Digital Manga Publishing is trying something new by opening up the license of a manga to the public for the first time, via the Kickstarter site. The Tezuka manga “Barbara” will be translated and printed in summer 2012 if they’re able to raise $6500 in a month’s time. Considering that $4800 dollars has been raised within 24 hours, it seems like the project is a go.
With so many discontinued series, unlicensed classics, and unhappy fans, this process could be the wave of the future. Or is it best left to a few special titles? In this post, I try and game out the pros and cons of “the Kickstarter system”.
The Current Licensing System
Currently, titles are licensed behind closed doors, using educated guesses, sales and marketing data, and fan and vendor feedback. What does this system offer.
1. Streamlined process – Or at least as streamlined as purchasing the rights from a number of companies can be. Departments that are charged with licensing communicate and reach deals in both companies’ interest. There’s no need to slow down the process to gauge fan interest directly. The fewer parties there are to the negotiations, the simpler everything is to sort out.
2. Allows for investment – Especially on the anime side of things, companies can form relationships, where US companies can invest in helping to fund or co-produce certain series in return for licensing rights. More common in the bubble days with titles like The Big O II, Kino’s Journey, and Samurai 7.
3. Simulcasting – For shows to be simulcast or released shortly after the Japanese manga edition, there’s simply no time to bring fans into the equation. A company has to act early if it wants timely rights. In this age of piracy, there’s simply not a month to spare.
4. Realism – Companies know what their budgets are, and what’s reasonable and what’s not. Fans have no need for facts.
What are problems with this system?
1. Struggling market – With Bandai leaving the US market in January and Media Blasters in trouble, it’s clear the anime and manga markets aren’t out of the woods yet. Countless companies have gone under because their estimations of what customers wanted to buy did not line up with what customers were willing to spend.
2. Lack of transparency – Why was a show not licensed? Was it the creator? The rights holders? Did the US company stupidly pass up a great series? Did the Japanese simply want too much money? We never know, so all fans can do is guess.
3. Expectation mismatch – Anime right now is in an awkward place where we’re seeing multiple models trying to make money off of shows. Some companies stream series online. Others release mass-market DVDs with dubs and subtitles. Others produce barebones box sets with only subtitles. Other companies still are releasing premium collector’s editions at outrageous prices. Many fans are unhappy with how their favorite series get treated. Is the market truly giving the most fans what they want in the right way?
4. Discontinued series – Sometimes a company gambles on a series, and that series fails. The series is discontinued part way, but not without getting a vocal fanbase along the way. In many cases, it seems it would be better for the companies or the fans had the series not been brought over at all. A way to finish discontinued series would be appreciated by many fans.
The Kickstarter System
Let’s consider the benefits of using a system like Kickstarter. A system of pre-orders to judge how many fans would actually buy a series would work as well.
1. Cuts down on guesswork – People will often say they will buy things, but when it comes down to it, goods may be unsold. This system lets a company know up front whether a license is a good idea or a bad idea. If Bandai had such a system for Haruhi Suzumiya’s release, they might not have produced as many copies that they did due to internet buzz.
2. Transparency – Why didn’t my series get licensed? Well, that’s because it was unable to raise more than $200 in a whole month. Both fans and companies can see exactly how much money a certain series will raise.
3. Die hard fans matter more – In the current licensing system, every person has one vote. A series has to have a certain amount of mass appeal to even be considered for a license. There’s also no way for a big fan to contribute more to a series – is he or she just supposed to by 10 or 20 copies of volume 1? Kickstarter would allow that fan to pay more for bonus content, and his or her extra contribution would allow titles that appeal to a smaller audience get a license.
4. Bypass retail – No need for stores or vendors to get involved and perhaps veto titles. Fans front the money, and can get exactly what they want. More controversial and niche titles can be licensed this way.
5. Reduced risk – Companies don’t have to take a chance on a title. They know whether or not the fans are there for it. Similarly, fans don’t have to worry about a title not getting published midway. The title is either brought over, or it isn’t. If the goal is not met, a fan is not charged any money.
Moving to a Kickstarter/preorder system could cause problems. Let’s consider these:
1. Slows the process down – It adds more time to the process of bringing a title over. There’s no sense in adding months’ delay to the licensing of a popular Shounen Jump title. If it’s a sure hit, there’s no need to delay the process.
2. Licensor participation – The property owner has to agree to the process, so even Kickstarter will not be 100% transparent. Even if the money is raised, if the licensor doesn’t agree to the process, the series won’t be licensed. Some artists and companies might not be too fond of the idea of their property being humiliated and unable to raise enough money for a license. Perhaps if more titles are licensed this way, it may become more popular an option.
3. Production problems – When pledging money towards a future goal, it’s always possible that the end product won’t meet your expectations. There’s a different kind of risk involved when not directly exchanging money for goods.
4. Long series and large costs – Barbara and Swallowing the Earth were only one volume, so paying ahead of time is no problem. But how would a kickstarter work for Kochikame? Would backers need to front $10 for each of the 176 volumes? Even with smaller series, though, there are issues about how much of a contribution is needed. Backers would need to pay for the whole series up front to avoid any series discontinuation.
5. Concentrated power – There’s always the risk that those with the most money would be able to have the most influence on which series are picked. Will those with limited budgets be able to meaningfully contribute and purchase titles licensed this way?
6. Market flooding – Once there’s too much to buy, sales suffer. Imagine all of the anime and manga series you ever wanted were kickstarted tomorrow. Which series do you pick to contribute to? Kickstarting would need to be used sparingly to prevent funds and interest from being spread too thinly between too many different projects.
7. Goodbye forever – A kickstarter failing to meet its goal would be the last hurrah for any hope of a given series being licensed. No company would take a risk on a series that couldn’t even raise enough money from its most dedicated fans. Even if the economy was bad, or it was a flooded market, any series that wasn’t successfully kickstarted would be consigned to the scrap heap.
Test Case: Garden of Sinners
First, a hat tip to Chris Kirby for this example. In February of last year, Aniplex released a $400 box set of the Garden of Sinners, a 7 movie series Blu-ray box set. Only 100 were offered for the US market, and they sold out very quickly. Since then, Garden of Sinners has only been made available to rent in standard definition on the PlayStation network. No plans for a reasonably priced DVD or Blu-ray box set have been announced.
In this situation, the die hard fans got a premium product, while casual fans or curious onlookers got nothing.
Imagine instead this project was Kickstarted, with variable price points:
$500 for the premium box set, plus some bonus content from ufotable
$400 for the premium box set
$200 for a barebones blu-ray box set
$100 for a DVD box set
This could have been used to gauge interest in the series and let Aniplex know whether the limited release was sufficient, or whether a wider release would have been successful. The most fervent fans could have subsidized the less fervent fans, and everyone would have received the product they were most interested in.
Currently, it seems the Kickstarter system is ideal for shorter, older series that have a die-hard fanbase, and have passed out of the “window” for usual licenses. Titles that most have all but given up hope for. If the money/pre-order goal is met, fans can have the series they’ve begged for, and if not, they’re no worse off than the status quo.
I’ve tried to think this through, but I have likely missed something. Please leave any additional thoughts in the comments.