Manga Answerman - Why Are American Manga Publishers So Coy About Licenses?

by Deb Aoki,

Just got back from Anime Expo, and I'm at San Diego Comic-Con as you read this, where I'll be doing more of the same: going to the manga publishers' panels and reporting on what I see and hear there. So with that in mind, here's a question that comes up a lot in convention panels that I thought I'd try to answer:

Why do publishers give such vague answers or say ‘no comment’ when I ask if they're planning on publishing [insert your favorite unlicensed manga series here]?

To be fair, I don't see the “Are you thinking of publishing [my favorite unlicensed manga]?” question as much as I used to. But just in case you're thinking of going up to the mic to ask this question at your next convention, or ask them on Twitter, here's why that's probably not a good idea.

For one thing, if it's about a title they haven't already announced, they simply can't answer that question, mostly for business-related reasons.

Why? Let's break it down:

It's not a done deal until the contract is signed.
It's generally bad form to announce a title until all the papers are signed, because until the licensing contract finalized, there's always the chance that things might be changed or fall through. Announcing or even hinting at a deal before everything is finalized can actually jeopardize the deal, and may even cause it to be cancelled.

Licensing manga is a competitive business
In the case of some highly sought-after titles, there may be several overseas publishers vying for the rights to publish a manga. Think of it like a game of publishing poker – if you're going after a title, you don't want to let other publishers know that you're interested in it, because that may increase the chances of other publishers putting in a competing, possibly higher bid.

It's better to set realistic expectations with fans
Even after an overseas publisher expresses interest in a manga title, it can take months, maybe YEARS for a manga to get licensed and final approval for publication. The reasons for the delays are too many to mention here, but can include things like not being able to get a timely response from the artist or rights holder, various pre-conditions set by the licensor that might be hard to meet, localization concerns, production issues, or not being able to find the original artwork.

When a publisher announces a manga title, they want to be able to say with confidence that it will be published and available to buy within several months, or at least within a year (generally speaking). If not, they know that fans will ask them “whatever happened to…?” constantly. This line of questioning from fans is not exactly unjustified – but whenever possible, most publishers try to avoid these situations and wait until things are pretty much confirmed before they make any announcements to share this information with readers.

You can, of course, express your interest in your favorite unlicensed manga or light novel – many publishers pay attention to requests and suggestions from readers that are posted on their Facebook page, or sent to them via email. Some even post reader surveys asking for suggestions. All I'm saying is you might want to think of another question if you're going up to the mike at a convention, because the answer to the “Are you thinking about licensing…” question will always be, “No comment.”

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Deb Aoki was the founding editor for Manga, and now writes about manga for Anime News Network and Publishers Weekly. She is also a comics creator/illustrator, and has been a life-long reader of manga (even before it was readily available in English). You can follow her on Twitter at @debaoki.

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