It's been a week since a consortium of Japan and U.S. manga publishers announced their intentions to band together to stop online manga piracy, and heated opinions and tantalizing developments on this front have been popping up left and right.
While many large manga scanlation websites remain live and active, a few reacted immediately to the news. One site, Manga Traders has apparently shut down. Another, Manga Helpers has removed all unauthorized scans from their site as of July 1, 2010 June 11, 2010, but hinted at their plans to launch "Open Manga," new kind of online manga publishing site in its place.
Meanwhile, Torrance, California-based Digital Manga Publishing, a U.S. publisher who isn't currently part of the U.S./Japan anti-piracy consortium, has apparently been approaching fan / scanlation groups to propose a deal that would allow them to translate, publish and get paid to work on licensed manga on a semi-professional level. The Yaoi Review broke this story a few days ago, and since then, the post has generated a lot of heated discussion from fans and pros alike.
And the publishers who are part of the consortium? They've also been speaking up about the scanlations and how they feel they've affected the manga publishing business in the U.S., Japan and the world at large. In a report posted on Publisher's Weekly, reporter Kai-Ming Cha wasted no time in getting opinions from Alvin Lu from VIZ Media, Ed Chavez from Vertical, Kurt Hassler from Yen Press, as well as Hikaru Sasahara, from Digital Manga Publishing about this recent turn of affairs.
UPDATE: A tip of the hat to translator William Flanagan, who pointed out this announcement from Nikkei.com that mobile content provider Bitway and Toppan Printing Company (Japan's leading distributor of manga for cell phone platforms) have made a significant investment in Crunchyroll, a U.S.-based online site for anime and manga.
MANGA TRADERS: THE FIRST CASUALTY IN THE WAR AGAINST PIRACY?
First up, some updates on the scanlation sites that have reacted immediately to last week's news. As I write this, Manga Traders seems out of commission. Some comments in various online anime and manga forums have mentioned that the "404 Page Not Found" errors that have been popping up are due to server / technical issues, and that it's not in response to the U.S. / Japan manga publishers' consortium's announcement of their intention to prosecute scanlation aggregator websites. However, it's been hard to confirm this information one way or another. If anyone has details or facts to share, add 'em in the comments below.
UPDATE: Thanks to a tip from an anonymous reader (see below), according to the Manga Traders forum, their site was down due to:
"...a hard drive failure on our webserver, so we had to completely reinstall the OS and get everything back online and restore the entire site from backups."
When asked if the recent announcement of the U.S. / Japan publishers' anti-piracy coalition would affect their website, a site administrator responded:
"We will do like we always do, if we get a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) notice, we will comply, but unless every single manga publisher in japan and the US gives us a DMCA notice, I dont think we run the risk of shutting down."
I don't know if that Manga Trader admin bothered to read the news carefully, but given that the newly-formed Japanese Digital Comic Association includes about 36 of Japan's major manga publishers, including the big guns like Shueisha, Shogakukan, Kodansha, Square Enix and Hakusensha, there is a fairly good chance that the scenario that this admin is scoffing at just might be closer to becoming a reality than they think.
UPDATE 2: While Manga Traders is maintaining a defiant stance, a handful of scan sites are throwing in the towel. As pointed out on MangaBlog, Manga Downloads is calling it a day, citing lack of funding as the main reason for the closure. Comments on the MangaVolume forum seem to indicate that they consider themselves targeted by the anti-piracy coalition and are preparing for the worst.
MANGA HELPERS TRIES TO REINVENT ITSELF AS OPEN MANGA
Meanwhile, Manga Helpers made it official. In a post dated June 11, 2010 with the title "About MangaHelpers and the future of hosted / linked scanslations & raws", "Nimloth" posted this news:
"MangaHelpers will no longer be hosting, or linking to, any material that infringes on the publishers' ownership from our database system. Members of scanlation groups that have uploaded files will still be able to access and download/backup their works, but only until July 1st 2010, when all files will be completely removed for everyone. "
This announcement was followed by another bit of news from the Manga Helpers crew: their intentions to unveil Open Manga "a platform that allows manga authors and artists to publish and earn money from their work, while still reaching a multi-lingual global audience." The announcement also noted that they've talked with over 70 manga creators about this plan, "many of which expressed great interest in using our platform to distribute their work." However, at this stage of the game, it's unclear which, if any artists, much less publishers are on board with this, and how will the creators make money by presenting their work on Open Manga to fans for free?
This plan might sound familiar to some industry watchers. Astute fans might recall that a Toshiba-backed, but now-defunct Japanese company called Manga Novel tried to pull off something similar. While it had the support of Hakusensha and a few other publishers, it never quite gathered enough critical mass to succeed over the long haul.
This might also sound familiar for another reason. A few months back, a letter, allegedly from someone at Manga Helpers to VIZ Media, as well as a business plan proposal was leaked to the blogosphere, and was followed by an official rebuttal from Manga Helpers. Since then, Manga Helpers has been largely silent on this front, until now.
While their initial Open Manga announcement was long on aspirations and a little short on actual details including a firm release date, (a point I called them on, via Twitter), the Manga Helpers/Open Manga crew was quick to respond to my skepticism via two tweets:
"definitely not vapor ware. Your skepticism is noted though, guess you'll just have to wait and see."
"let's put it this way - the mangahelpers framework was custom built from scratch. Is it unlikely it has evolved?"
Fair enough! I'm all for people who are willing to present solutions rather than just point fingers. I'll just have to leave it at "let's just wait and see," and hope that Open Manga will eventually be more open about their plans for their launch.
DIGITAL MANGA PUBLISHING REACHES OUT TO THE SCANLATION COMMUNITY
When the anti-piracy consortium of U.S. and Japanese manga publishers was announced last week, almost all of the major players in the Japanese manga business were on board. Many U.S. publishers were too, with a few notable exceptions, including Dark Horse and Digital Manga Publishing.
In the recent article posted on Publishers Weekly, DMP President and CEO Hikaru Sasahara mentioned that he doesn't see piracy as being the major problem in manga's falling fortunes; in fact, he sees scanlation as a positive force that brings new readers to manga. Instead, Sasahara attributes the industry's real problems to high licensing costs and restrictive conditions from Japanese licensors. On top of that, he points out that the U.S. manga market is much smaller than its Japanese counterpart, which rakes in about $5 billion per year, compared to the $140 million per year generated by manga sales in the U.S.
But Sasahara hasn't exactly been sitting still waiting for the world to change. If there's one thing you can say about Digital Manga Publishing, it's that they do their level best to live up to their name. While VIZ has launched several online manga magazine sites, Yaoi Press has been enjoying success with their Kindle e-book editions of their titles, TokyoPop has dipped their toes into cell phone manga, Yen Press announced plans to turn Yen Plus into an online-only magazine and NETComics has been offering online manga rental for years, probably no other U.S. manga publisher has been as aggressively investigating and investing in various avenues of digital distribution than DMP.
DMP currently offers a selection of their titles, including Vampire Hunter D by Hideyuki Kikuchi and Saiko Takaki, Harlequin manga romances and boys love titles like Same Cell Organism by Sumomo Yumeka via their online rental site, eManga.com, in eBook format for the Kindle and other e-readers, as well as a small selection as cell phone manga titles. But they're not stopping there. According to the post on The Yaoi Review, Sasahara and crew have been actively reaching out to fan scanlation groups with a project and proposal:
DMP is working on a new 'secret' project for publishing more manga faster and cheaper than it is now. It would be via a digital format and they are looking to hire scanlators to help with this. Essentially, scanlators would be doing what they do now except there is the possibility of getting paid based on the sales of said manga titles they worked on. They also get to have their name on everything they translate and retain certain rights to the work they do.
Sasahara went on to confirm that DMP's intentions are to launch a "breakthrough project (that) could bring in 100's of manga titles from Japan without going through conventional licensing constraints."
And what exactly does he mean by "conventional licensing constraints?" Here's the nitty gritty, as explained by Yaoi Review's Jennifer LeBlanc:
In a nutshell, when a title is licensed the publisher has to pay a minimum guarantee or advanced royalty upfront upon signing a publishing contract. He stated this can range from $2000 to $5000 per title and volume. After signing the contract, the book still requires translating, lettering and distribution (among other things) before arriving on actual book shelves. Mr. Sasahara states this process can take anywhere from eight to twelve months.
The problem here being that their initial advanced royalty has already been paid, tying up their capital for months before they can start to generate any revenue to cover the upfront fee, translating/lettering expenses as well as distribution costs. It is only after all of this that they could start to make an actual profit assuming all of those costs are covered by sales of said title.
Sasahara goes on to say that the upfront fee is not refundable so if sales are bad, they lose money and this actually happens quite a bit due to the current economic climate. This is why they have to be careful with what they now license and "can't gamble on any title that [they] can't be sure of" and 'the titles are very much bottlenecked". He feels with their new "breakthrough concept" that they will be able to put out a higher concentration of titles at a lesser cost but he is reluctant to discuss this concept further at this time.
Tantalizing, no? While more details about how this "breakthrough project" would actually work, compensation-wise, for participating scanlators were not entirely spelled out, several fans from the boys love manga and scanlation communities were not entirely sold on the idea.
Some fans were intrigued and supportive, while others were offended at the thought that they would be asked to work "on spec," with only the promise of compensation after the title they worked was completed and generated sales. Others were bothered by the notion that they'd have to work on set deadlines or have to translate titles that they're not personally passionate about.
The reactions on this post are long and sometimes passionate, so I'll leave it to you to browse the comments. Take a deep breath and grab a drink before you do, because at 85 comments and growing, it's a very long read.
UPDATE: Sasahara responded to some of the concerns raised by the scanlation community in a follow-up post on The Yaoi Review. He clarified DMP's position by explaining that the translators wouldn't be the only parties who wouldn't be paid upfront -- this risk would also be shared by the U.S. publisher, the manga creators and the Japanese publishers/licensors of manga titles that would be published this way. Read his reply, and some of the subsequent comments from Yaoi Review readers to see how this dialogue is being played out online.
MEANWHILE, HERE'S WHAT VIZ, VERTICAL, DARK HORSE AND YEN PRESS HAD TO SAY
In her June 14 article titled "Down, but Not Out: Manga Holds On in a Tough Market," Publishers Weekly reporter Kai-Ming Cha chased down reactions and comments from some of the heads of some major U.S. publishers. Here's a choice selection of comments from the article:
"Our fundamental stance is that scanlations are hurting our industry, not just North American localization but the global manga industry. No one can read what direction this market is moving in. We've gone through one tremendous cycle. Anyone with historical perspective on this knows that the manga market is better off now than we were five years ago. We're far from moribund." - Alvin Lu, Vice President, book publishing, at VIZ Media
"I don't think scanlations can account for such a precipitous drop [in manga sales]." - Michael Martens, Vice President, New Business Development at Dark Horse
"We've noticed that when [Tezuka's] Black Jack was on the aggregator site, our numbers have taken a bit of a dip." Conversely, when the aggregator has removed the books (after numerous requests from the publisher) "the numbers go back up." - Ed Chavez, Marketing Director, at Vertical
The article also included an observation from Kurt Hassler, publisher at Yen Press that when Yen Press titles were removed from some major scanlation sites, sales went up for those same titles. "It's quite a coincidence," Hassler said.
It's probably no coincidence that there's lately been a lot of change simmering and emotions boiling over on this topic, and that's not likely to change anytime soon. It remains to be seen if last week's announcement will lead more publishers, comics creators, manga readers and scanlation communities to make even more changes in the way they run things today, but odds are good that they will. The only questions are how, when, and will it really make a difference?
As usual, your comments are welcome below!
Image credits: © Digital Manga Publishing, © Open Manga / Manga Helpers, © VIZ Media, © Sumomo Yumetaka, © Hideyuki Kikuchi / Saiko Takaki, © Tezuka Productions