Over the last year, there's been a rash of Kickstarter projects to fund manga licenses in the US and produce an original anime in Japan. It's a great thing -- companies get the financial assurance that their project, and fans get to have a direct involvement in actualizing the things they want.
What we're in the midst of is a fundamental change of the industry and a new way for companies to survive and thrive.
Follow me after the jump where we'll detail just what Kickstarter means for the industry, how that will affect what projects we see in the future, and how you can be involved with the whole process.
Kickstarter is a service that allows a person or company to seek funding for a specific project from the general public. The company sets a goal, a timeframe in which they can raise the money, and offer different levels at which people can contribute, frequently in exchange for the product and Kickstarter-exclusive goods as thanks. The appeal, as stated earlier, is that the company guarantees the basic project is funded before they even start on the work, and they aren't owing a debt to a financier -- they have essentially pre-sold the project to completion.
What this means is that a smaller company can now take a risk on a project. People like DMP, Vertical, and Fantagraphics can offer to publish an obscure but worthwhile title, provided people are actually asking for it. It allows for them to pursue a passion project without hurting their bottom line. For the truly small outfits -- who operate on one title at a time -- they can ensure their continued survival by generating all the funding they need to do their work.
This means that all of the books that they sell post-Kickstarter are big profit-makers, presuming they covered all the licensing and translation costs in the initial fundraising process. Translation, after all, is what eats up most of the budget on a new published work. That's why Yen Press can print money with its OEL titles.
At the same time, this means the company must be extremely active online, and have a good rapport with their fans in order to mobilize them to buy these not-yet-funded titles. As much as it pains me to write this, they must have a sound "social media strategy." They need to convince people that this product is worth shelling out $10, $20, or even $50 for. Somehow, this is a great bargain and absolutely worth your money. It's not too different from the role of fundraiser in a political campaign: you have to convince people that your product (the candidate) is worth their money and vote. This may be a new position that rises up at some companies if they put the majority of their work in the fans' hands.
The last big upside of Kickstarter is that new companies can form that serve specific niches inside of an already niche industry. For the fans of light novels, or avant-garde manga, companies could conceivably crop up and serve those niches existing solely through Kickstarter funding. It could lead to a boom of manga that has been unseen since the late 90s and early 2000s, when the Japan subculture industry really gained steam in America.
The biggest concern in all this, though, is exhausting demand for these products. You, as a consumer, have limited funds available to give to the anime and manga industry. You may give to a Kickstarter here and there, but largely you order titles from Right Stuf and Amazon, or pick them up at Barnes and Noble, for instant gratification. That will be hard to do if, in order to see the titles you really want, all your money is tied up in future promises for the first volume of six different series all to be released at indeterminite times in the future.
It'd be a hard life to live.
In the current state of things, we see a Kickstarter appear every three or four months, and successfully generate funding to release a single-volume or short-run title. There's a big, concerted push behind it. Once it's funded, everyone gets a pat on the back, and we all move on. If the demand were constant for funds, I believe that fans would burn out, because the same people are being tapped constantly for project after project. The current state of the industry is not large enough to introduce substantial amounts of fresh blood in each project. In order for that to happen, the manga industry would have to approach the size of the comics industry in the US, which we all know is impossible at this point in time.
From my standpoint, the most realistic thing I forsee happening is this: Kickstarter allows for a handful of new companies to bankroll a few projects to keep themselves in business for two or three years. Maybe a title takes off and is a big hit, allowing them to expand and start operating like a traditional company. They'll continue to lean on Kickstarter, but will start seeking more stable means of licensing and producing. It can't be a permanent crutch for a company, but can provide the new ones with a large booster shot. And to all the established companies, I say this: take a shot with something. Test the waters with your customers. Get some ideas for what they want to read, maybe even be so bold as to offer some suggestions. If the response rate suggests that you can fund the title -- maybe even only 80% of the way -- take a shot on it. You'll add something new and unexpected to the pool of available works, and you'll make some people really happy.
For you, the fan: if you really want to see the industry survive and grow, take a long, hard look at a title when it's offered up for a Kickstarter project. People are putting their necks out on this one, so if you think you'll enjoy the title, put your money down. I can guarantee you that $10 or $20 you're considering spending won't hurt you in the long run, and consider it a gamble. Not just on your enjoyment, but on the industry as a whole.
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