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Making a Living in Manga: Part 5

5 Ideas for Fixing America's Manga-Making Economy

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© Svetlana Chmakova

WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN TO CREATE A VIABLE COMICS ECONOMY FOR N. AMERICAN CREATORS?

When we first started looking at the dysfunctional state of affairs for Western comics creators who work in a manga-influenced style in Making a Living in Manga Part 1, we outlined 9 reasons why the manga-making ecosystem in North America is broken. In Part 2, we examined the effects of the"Original English Language (OEL) manga label. In Part 3, we talked about the training gap, and how art school does/doesn't prepare aspiring artists for careers in comics. In Making a Living in Manga Part 4, we took a closer look at the publishing side of making manga, including self-publishing and crowd-sourcing via Kickstarter, publishers' preference for work-for-hire/graphic novel adaptations of novels vs. original work, and the job prospects for non-Japanese artists who go to Japan to draw comics in manga's motherland.

This all brings us to Part 5, the penultimate part of our Making a Living in Manga series, where we try to explain why we can't just make what works in Japan work in North America and try to come up some some ideas on how to take this sad song and make it better. We start off with five ideas, then in Part 6(!) we close things off with five more things to consider.

HOW DO YOU MAKE A LIVING IN MANGA? SHOW ME THE MONEY

As Canadian comics creator Svetlana Chmakova has mentioned before, there should be room for North American creators inspired by manga to tell uniquely North American stories. These stories are being created, but so few of them are published by mainstream comics/graphic novel publishers, and even less are purchased by manga/comics readers, compared to the amount of artists who want to make these kinds of comics. What would it take to provide viable (paying) opportunities for the many manga-inspired comics creators who are trying to make their mark in the business today?

Several artists have suggested that publishers should take more chances on original stories, and pay more (higher page rates and royalties) to comics creators so they can earn a decent wage. But if you were a publisher, trying to stay afloat in an industry that's going through tremendous changes thanks to the growth of digital publishing, would you pay untried artists to create work that may or may not sell, and may or may not be purchased by a readership who has already demonstrated that they are reluctant to buy original stories?

Sure, publishers have rolled the dice on long-shot gambles that have paid off in the past, but remember, there are still many bookstore remainder bins and clearance shelves at comic shops filled with dusty copies of "original English language manga" that can barely be given away. The original works that seem to do well have opted to not sell themselves as "original manga," but as just "comics." Many learned the hard way that manga readers weren't going to just throw money at 'manga' style stories. It wasn't so much a matter as these books weren't given a fair shot because they were dismissed as "fake" manga - a lot of them just weren't that good.

And it's not just a matter of label change — this means artists taking a hard look at their work and asking themselves, 'could any comics reader, (e.g. someone who doesn't usually read Japanese manga) "get" this story?' Your average North American comic book reader probably won't understand why your character has a large sweat drop next to their face when they're anxious or might not relate to a romance set in a Japanese high school. (I mean really. If you didn't go to school in Japan, why are you creating a romance set in a Japanese high school?)

As much as you might wish otherwise, the North American comics market is very different than the Japanese market, so you can't go by what works in Japan and hope that it'll fly here. Things just aren't that simple.

For creators, it's awfully easy to point fingers at publishers for not picking up more manga-inspired comics for publication. But the burden and the blame for the current state of affairs shouldn't be solely placed at publishers' feet. Like I said, we need several things at once:

  1. Creators who can consistently create high quality original content
  2. Publishers who are willing to publish and promote original content
  3. Retailers who are willing to stock and sell these books
  4. Readers who are willing to support and pay for original content.

Note the last part: PAY for original content. Sure, there are lots of webcomics you can read for free out there, and probably more comics you can download in a day than you could ever read in a lifetime. Just because you can read it for free doesn't mean it's not worth paying for. However, I must also add that creators need to step up and create high-quality comics content that are worth buying. But I'll get into that shortly.

The 'all content must be free' conundrum is not just a comics industry problem. This recent essay written by music intern at National Public Radio who confessed that she has tens of thousands of songs on her computer, but has only purchased 15 CDs in her lifetime got a lot of buzz. This was only amplified when a musician-turned-economics professor responded with a rebuttal posted at The Trichordist about how the music industry has changed due to this consumer mindset, and not for the better.

Forget the romantic notion about the starving artist, who simply draws for the love of creation and sharing what they create with anyone who wants to do it for free. Seriously. F*ck that. Artists deserve to get paid for what they do, and that includes the artists, writers, editors, graphic designers and everyone else who makes comics that you enjoy reading. Yes, it's fun to draw, but comics creators have car payments, college loans, rent to pay, and often kids to feed too. I don't think many comics creators expect to be filthy rich, but is it too much to ask to be able to make a career out of comics?

NEXT: Comparing comics sales in Japan and North America

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