On Friday Digital Manga Publishing launched their second Kickstarter – a crowd-souring website that takes monetary pledges towards a goal. While DMP’s first project was to fund Osamu Tezuka’s Swallowing the Earth back for a second printing, this time they’re collecting pledges to go towards licensing and publishing a new Tezuka title – Barbara.
“Wandering the packed tunnels of Shinjuku Station, famous author Yosuke Mikura makes a strange discovery: a seemingly homeless drunk woman who can quote French poetry. Her name is Barbara. He takes her home for a bath and a drink, and before long Barbara has made herself into Mikura’s shadow, saving him from egotistical delusions and jealous enemies. But just as Mikura is no saint, Barbara is no benevolent guardian angel, and Mikura grows obsessed with discovering her secrets, tangling with thugs, sadists, magical curses and mythical beings – all the while wondering whether he himself is still sane.”
In only two days the company has received pledges totalling more than the $6500 they were asking for. Their press release states that additional rewards (extras for those who pledge more than the $25 cost of the book) will be released throughout the month leading up to the date they’ll be closing the drive and collecting the money (February 13th).
While those who pledge $25+ in this drive have been guaranteed copies of the book once it’s complete – scheduled for sometime in July 2012 – Digital Manga’s Ben Applegate has stated that copies will also be printed and distributed to bookstores as well. I’m grateful for this as it allows me to keep supporting my local businesses and avoid the $20+ I’d very likely end up paying just for the shipping of a single book to Canada through their service (which I’ve now learned is considered overseas? Choose a better word, USPS!). It also means those new to Tezuka or manga, or those curious but not willing to buy blindly, can still have a chance to flip through and make an informed decision. There’s no word on what size this print run will be though and it’s questionable how available this title will be when they need to seek outside funding from consumers just to finance it initially.
The last time Digital Manga used a Kickstarter drive to fund their operations I was skeptical and even after the first’s success, I still am. I’m thrilled to see another older title get a shot at English publication, let there be no question of that. But that Digital Manga is again using a system like Kickstarter – typically used by individuals or small groups without financial backers or partners that companies have – still just doesn’t sit right with me. While I shared my initial thoughts back in November, this second project prompted elaboration as I continue to try and pinpoint what this kind of move means to me and other manga readers.
Note: The thoughts and opinions expressed in this editorial are based on Digital Manga’s use of Kickstarter and not other projects utilizing the website.
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.
There’s a difference between empowering a consumer and passing off the responsibility to them.
It bothers me that DMP’s kickstarter expects a big blind buy by consumers. For some, this is okay. Maybe it’s faith of a creator’s previous work or simply artwork or a story that really strikes them. Ordering online is a blind buy in many respects already but usually previews, reviews and advertising play a large role in the decision to buy. For something like Barbara there’s certainly faith in Osamu Tezuka – his reputation, his previous works. But will you like this one? Do you have any way of knowing unless you’ve read it already via alternative means?
This is a pre-order process you cannot back out of. Typically with pre-orders you wouldn’t pay until your book is shipped or has arrived for you. You don’t give your money until you know you have a product in exchange. Kickstarter is designed to not have the pledges paid out until their goal is met, but even then the money is paid out on a promise. Digital Manga has even said in the case of Barbara, the title hasn’t even been licensed by them yet! That’s a tricky enough process to nail down in itself, let alone any production snags along the way. Pre-orders to me are about companies and retailers gauging the interest in a title and to stock accordingly. They’re a way for readers to feel confident they’ve secured themselves a copy and one they only pay out to when that confidence is rewarded come release-day, a security I don’t see this Kickstarter providing.
I believe a company holds the key responsibility for marketing, distributing and promoting their own product. It not only defines their role traditionally but also defines a great bulk of their purpose. Of course in this age of internet and social media, word of mouth is going to play a role but a company shouldn’t expect this to be the entire push process. It’s the companies’ job to determine interest, to fund their work and to put it out there. It’s readers responsibilities to then support it and the companies further responsibility to shoulder the results. This is what they use going forward – to know what to publish, what to decide against and how much to do. They have a vast library of previous titles at their disposal for example and financing. They’re a business and these are just some of the resources that further define them as such.
Companies traditionally take chances, put the work in, make a solid product and then give it to the customers, reaping the benefits of their hopeful successes. Digital Manga is watching as it’s consumers do the initial legwork, and then rewarding ‘us’ for our work – if we worked hard enough anyway.
What happens if the pledge numbers are reached (as they have been by this morning), and then the book doesn’t happen? License issues, printing problems, cut-backs, push-backs, cost fluctuations – who knows. Will everyone get their money back? What about those bonus rewards? Null, void? Is there any security you’ll be re-compensated if the promise isn’t met? I personally have faith Digital Manga will publish what they say they will eventually, but I’ve also been buying their books for almost a decade. Where’s the assurance for others? Kickstarter itself offers no assurance to individuals who pledge should a project owner for any reason not deliver. I wouldn’t expect them too either as the platform, not a partner. If this project hits the worst case scenario, where are we at?
Seeing so many pledgers in such a short period of time is promising. It’s great seeing eager fans come out and support the manga they want to see. Even so, the number of backers is still individually quite small – currently under 200. This makes the average pledge per person very high, much more than the same number of supporters would be giving to Digital Manga if they were buying the books off the shelf. We can assume this small pool of readers were buyers before but it makes me curious about past sales numbers. Actual numbers are usually a mystery with manga but with such little faith in a positive return for this work if done traditionally, it really makes me want to know how Tezuka’s works turned out previously for them. They seem to do well for Vertical, who pushes and promotes their works extensively, but what about Digital Manga? How did Swallowing the Earth do in its initial run?
It kills me that I feel so troubled over supporting manga in print, one of my greatest passions to see continue, but I can’t help but feel used. I feel like our love for manga is being taken for granted. Taken for granted we’ll do not only do the fund-raising but the marketing now as well. Not to mention the cheap crowd-sourcing already under way with Digital Manga Guild – it has its own barrel of pros and cons. This is different from community hyping – this is crowd-sourcing that lets a company sit safely on the sidelines while we shoulder the burden. It leaves those desperate to support left with nothing if others can’t or won’t step in to support something on blind faith. No one loses here but the reader, teased with a title they may never see…
I’m not entirely against a process like this. I do believe companies will need more consumer support to take risks on titles as the market continues to fluctuate. I love they say their backers may even get some input into things like the graphic design and access to extras like posters and t-shirts. I do believe, however, that a company like Digital Manga needs to still make the initial steps themselves. License a title. Ensure to us the product will actually be there first, in at least some capacity. Don’t tease us. Don’t make us shoulder the guilt that we can’t finance your company getting a title in the first place. If it’s an instance where it’s a multi-volume series and sales dip so much you can’t publish anymore, it’s alright. We understand. We’re sad but we know you at least tried. But right out the gate with a volume one or one-shot? That’s your train to get started. Get it for us and we will get on board.
Why not license and publish the book digitally first? Give us a way to preview it. Let us pay the digital amount to read the whole thing. If we want a print copy, go for print on demand or a system like Kickstarter. I think this where the method is appropriate. It shouldn’t be all or nothing. It’s allowing collectors a premium service, not denying them altogether if others aren’t able or willing to be as zealous.
I like that Digital Manga’s Kickstarter is working because I want to read this title. I will very likely buy a copy of this book when it’s released and available for me, when I’ve had a chance to flip through it, read reviews on it, learn about it, form my own opinion and then support it with an eager buy like I do all the other titles on my shelves. I still don’t feel this use of Kickstarter is the right way to go for publishing books like Digital Manga is, straight from the gate and with a license not evenly firmly in hand. It offers a great opportunity but at questionable cost. While for me as someone living ‘overseas’ , the almost 50% additional final shipping cost is painful enough, but I feel the price truly most harmful is the cost of faith in Digital Manga’s own independent abilities.