The artist behind Blackjack ni Yoroshiku ("Say Hello to Blackjack") raked in 500,000 yen from the sale of online manga direct from his website in the month of January- and at 10 to 30 yen a chapter, no less. When you take into account the fact that these comics have already been published in Big Comic Spirits magazine, it seems like a pretty sweet deal- draw it once, sell it twice! Apparently, despite publisher Shogakukan holding the rights to publish his manga first, Satou still owns the rights to his work, so he can do whatever he wants with it after it appears in Big Comic Spirits...or can he?
Read more after the jump.
According to Canned Dogs, Satou stated that he doesn't expect to publish any more manga in traditional venues in the future- presumably because he doubts that manga anthologies will give him new contracts, now that they know he'll be selling his back catalog himself. Even if Satou technically has the rights to do whatever he wants with Say Hello to Blackjack and other titles, selling the series online for a pittance could obviously affect tankouban sales, and the (relatively) lucrative tankouban market has been keeping the industry afloat. Lately, the magazine divisions of many Japanese publishers have been basically hemorrhaging money.
Furthermore, Satou has not only been a very vocal critic of the entire manga industry, but has publicly lamented that it's hard to even get by on what he makes off of his manga. Making 500,000 yen for previously published work may seem like a sweet deal, but it's nowhere near enough to cover his expenses (including the 18 million yen that goes to his assistants annually), and if print publishers start giving him the cold shoulder like he predicts, he won't have any additional income to supplement it with. While the numbers he's putting up in internet sales are actually better than many would have dared predict, this is a risky move. Complicating matters further, whether or not the complaints that allegedly drove Satou away from print in the first place are legitimate seems to be entirely dependent on whom you ask.
Monetizing online comics has interested me ever since reading Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics back in the day- actually, I've been interested in it since reading Understanding Comics in the early '90s, but that dates me. While we haven't reached the dizzying heights of ubiquitous micro-payments that McCloud was hoping for, Satou's success does indicated that low-cost online comics are becoming viable- unfortunately, they seem to have become just viable enough to threaten publishers, without actually providing the money that artists need to live. Peachy.
The most successful online comics artists that I know of all give their comics away for free and make their money on the merchandise, which is more practical than what Satou is trying to do. However, taking up that business model basically means accepting the idea that the comic itself is a glorified commercial for the actual product, which is the T-shirts and mugs and such. That can be an awfully hard pill for an artist to swallow, not to mention the fact that not all comics lend themselves to merchandising. What do you think- is Shuuhou Satou a trailblazer on the right path, or is selling non-digitizable product the only way to go? I can tell you with complete and total confidence that I have no idea.