On the heels of its last Kickstarter campaign, which will fund a reprint of Osamu Tezuka's Swallowing the Earth, Digital Manga inaugurated a new Kickstarter drive last week, this one dedicated to producing a print edition of another Tezuka manga Barbara.
Whether the book will actually be published is no longer in question — the campaign reached its goal last week. The question is whether this is how comics publishers should be doing business.
On the one hand, you can argue that Barbara is a book that would be difficult to publish in English by the traditional means. It is one of Tezuka's more outré books, with adult content that will make it hard to place in the usual channels. Here's the blurb:
Wandering the packed tunnels of Shinjuku Station, famous author Yosuke Mikura makes a strange discovery: a seemingly homeless drunk woman who can quote French poetry. Her name is Barbara. He takes her home for a bath and a drink, and before long Barbara has made herself into Mikura’s shadow, saving him from egotistical delusions and jealous enemies. But just as Mikura is no saint, Barbara is no benevolent guardian angel, and Mikura grows obsessed with discovering her secrets, tangling with thugs, sadists, magical curses and mythical beings – all the while wondering whether he himself is still sane.
At Manga Widget, Alex Hoffman argues that this is essentially the readers commissioning a book, as a patron might commission a painting from an artist. "Commissions are what works for microniche consumer materials," Hoffman argues, adding,
We are at a place in the anime and manga industry that is stressful for publishers, because one flop, like Bandai’s overproduction of the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya product, could lead to the failure of that company. DMP is readjusting its game plan to determine what markets will bear prior to taking the intial risk by asking consumers – something that no manga publisher has truly done before. This is a smart business move.
In the opposite corner, Lissa Pattillo of Kuriousity sees a number of problems with this approach. "There is a difference between empowering a consumer and passing off the responsibility to them," she argues. She is concerned that Digital is telling readers that if Barbara isn't published, it will be their fault, and at the same time, the company is asking people to pledge a lot of money sight unseen. On a more philosophical level, she sees Digital shirking the duty of a publisher:
I believe a company holds the key responsibility for marketing, distributing and promoting their own product. It not only defines their role traditionally but also defines a great bulk of their purpose. Of course in this age of internet and social media, word of mouth is going to play a role but a company shouldn’t expect this to be the entire push process. It’s the companies’ job to determine interest, to fund their work and to put it out there.
And then there is the question of what happens if something goes wrong. Traditional manga fall through all the time, and Digital will only get the license to Barbara if the fund-raiser succeeds (now a moot point).
Digital marketer Ben Applegate actually responds in comments to several of Lissa's points, including the license issue, and he says that they will likely post the first chapter at the Kickstarter page soon.
As Lissa says, the ideal solution would be to publish Barbara in digital format first, but the rights holders won't allow that, so this is the next best thing. In Digital's defense, they offered some pretty good deals for pledgers, including bundles of their print and digital books, so readers are getting a good deal, even before they get their copies of the book.
Here are a few more links, for those who are interested: Deb Aoki gives some background and asks readers to suggest what books they would like to see Kickstarted next; Johanna Draper Carlson shares her thoughts at Comics Worth Reading; and Lissa and Alex discuss the question directly, with Ed Sizemore and Johanna, in the latest Manga Out Loud podcast.