Some Thoughts on the Change in Publishing

Publishing is changing and the folks in media are screaming bloody murder (not that I blame them for doing so).  Spurred on by the success of Amazon’s Kindle and the iPad, things are moving a lot faster than they ever dreamed I suppose.  Just last month it was reported that Kindle Books sales over took the sales of hardcover books.  It sounds amazing at first glance until you think about how bulky and brick-like hard cover books are compared to the sleekness of the Kindle or the iPad, both in form and bookshelf space (or lack there of…).  Other than the changing form in which we consume printed media, something else is afoot.  There is a challenge to the foundation of traditional publishing itself.  I think we’ve all seen it, but for the most part denied it.  As self publishing becomes easier, the lack of authority rises.  I’ve talked about this before, but I think now I see two stark mirroring realities that can be best summed up as, “Anyone can publish almost anything they want.”  At first I thought “wow” and then this quickly turned into “oh no…”

I guess I’ll focus my thoughts on a subject I’m familiar with: manga.  Leaving aside the current legal controversies of scanlation, I’d rather think about the issues of “authority.”  The truth of the matter is anybody can do scanlation with the right software (or in some cases without).  When I speak of authority in scanlation, I mainly think about the project choices a group makes and whether the translation offered is any good.

Let’s tackle project choice first.  As a scanlator myself, I choose to work on projects strictly because I love the series or one-shot.  Nothing else will motivate me.  I would not translate or do image editing for money on something I didn’t like (incidentally, this is my general life’s philosophy).  For other groups ego or perhaps profit drive project choice.  Ego stroking may come from website or forum pages hits or from the grateful comments of pleased readers.  As for profits, lots of page views are neede.  These motivations lead scanlators to choose already licensed and popular series, smut, and porn.  Getting back to authority, choosing to scanlate something that’s already licensed and popular is a no-brainer.  The big publisher have done all the work already.  However, what scanlators offer that big publishers can’t is variety.  Book publishing is an expensive gamble, so publishers can’t afford to take on a series unless they believe that it’s going to be a hit.  In this sense, they spend a lot of time sifting through content and marketing data looking for sure fire winners.  In general what I’ve noticed is that if it’s popular in Japan and has an associated anime series it’s brought over to the US and becomes a hit in the US.  After that, once an artist is known, there’s a greater chance that other series the artist does will be licensed in the US.  Looking at the recent shake down in manga publishing, those publishing houses that selected wonderful, but unproven works are gone (CMX for example).  Even the publishing companies like Viz with hits like Bleach and Naruto are suffering on the whole, but as to why is not the discussion I want to have (though I think fatigue from 53 volumes of “Naruto”, no new monster-mega hit, and joblessness amongst teens and young adults due to the deep recession have a lot more to do with it than scanlation).  With financial pressure mounting, this leads profit seeking entities to narrow the selection down to a few money making series.  However, if you throw the profit motive out the window, love can take over.  By circumventing the whole money thing, scanlators can offer a greater selection of works and satisfy niche audiences.  This is great for consumers, but in the real world where it costs money to live, this ultimately doesn’t work.  That’s a strange thought — more choice will ultimately lead to no choice as free and commoditization work their magic.  We’re seeing this now as the big publishers begin their assault on scanlation.

The real question with this, though, in terms of authority, is who decides what is going to be popular?  Traditionally, the big publishers have narrowed down the list of possible works for customers to choose from.  But when you have people circumventing the publishers, customers have a larger pool of works to choose from.  This leaves me to ask, is a series like “Naruto” popular based on its own merit, or of the available pool of series is it one of  the best?  Would a series like “Naruto” be as popular if readers had more series to choose from?  Given that there are 6500+ known series that have been scanlated, I think scanlation has shown that Naruto is popular based on it’s own merits — in other words a hit is a hit and it’s just a matter of discovering it in the sea of other works.  But what of the authority of scanlation?  Has something that was a hit in scanlation been licensed and become a commercial hit?  The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether this is just a myth.  Again, I go back to thinking about hits like “Naruto” and “Bleach” which were first popular in Japan and were possibly helped more in the US by the widely watched fansubbed version of the anime series (I did watch the first 3-seasons of these series some 5 or 6 years ago before succumbing to fatigue).  What made the Japanese publishers choose to publish “Naruto” and “Bleach”?

Now onto the other aspect of “authority,” the translation itself.  Scanlators lack professional editors and quality control.  Nothing can ruin the manga reading experience like mangled English or a bad translation.  I will admit right here and now to making translation errors and seeing translation errors from other scanlation groups.  There’s a myth that scanlations are closer to the true Japanese than the licensed versions.  In some cases that’s not true.  I think, though, when talking about this a couple of distinctions have to be made.  There’s localization and self-censoring.  With respect to localization, there are some things that are untranslatable from Japanese into English. An example of this is the concept of the word “I.”  In Japanese there are different versions of “I” for young people and adults, male and female, and humble speech and honorific speech.  So in a localized version the person who writes the English adaptation will have to express the meaning in a way that is understandable to an American audiences or drop the Japanese meaning all together because it isn’t a recognized concept in English.  As for self-censoring, sometimes the Japanese versions are more racy than what’s considered appropriate for the intended audience of the translation.  I think in general, most people are upset about self-censorship and mistake this for translation errors or, in general, consider these kinds of translations “poor.”  In some cases this can lead to a poor translation because the content gets so mangled that it no longer makes sense.  This is a fault, though, of marketing for targeting the original content to the wrong audience.  In this sense, though, unless you actually know Japanese, you don’t know what you are getting in terms of a translation either from a scanlator or a foreign language license holder.  If that’s the case, then can the foreign language license holder state translation authority over a scanlation group?  Ultimately, the readers grant authority by agreeing on who the expert is.  Currently, translation authority belongs to the scanlators.  This is a problem for the big publishers because potential customers don’t perceive that the big publishers add value over scanlation.  Perhaps this is the biggest problem of all for the big publishers.  The question for the big publishers then becomes how to wrest authority from the the scanlators?  What are the scanlators providing that the publishers aren’t?

The biggest thing scanlators offer is a huge variety of free manga.  You can’t beat free, but you can make those folks who want to be legitimate paying customers so by offering cheaper online alternatives to paper books.   Variety can be matched by making scanlation legitimate by creating an exchange in which scanlators and the original artists get paid for their work because the work gets put behind an artist controlled and publisher regulated pay-wall. If I could collect a dollar per month from each person who reads my group’s work and share between the mangakas, me, and my volunteers, we’d all be doing pretty well — not rich mind you, but well fed and content.  In fact, I’d love nothing more than to do that.  It would solve my employment problem and give the original artists their proper dues.  But the big publishers are standing in the way of this because they are afraid of a system that they may not necessarily control to they extent they do now.  The publishers should really think of the new business model like it’s iTunes in which the big publishers new role is to host the infrastructure and allow the artists to sink or swim on their own merit.  The real fun then would be what happens to the world of scanlation once it becomes paying and legitimate.  I imagine at that point, there will be sea of translated manga that will eventually undergo consolidation after the market become too diluted to support decent wages — the result, though, will be a group new online publishing giants.  Hahaha!  gotta love capitalism :)!

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