Digital's 'secret project': If you can't lick 'em, join 'em

Digital Manga Publishing mostly publishes yaoi manga, essentially Harlequin romances with two willowy men in the lead roles, although they do have a handful of other titles. Yaoi manga, also known as Boys Love (BL) or shounen-ai, are generally one-shots, rather than series; from what I have heard, their sales are modest but pretty consistent from one book to the next.

There are yaoi scanlation sites, but most of the big pirate sites leave BL alone, so it's not too surprising that Digital did not join the coalition announced last week to fight online manga piracy. Hikaru Sasahara, the president of Digital, told Publishers Weekly reporter Kai-Ming Cha that the problem wasn't piracy, it was the high price of licenses from Japan and the reluctance of the licensors to part with digital rights. And now he is thinking of attacking that problem.

Last week, the website The Yaoi Review caught word of a "secret project" and confirmed the details with Sasahara: The company would publish manga online only (at least at first) and have scanlators translate it. Translators would apparently not be paid up front but on the back end, based on sales. The problem with the current system, Sasahara explained, is that publishers must pay the Japanese licensor an advance of $2,000 to $5,000, but it takes about a year to get a book translated, lettered, printed, and distributed, during which time their money is tied up. This makes publishers reluctant to license any title that's not a sure bet. Sasahara's idea is to have scanlators do what they have been doing all along, but legally and with the possibility of getting cut of the sales, the idea being that a lower up-front investment minimizes the company's financial risk and allows it to publish a greater range of titles.

Commenters flocked to the original post to point out that working on spec can be a sucker's game. However, in a subsequent post Sasahara explained that under that plan, no one gets paid up front—the Japanese licensor, Digital itself, and the translator would all be paid a percentage of sales. "We are not looking for a cheap labor but looking for the people who have passion to read more manga titles and this venture may be the only way to make that happen," he said.

It's an interesting idea, and if they can get the Japanese publishers to go along, it might allow for the publication of more marginal titles. Digital is a small company and they have tried a few things in the past, such as asking fans to pre-order a book to speed up its release. Regardless of the merits of his latest idea (and it's a mixed bag, frankly), you have to give Sasahara for thinking outside the box. Japanese publishers have a reputation for being quite rigid when it comes to rights and digital publishing, so if he can pull this venture off, Sashara may trigger larger changes in the manga market.

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