Kickstart my Tezuka?

Digital Manga is a small manga publisher that has explored a number of unconventional ways of doing business, including the Digital Manga Guild, an attempt at legal fan translation. Last week, they tried another new approach: A Kickstarter drive to fund a new edition of Osamu Tezuka's Swallowing the Earth.

Kickstarter is usually a venue where independent creators raise seed money for new projects. At first blush, that's not what Digital's pitch sounds like:

Unfortunately we printed too few copies, and the book is no longer available anywhere (except on eBay for exorbitant prices). Fans are constantly asking us to print more of the book, but simply put, we're a small company, this is an expensive book and we can't afford to put up the cash for another print run.

As Lissa Pattillo points out, this is a win-win situation for Digital and its readers: Digital gets the money for the reprint up front, and participants in the drive get a pretty generous package of rewards—in addition to the book, backers get their choice of other volumes of Digital manga, with the highest-level backers getting a pretty big box of books (with free shipping). On the other hand, she raises the question of whether this is a sound business plan, if Digital can't afford $4,000 for a reprint they are confident will make them money.

Actually, many of Digital's more unconventional moves have been about upfront costs. Under the traditional model, a manga publisher pays a licensing fee to the Japanese licensor and then pays translators, editors, letterers, and other freelancers when the manuscript is delivered, meaning they incur significant costs before the book is published. With the Digital Manga Guild, licensors waive the upfront fee, and all three parties—Digital, the licensor, and the freelancers—settle for a cut of the royalties once the book sells.

In 2009, Digital tried another pre-payment program, a Web-a-Thon, that allowed fans to move up the publication dates of some of their novels by committing the money in advance.

The bottom line is that Digital is a small publisher that specializes in a niche product with a small but committed audience, and they are looking for creative ways to serve that audience while minimizing their risk. You could argue that Kickstarter is not intended for that sort of thing, but Kickstarter has an approval process and they allowed the Digital project to go forward.

And here's the other bottom line: Just three days into the campaign, Digital's Kickstarter drive has already raised over half the needed amount.

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