Yesterday manga publishers in Japan and the US announced a coalition to combat manga piracy. Thanks to aggregation sites like onemanga, scanlations (a portmanteau of scan and translations) have become the most flagrant form of piracy on the net since people were posting whole movies on youtube. These sites have every appearance of legitimacy, require no downloads or insider knowledge, and tend to be the top google search results for anyone casually searching for info on manga series. And they aren’t just fan-created translations either – many of the series that show up on these sites are scans of licened English books. Even Return to Labyrinth appeared on one of these sites several times (removed last I checked).
Digital piracy has become such a hot-button topic, and I’d rather not get into that debate here. A couple months ago, I posted an epic rant about how the manga industry is broken. Today, in much fewer words, I wanted to outline a suggestion for a better model.
It starts with creators releasing their work digitally with text kept on separate layer. Whether these digital editions are accessed via free ad-supported sites, subscription sites or by micro-transactions is up to the creator and their publishing partner, but in any case, they would be released on a global platform. Registered users can activate an “edit” mode and create their own personal dialog tracks in any language. These translation layers can be public or private. Public translations can be rated, ranked and commented on by any other registered user. In addition to translation tracks, users can add footnotes, post questions, or otherwise mark up the work with location-specific mouse-over commentary. These translations could be done by individuals or teams, pros or amateurs. They could even be done open-source with the translation a constant work-in-progress, like a Wikipedia entry. If publishers and creators approve, users could even charge for access to their layers, allowing the best-of-the-best to be compensated for their effort.
Creators wouldn’t have to forfeit all control either – in posting their work, they can opt to only offer authorized translations. Creators and publishers would also have admin powers to take down translations for obscenities or even, if the creators preferred it, fidelity (ie, a creator could chose whether or not users could totally redub a work, ala “What’s Up Tigerlilly?” or Robotech).
For readers who prefer a cheap hard copy to reading on screens, ever improving print on demand technology should satisfy most of the demand. Users could even create their own custom anthology magazines by subscribing to the series that they like with the translation track they prefer. How cool would that be?
Where does this leave licensors like Yen or Tokyopop? Well, if they can’t control access to the work (which is pretty much impossible at this point anyway), and they can’t control translation, that doesn’t leave them in a very fair position, does it? That’s sort of the point, and one of the things publishers don’t like to talk about in the scanlation debate. The truth is, localization doesn’t need a lot of overhead. The localization business is dying, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In this hypothetical reality, licensed publishers would need to focus first and foremost on being book publishers. What they can offer is a tactile/keepsake experience, a deeper relationship with their audience, and authority in translation. US publishers get an unfair rap in some circles for translation, but fair or not, authority is something that has to be earned. Maybe that authority comes in the form of a Fred Shodt translation, or copious footnotes by Carl Horn, or even by a flipped presentation and a Chip Kidd cover. If sales for a series don’t justify top-notch production and translation, then let digital and POD handle them. Licensed publishers can focus on mass-market and special editions (which is how things are trending anyway).
What I find most exciting about democratized localization is that anyone with the skills, initiative and passion can be a publisher. The late CMX caught a lot of flak for its ineffective marketing. In this hypothetical model, anyone who runs a fan site could become a publisher. By creating editorial content about a series, forming a partnership with translators and leading the discussion with the community, you are doing half the job of a publisher anyway. Since this is just idle dreaming, we’ll assume that the licensing side of things is as simple as becoming an Amazon affiliate.
Getting to a model like this from where we are right now will take time – it might even sound like a pipe dream—but in the long run, a model like this would be better for creators and readers alike. On a small scale, this is already being done by the brilliant Alex de Campi, whose serialized comic Valentine is available in 14 (and counting) languages and on any digital platform. Valentine isn’t as popular as Black Butler now, but if the project sells enough to stay afloat for a couple more years, maybe it will be. And by thinking globally and going platform agnostic from the get-go, de Campi will be in a much better position when that happens. In the meantime, I’m sure it’ll be baby steps for American and Japanese publishers, and companies like Apple and Amazon will find ways to take a disproportionate cut in the move to digital, but even if this is just a pipe dream, isn’t it better to talk about solutions than just argue back and forth about whether or not piracy hurts or helps or can be stopped?