The Digital Manga Guild, an experiment in fan translation created by Digital Manga Publishing, launched yesterday with its first manga, Tired of Waiting for Love, which is available online only at Digital's eManga.com website.
Digital's strategy is to get a lot of manga onto the market quickly by using nonprofessional translators, editors, and letterers who don't get paid up front but get a 12% cut of profits once the books start selling; Digital and the Japanese licensor also wait for their share until the profits start rolling in. Digital CEO Hikaru Sasahara says that one thing keeping manga off the U.S. market is the high initial costs, both the license fee paid to the Japanese licensor and the cost of translation and other prep. By shifting those costs to the end of the process, rather than the beginning, he hopes to be able to vastly increase the number of books brought over here: The DMG plans to publish 50 to 100 books per month, all digitally on the eManga site and, eventually, via Kindle, Nook, and other channels.
This could be bad news for professional translators, editors, and letterers, especially in the manga field, but in fact the Digital Manga Guild is an idea that probably works better for yaoi manga than for other genres. The reason lies in the similarity of yaoi manga to romance novels, something that Sasahara has long been aware of (Digital also offers Harlequin manga at eManga.com). Like romance readers, yaoi fans are voracious readers who will read just about everything available. They have their favorite authors, and Digital is planning quite a few books by creators whose work has already been published in English, but they will also read a book by an unknown. When you read so many manga, getting a new story is more important than having a physical copy, and many readers may prefer digital to print because it gives them fresh stories without the clutter (and at a lower price). And most yaoi manga are one-shots, so Digital doesn't have to worry about maintaining consistency across a series, which makes it easier to have multiple books being translated by different teams at the same time.
Having so many avid fans also means that Digital can find people who do the work for love as much as money. I interviewed the translator, editor, and letterer of the first book, who goes by the pen name Kimiko Kotani. Although she is an experienced editor and manga reviewer, this is the first time she has actually worked on manga; she taught herself Japanese so she could home-school her daughter, who hopes to work in the manga industry when she grows up. And, Kimiko told me, her son was never interested in books until he got a copy of Ninja Baseball Kyuma. It's clear that the experience itself was very satisfying for Kotani, although she also hopes to get paid—she's putting the proceeds toward her daughter's college education.
Digital has always struck me as a publisher that communicates well with its readers and gives them what they like. Unlike other publishers, who may have several duds for every Naruto, Digital is pretty consistent; my impression, from the numbers I have seen, is that their books all sell in roughly the same numbers across their line. That makes a quantity-first venture like the DMG a good bet; searching for the big hit this way would be a lot riskier.
No discussion of this would be complete without mentioning scanlation. Fans have been translating, editing, and re-lettering manga for years for no money at all, simply because they like it. The DMG takes this a step further by legalizing it and paying all the parties involved. By commercializing the process, however, they are also changing who is in control; the manga is no longer free—readers must pay Digital to read it online—and Digital controls distribution, both where the manga is available and whether it is available at all. Digital also reviews the manga, ensuring better quality control. So it's sort of a mixed bag, and the results of this experiment may not apply to other genres or publishers. But it sure will be interesting to watch.