their audience is either naïve and unaware that these distributors are illegal – or they are aware and, like the scanlators, do not care. These people are engaging in IP theft and copyright violation with criminal intent. They are not relevant to this discussion, in which we are going to address the “problem” created not by the desire to steal – but by the desire to share.

However, I obviously am not going to ignore this tier of the bootleg distribution market … because it is a market, in which artists work for piece rate and royalties, then there is one or more layers of people who volunteer to rip that work off, and then volunteers help the the predatory scumbag manga viewing sites aggregate the material and put it on display, selling the eyeballs of the viewers to advertisers.

The original “ethical scanlation circles” celebrated if a project was licensed, dropped their project, and would never dream of simply scanning the work of the American publishers for distribution. But licensed works in the US are sometimes years behind work in Japan. First the work appears serialized in a wide range of weekly, monthly, bimonthly, and quarterly serials. Then the work is collected into volumes, normally printed on nicer paper, and sold to fans. Often the US distribution is the collected volumes rather than the serial, and often the process of translation and production of the US publication does not begin until after the Japanese volume has been released.

And of course, releasing too many volumes at one time would undermine the demand for each, so if sales for a volume are not as strong in the US as in Japan (imagine that!), it may not be financially viable to release volumes as quickly in the US as in Japan.

But … well, its only the choice of the scanlation group that prevents doing a project when the original chapter comes out in the Japanese serial, beating the US release by months or years. And so, the power of rationalization has led from the original “ethical scanlation”, the most popular licensed manga find their way to the big scumbag manga viewer sites shortly after original publication of the chapters in the serials.

Finally, what if you want to get into the scanlation group scene … but you cannot find anyone who can read Japanese? Why, its still possible: just scan the published work of American publishers. Its already in English, so no translation required! Of course, that is obviously not scanlation in any recognizable form: its simply ripping off published work. But at the big scumbag manga viewer sites, by far the largest advertising revenue is from rips and scanlations of licensed work.

When the OneManga site hit the big leagues in Google’s Rankings, the American publishers seemed to have finally been able to get the attention of their partners (and for one of the biggest, their owners) in Japan. As reported at Anime News Network:

The 36 publishers in Japan’s Digital Comic Association and several American publishers are forming a coalition to combat the “rampant and growing problem” of scanlations – illicit digital copies of manga either translated by fans or scanned directly from legitimate English releases.

The coalition asserts that “scanlation aggregator” sites “now host thousands of pirated titles, earning ad revenue and/or membership dues at creators’ expense while simultaneously undermining foreign licensing opportunities and unlawfully cannibalizing legitimate sales.” Google lists one site on its list of the 1,000 most-visited sites on the web. An unnamed spokesperson for the coalition also pointed to smartphone applications designed to read such sites as an escalation of the problem.

The coalition is reportedly threatening legal action against 30 scanlation sites, whose names were not revealed. The organization currently includes Japanese publishers Kodansha, Shogakukan, Shueisha, Square Enix, and the Tuttle-Mori Agency, as well as North American manga publishers Vertical Inc., Viz Media, Tokyopop, and Yen Press.

Now, it goes without saying that it is impossible for any such industry group to “eliminate bootleg file sharing”. Dedicated bootleggers will always be able to get lots of stuff through IRC robots and torrent download.

However, at present, these harder to police means of distribution are not the main means of bootleg distribution. Instead, the primary sites host images of the manga directly on their own servers. Of course, to maximize viewership, no special reader is required: most do not even require flash to be installed, so even those trapped in the Walled Apple Garden without Flash have access to these sites.

Rather than relying on difficult to police – but more difficult to use – means of distribution, these sites seem to have been relying on pure herd safety. Piecemeal enforcement by an individual publisher against an individual site simply results in the viewers of that title going to one of the other sites.

One could easily imagine that it costs actual time and money to the publishers without gaining them anything, so they are powerless to react. Indeed, one could easily imagine oneself protected under the shelter of the conventional wisdom that “piracy cannot ever be stamped out”. Except, the futility of piecemeal enforcement seems to have led to the organization of a sweep. And of course, the fact that bootlegging cannot be stamped out is never a guarantee of the permanence of any particular approach to digital bootlegging.

One of the repeated bullet points in the reaction to this announcement was, “this will do no good; without a legal alternative online source, new sites will just emerge to replace these sites”. But of course, nothing in the announcement said whether or not any such plans were in the works.

Trying to Leap the Fence to Legit Distribution

The first announcement was from Anime-Helpers, one of the sites that believed it was one of the thirty unnamed sites being targetted. In addition to announcing that they were shutting down public access, and that scanlation groups that had uploaded material would have until the end of the month if they wanted to retrieve their material, they also announced:

As it happens, we didn’t actually dismiss this idea as a simple joke. After some brainstorming and half a year of hard work, we have created a solution to the many barriers and obstacles that hinders MangaHelpers from becoming what we hoped it to become. As with the many forms of art: we used the inspiration and ideas we originally had for MangaHelpers, and tweaked them.

The result of that is what we are here to present to you today.

Our goal was to create a platform that allows manga authors and artists to publish and earn money from their work, while still reaching a multi-lingual global audience. A platform that promotes and allows artists (and eventually interested publishers) to work directly with translators and scanlators to publish their work while still remaining in control of their creations. A platform that supports an artist’s need for an income, with the possibility of free availability to the fan. A platform that is a completely new and separate entity from MangaHelpers, losing the restrictions and barriers that MangaHelpers had while retaining the ideology and opportunities we saw with our first attempt.

That platform is known as OpenManga

The details of the system are not yet clear, and it may be that the industry group announcement led them to announce earlier than they planned, but they say that they are negotiating with 70 artists, so it will be interesting to see what comes of their efforts.

Expanding from the Home Market

Two other efforts have come to light since the industry announcement – and unlike OpenManga, either or both of which may have been on the industry’s radar when it decided to put together a sweep of the scumbag manga viewer sites.

The first announcement, this last Tuesday, involved the anime site Crunchyroll, which had itself leaped the fence from hosting bootleg anime to being a legit anime distributer. It was announced at Anime News Network:

Bitway, a Japanese distributor of electronic books and other online media content, has announced on Tuesday that it made a US$750,000 strategic investment in the American media-distribution website Crunchyroll. According to Bitway’s announcement, the company aims to work with Crunchyroll to build a comic-distribution platform overseas, with an emphasis on the United States and Canada

The second announcement, this last Thursday, involved Digital Manga Publishing, a US venture of the Japanese company Digital Manga Inc. Digital Manga Publishing already has a digital manga rental site, eManga.com, and announced:

Digital Manga Publishing (DMP) President and CEO Hikaru Sasahara has confirmed with ANN that DMP intends to establish a new online venture in which fans can provide “scanlations” of manga titles that would be distributed digitally and legally, with the permission of their Japanese owners. As first reported by The Yaoi Review, these translators would be credited with each title, and possibly compensated with a cut of sales.

The program is set to feature over a thousand manga titles or as many as “a few thousand,” mostly in the boys love genre, to establish a following before branching out into other genres and possibly novels, Sasahara said. The business model will allow for DMP, the Japanese licensors, and the translators to each receive a cut of digital sales, and additional revenue will come from derivatives such as advertising, and possibly television or other adaptations of manga titles. Titles that perform well online may also go into print.

Recent Developments and Visions of Creative Futures

There is, of course, no guarantee that any of these ventures will go anywhere. However, the possibilities are intriguing. All digital distribution substantially reduces the overheads of distribution, which opens up the possibilities of legal distribution into smaller niche markets. However, the overheads of localization still remain, which is exactly where crowd-sourcing of translations can enter in to drop the overheads still further.

A final hurdle to low cost distribution overseas is the threat of back-importation that undercuts the home market. However, if the main distribution is in the form of unlettered art and overlays that provide the localization, then back-importation becomes more difficult, and therefore substantially less likely, than the existing direct scan rips that are already widely distributed.

If the original rights holders can agree, as DMP suggests, with a share of revenues as their royalty income, the overhead costs per title start dropping into the range where even very small niche titles may be distributed, through direct viewing – whether by subscription or ad-supported, paid download at a modest per chapter cost, and with recent improvements in black and white Print on Demand quality, via Print on Demand distribution for those who like to hold a paper edition.

The Future’s so bright …

One thing that emerges strongly in this outburst of activity in this niche market is that the biggest hurdles for “technology writ large” is often not “technology writ small”, but rather institutions.

The sound and fury in the online forums over scanlations is generated by the clash of recently established habits of behavior among consumers of online media (and quite recently established – the biggest site was originally started in 2006) and the myths and folkviews that rationalize that behavior, and the much older formal rules and informal habits of behavior developed during the Age of the Printing Press to ensure that creative artists are able to gain some reward for their original works.

On one side is the repeated and often strident refrain, “but this is obviously what they should do, what have they been waiting for”, and then the repeated rejoinder, “but its more complex than that, its not so easy getting permission to do that!”

Institutions developed for the Age of the Printing Press have to be reworked, remixed, and in some cases torn down and reinvented, in order to be fitted to the quite different information economy of the Age of Online Distribution.

Which of course gets to why pay attention to what is happening in this niche industry. It is normally much easier to adapt new institutions that have been hammered out for a similar circumstance than to develop all new ones. In particular, when forced to abandon the understanding of what is going on that went with the old rules, it is much easier to say, “well, look at what happened over there – if we do something similar, it will probably go a bit like that”. Even a foggy and imperfect image of what will happen is more re-assuring than a complete stab in the dark.

So if the Internationalized Manga industry does indeed work out something that works … it is unlikely to remain restricted to that niche. Those practices will spread. And as a niche industry, one that experience substantial growth in a decade starting from the mid-90’s, and then saw quite brazen and predatory bootlegging explode into prominence in just that past few years … the evolution of institutions could be quite rapid in the next year or two in this niche.

It is quite possible that this will be co-evolution. The big “tentpole” titles, which attract the big views on the manga viewing sites, are the big action oriented “boys” titles, and the big slice-of-life “girls” titles. These are titles that put the majority of the money into the pockets of the biggest bootleg sites, and even on a pure ad-based model, they can generate the revenue to provide professional localization. So the evolution here is likely to be in the direction of professional “simul-pub” releases, with ad-supported free views of translated work available at the same time that the $4 serials hit the newstands in Tokyo train stations.

But the big tentpole titles both support and are supported by a much broader tent, a diverse range of smaller titles that fill out the serials and broaden the market beyond the teenage girls and boys targeted by the biggest titles. And for these, for titles that cannot support the overheads of “simul-pub”, some form of crowdsource translation offers the opportunity to beat the scanlations at their own game, providing legal access to a much broader range of titles. Since they are distributed with the authorization of the original author, generating revenue shares back to the original rights holder, they can appear in legitimate channels side by side the big titles.

And that is a model that recreates the market ecology of the predatory manga viewer sites – except rather than preying on the publication feeding income back to the artists, it forms part of that market.

At the same time, all of these efforts might come to naught as the pirates re-invent themselves into a less vulnerable version of their presently massively successful bootlegging operations.

If I were a predicting kind of economist, I would predict that it will be a close run thing, but that some form of artist-funding market will be successfully carved out online. And the shape that it takes will give us a glimpse into the broader future of publishing in the Online Distribution age.

See Also:

Midnight Oil ~ Read About It

The rich get richer, the poor get the picture

The bombs never hit you when you’re down so low

Some got pollution, some revolution

There must be some solution but I just don’t know

The bosses want decisions, the workers need ambitions

There won’t be no collisions when they move so slow

Nothing ever happens, nothing really matters

No one ever tells me so what am I to know  

1 comment

    • BruceMcF on June 20, 2010 at 2:03 am
      Author

    And you don’t seem to understand

    A shame you seemed an honest man

    And all the fears you hold so dear

    Will turn to whisper in your ear

    And you know what they say might hurt you

    And you know that it means so much

    And you don’t even feel a thing

    I am falling

    I am fading

    I have lost it all

    And you don’t seem the lying kind

    A shame that I can read your mind

    And all the things that I read there

    Candle lit smile that we both share

    And you know I don’t mean to hurt you

    But you know that it means so much

    And you don’t even feel a thing

    I am falling

    I am fading

    I am drowning, help me to breathe

    I am hurting

    I have lost it all

    I am losing, help me to breathe

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