Manga Answerman - Why Don't More Manga Publishers Use Kickstarter?

by Deb Aoki,

Why don't more manga publishers use Kickstarter to raise funds to publish manga?

It's certainly true that Kickstarter has been a major force in comics publishing in the past few years. There are independent publishers like Iron Circus Comics that have run some very successful campaigns, earning thousands of dollars and many times over their original asking amount for their fundraising campaigns.

But there are several key differences between an individual comics creator or an indie publisher in N. America asking for money to publish works that they have created or have direct relationships with the comics creators, and a manga publisher in N. America who is licensing works originally published in Japan from a Japanese publisher and/or creator.

The problems are largely legal and logistical in nature, and some of it is based on the difference between what it means to be a “trade publisher” (e.g. a publishing company that is of a certain size and scale, has employees and a catalog of titles that they publish and distribute to comics shops and bookstores) and independent publishers or micro-presses, who may be just one individual running everything.

A trade publisher and a Kickstarter campaign are both are vehicles for providing the necessary funds to publish a book. However, there are some fundamental differences between them regarding risk, scale, and commitment.

The key difference is that a trade publisher assumes all the financial risk of publishing a book. It begins investing money in a project months or (more frequently) years before publication, paying creators, licensors, vendors (such as translators and letterers), staff, etc. If the book doesn't sell well, or if it doesn't come out at all, the publisher takes the loss.

With a Kickstarter campaign, the financial risk is assumed by the readers, or backers. Most of the time that risk is low, but if something does go wrong and a project isn't executed, or is executed in an unsatisfying manner, the backer takes the loss. This means as a backer of a comics Kickstarter, you accept the risk that the promised book and/or rewards might never be delivered and the money that you sent to them will likely not be refunded either. This is why most Kickstarters have a “Risks and Challenges” section on their fundraising page, so you, the person funding the project are investing money and understanding the factors that might impact the success (or failure) of the project.

A trade publisher running a Kickstarter campaign crosses that line of financial responsibility by shifting the risk onto the readers, and that can get into tricky territory.

Kickstarter seems to work best when it's set up to publish one-off projects happening on a defined timeline that are then shipped to individual backers. But if you're dealing with multiple projects releasing in different runs that need to be supplied to multiple vendors and distributors on an ongoing basis over an extended period of time, Kickstarter is not really set up for that. So for example, Kickstarters for multi-volume manga series are much trickier to raise funds and deliver the finished books, since it's not just one book being published, but many, and possibly many delivered over a longer period of time.

There are certainly examples of manga projects that were funded by Kickstarter – for example, some of the Osamu Tezuka manga titles published by Digital Manga Publishing. At first, this arrangement seemed to work out fine, as the promised books were published and the various gifts were distributed within a reasonable amount of time after the successful crowdfunding campaign. These early Kickstarter efforts offered the added benefit of publicizing lesser-known Tezuka titles like Barbara to readers who might be most interested in seeing it published in print format.

But if you've followed the saga of Digital Manga and their Kickstarter campaigns, you might have noticed that the time between the end of their fundraising campaigns and the actual delivery of the promised books to readers have gotten longer and longer, and the complaints from backers are getting louder and louder. I'm sure DMP is trying their best to fulfill their Kickstarter commitments, but it's definitely not helping their case if they plan on launching more campaigns in the future.

In a worst case scenario, there have been examples of Kickstarter campaigns that get successfully funded, but for various reasons, the books never get printed or delivered, and the money sent to the Kickstarter campaign are simply lost, with a shrug that funding a Kickstarter doesn't necessarily mean you'll get what you paid for. (See Kansai Club's failed campaign for The Crater by Osamu Tezuka.)

Micro publishers can take a hit to their reputation for not delivering on a Kickstarter – In the case of Kansai Club, they simply aren't in business anymore. But for a larger publishing company or trade publisher, that kind of failure is not just embarrassing, it speaks volumes to the financial stability and integrity of the company. This can have a long-lasting negative impact on their reputation with business and publishing partners in Japan and the rest of the world.

This is why the given wisdom in the business is that if a trade publisher is either unwilling or unable to assume full financial responsibility from the start, then it shouldn't be publishing that book.

When readers ask North American manga publishers why they don't do more Kickstarter campaigns, they're basically asking why they're not publishing a particular title they want. “If we give you the money to publish this, will that help?” The answer is, well, no. There are many reasons beyond just money (or lack therof) behind why a manga hasn't been licensed for publication: the rights may not be available, there may be legal or business issues in play, maybe the creator doesn't want to work with that publisher, or vice versa. There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes that necessarily can't be made public to readers.

Another reason why Kickstarters are a no-go for many North American manga publishers is simply a matter of respecting the manga creators. When a small publisher uses Kickstarter to publish ALL of their books, then it's treating all of its books equally, and operating on a single business model for all of their books.

But a trade publisher that directly invests and publishes some books and crowd-funds other books in their catalog ends up creating a two-tier business model within its own business. For manga publishers in particular, it would be like going to Manga Creator A and saying "We really believe in your work, so we'd like to offer you an advance and the commitment of our resources to releasing your book," and saying to Manga Creator B "We're not really sure about your work, so we'd like to try crowd-funding it, and if the response is positive then we can do it." Some creators may be fine with that, but for others it could be an insulting message to receive.

So it's important to keep in mind: while Kickstarter might be a viable solution in some cases, publishing manga is not just a matter of money, and often there's much, much more going on behind the scenes that a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign simply can't solve for.


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Deb Aoki was the founding editor for About.com 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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