Comics economics

Marc Bernabe has posted a short video of Japanese creator Shuho Sato discussing (with subtitles) why he chose to publish his comics online. That may not seem like much of a jump to American readers, but as Bernabe explains in the accompanying blog post, manga creators don't routinely include digital rights in their publishing contracts, so they can cut a deal for digital distribution that leaves the original publisher out of the loop. What this means is that publishers have little incentive to go digital.

Sato, the creator of Say Hello to Black Jack, blogged a bit last year about the economics of making manga, and Canned Dogs translated the posts here and here. When he started his first manga, Umizaru, Sato was paid 10,000 yen (about $119 at current rates) per page, and out of that, he had to pay for his assistants (over half his monthly take), plus a host of other expenses, with the result that he was losing money at a rate of 200,000 yen ($2,380) per month. His editors told him he would make that back when his story was published in book form, but they didn't guarantee that would ever happen. He now has a stronger contract and gets 35,000 yen (a little over $400) per page for Say Hello to Black Jack and 25,000 yen (almost $300) per page for Tokkou no shima.

That's an interesting contrast with Glenn Hauman's estimate of the cost of creating one page of a comic: $500, which he breaks down a little further:

Figure $100 for the writer, $150 for the penciller, $130 for the inker, $90 for the colorist, and $30 for the letterer. Those numbers go up and down depending on talent and publishers, but that's a nice round number for us to work with.

Sato does all those jobs, or he pays assistants out of his own pocket to do them, but he is getting considerably less per page. When a manga series is collected into bound volumes (tankoubon), the creator gets a royalty of anywhere from 4 percent to 10 percent, and that usually makes the difference between financial success and failure. Oddly, a publisher will pay a writer and an artist 10 percent each for a book but if a single creator does both jobs, they still only get 10 percent.

Sato got fed up with his publisher and set up a site where readers could pay to read his manga online. With his whole backlist up, he made 100,000 yen on the first day, and he took in 500,000 yen in January. This comes on top of his page rates and print royalties, but it is only a fraction of his expenses. Like everyone else, he will have to balance the added income with the possibility that people who read his work online won't buy the books, and in fact he set his online prices at about the level of used bookstores and manga cafes in order to divert some of that income stream his way. He's also working on a new self-published series that would go from web to print, a model that is increasingly common over here but still fairly unusual in Japan. And in March he launched a new site, MangaonWeb.com (in Japanese) that hosts the work of other creators. In short, Sato is going from railing against publishers to becoming one himself.

(ComicMix story was found via The Beat, which vouches for their numbers.)

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