June 21, 2018

The proof is in the printing

A while back on the ANN website, Justin Sevakis asked, "Why Does Manga [printed in the U.S.] Turn Yellow?" That question raises the obvious antithesis: Why do Japanese tankoubon (manga published in perfect bound format) and paperbacks age so well?

A "light novel" (novella) I purchased back in 1989 for 360 yen ($3.25) has grayed and faded a bit but the paper remains pliable and the spine hasn't lost a bit of flexibility. Manga and paperbacks I ordered from Japan over a decade ago remain in near mint condition.

Despite a consignment system and resale price maintenance laws, paperbacks in Japan often cost much less than mass market paperbacks in the U.S. The Chihayafuru tankoubon I recently purchased are 429 yen each. Less than four dollars at the current exchange rate.

A 350 page short story collection by Fuyumi Ono is priced at 637 yen. That's about $5.75. The paper, full-color dust cover, and binding are comparable to the higher-grade "trade paperback" category. So what accounts for these differences in quality and cost? Shouldn't English-language publishers be able to leverage enormous economies of scale?

To start with, Japanese publishers don't dole out advances. Instead, they pay up-front at the time of the print run. Japanese publishers were essentially printing-on-demand before POD became a thing (though short print runs also mean that books can go out of print pretty fast).

According to Tetsuro Daiki, general manager of legal and licensing at Shogakukan (a major publisher), "The full sum [of royalties] is paid one month after the release of a book." And all those royalties go straight to the writer.

Publishing contracts in Japan are so standard that agents are rarely used (except when licensing foreign translations). This is in large part because the writer retains subsidiary rights by default. In the land of the doujinshi, Japanese publishers know that if you love something, you set it (sort of) free.

To be sure, when negotiating subsidiary rights, the publisher typically steps in as the agent, often with a seat on the "production committee." Again, as Tetsuro Daiki explains, "the authors as well as Shogakukan stand side by side in the contract negotiations." He believes, of course, this is for the best.

If authors try to keep all the [rights] to themselves and regard publishers as enemies, they [have] to confront all the odds single-handedly, leading to negligence of their essential creative activities. It is better if the authors devote themselves to writing, painting and creating new works, leaving business to publishers. This is the choice of the majority of authors in Japan.

The upshot is that publishers like Shogakukan can make available to their authors media formats (including manga, anime, periodicals, video games, television and theatrical adaptations, and even radio dramas on CD) rarely if ever offered to mid-listers in the English-speaking market.

For example, the Bakuman manga series (Shueisha) by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata has been adapted to an anime series (NHK Educational television), video game (Bandai), novel (Shueisha), and a live-action film (Toho). The extensive cross-ownership inherent in the production committee system results in extensive cross-promotion and pooled risks.

Which is all well and good. But as bestselling manga artist Shuho Sato explains in Manga Poverty, his autobiographical exposé of publishing industry finances in Japan, the "average" mangaka can still spend years in the red and never earn enough to cover his out-of-pocket expenses.

The market for print magazines in Japan has contracted sharply over the past decade. Publishers regularly lose money on first serialization rights. Reading the writing on the wall, when Shuho Sato renegotiated with Shogakukan, he transferred the secondary rights to his own company.

Shuho Sato's story ends with him adopting a hybrid approach. Shogakukan prints and sells the paper product while he publishes electronically through his website and shares that platform with other mangaka. After all, he asks,

If you truly believe that [authors] should feel indebted to publishers for making [their books] sell, then doesn't it also make it the publisher's fault if they don't sell?

One of Sato's more interesting revelations is how much it costs to produce a perfect bound book in volume. He secured from an industry source a quote of 150 yen per copy on a print run of 50,000 units that included a 10 percent royalty based on a list price of 500 yen. (Remember that Japanese publishers pay out royalties at the time of the print run.)

Subtract the royalty payment and the unit cost falls under a dollar. This again raises questions about the costs of manufacturing perfect bound books on this side of the Pacific and what exactly all the "overhead" is paying for.

A safe prediction is that hybrid or self-publishing will become the predominant economic model for mid-list writers and artists capable of producing all their own IP by the sweat of their own brows. The future of "traditional" publishing may well be a return to its roots primarily as printers.

Related posts

The publishing industry in Japan
The actual value of the written word

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Comments:

# posted by Anonymous ソウル
Didn't know about this, interesting
7/01/2018 12:23 AM