April 2011

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2011.

Just thinking out loud here.

Back in the early 1930s, newspaper comic strips were hot. They were what sold newspapers. They were more firmly established than either film or radio. Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Lil’ Abner, Bringing Up Father…. There was something for everyone, and fierce competition kept quality high. Successful artists were well paid, and were even celebrities. It’s only natural that some people tried to turn that popularity to profit.

The comic book–that colorful, stapled pamphlet that evokes images of “greasy kids’ stuff”–was born from the desire to cash in on the popularity of comic strips. The first comic books were in fact collections of newspaper strips. The problem with that was those pesky royalties. Soon enough, it occurred to someone that it would be cheaper to use original content by unknowns than to pay royalties to established artists. The funnies were so popular, were such a vital part of mainstream American culture, that there were hundreds if not thousands of young artists just dying to break into the field. Pimple-faced kids like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. But landing a gig as a newspaper cartoonist was not easy. These kids would do anything to get published, and ethically-challenged entrepreneurs like Max Gaines were happy to take advantage of them. Comic book creators were horribly paid and had no rights over their work.

Even after comic books like Superman and Captain Marvel starting selling like hotcakes, working conditions for creators remained wretched. With circulations high, publishers could have improved pay and maybe even offered royalties to creators, but it was not in their DNA. Comic books, although they sold well in the 1940s and early 1950s, never achieved the social stature of newspaper strips. The greed and shortsightedness of the men on top guaranteed that comic books would remain greasy kids’ stuff for decades.

Some sixty years after the birth of the bastard child that was the comic book, Stuart Levy founded Mixx (later TokyoPop) in 1997 with one miraculous asset: the rights to publish Naoko Takeuchi’s manga Sailor Moon in English. It was the equivalent of the work-for-hire agreement Seigel and Shuster signed with National (later D.C.): an asset that would have seemed worthless to most people at the time, but which was in fact the goose that laid the golden eggs. I have no idea how Levy got the rights to Sailor Moon, but at the time, those rights would indeed have seemed worthless to most people in the entertainment media industry of the day. (I would have thought differently, but I wasn’t famous for my business acumen.)

Here’s an anecdote to give you a feel for what things were like in the day. Back in 1996, I spent a few days working as interpreter/consultant for Shogakukan Productions while they were in New York for some business meetings. Prior to one meeting with some smallish media company (I don’t remember the name), the ShoPro people mentioned their animation, Mizuiro Jidai, a reasonably successful girls’ anime which they had a dim hope of selling in the U.S.. I had a bit of a brainstorm. It occurred to me that the show could be framed as the content of letters from a Japanese girl to her American pen-pal. Each episode would start with a live-action sequence of the American girl finding a letter from Yuko in her mailbox (yeah, this was long before texting) and starting to read. The end of each episode would be another live-action sequence of the American girl sitting down to write a response to Yuko. I thought it was kind of clever, and, to my surprise, the ShoPro people thought so also. They agreed to let me pitch the idea. But they were sure it wouldn’t sell. I spent the better part of the night writing up the proposal, and the next day I pitched it to this media company whose name I can’t recall. There were some nibbles. They asked a lot of questions, and even offered suggestions. But then the V.P.–a woman, no less!–simply said, “But girls don’t watch cartoons.” End of pitch, end of discussion; on to more pressing matters. The ShoPro people shrugged it off. They were used to that sort of reaction in the U.S..

That was the American situation prior to Mixx and Sailor Moon. “Girls don’t watch cartoons.”

So you have to hand it to Stu Levy for seeing the potential in Sailor Moon. While the animation was starting to gain traction in Canada, American broadcasters hadn’t even tried. In 1995, they put it in some laughable crack-of-dawn slot, and let it die. Because, after all, “girls don’t watch cartoons,” right? Cartoon Network picked up the rights to the animation in 1998, ultimately resulting in success, but it was in that crucial time frame following the failure of the first run that Levy acquired the rights to the manga, and actually did something with them.

Insert due praise for Levy’s savvy in making Sailor Moon one of North America’s first mainstream hit manga, along with Viz’s Pokémon, here.

Now that due praise it out of the way, the bitching.

Levy was able to bring the price of trade paperbacks down below the critical ten-dollar threshold, and within the grasp of children, by cutting corners on everything.

Regardless of where you stand on flipping the artwork in translated manga, have no illusions. Mixx/TokyoPop had no interest in “authenticity” when they decided to leave artwork unflipped. They did so to save money and time. Period.

There is a fundamental rule in the peddling of goods and services that many consumers seem unaware of: the lower the number of unit sales, the higher the price-per-unit must be in order to justify the investment. I occasionally hear fans wonder why American manga publishers can’t just sell 200-page paperbacks for four bucks (or 400-page anthology magazines for three bucks), “the way they do in Japan.” The reason is that while a given manga paperback in Japan can have sales in the seven, eight or even nine digits, American publishers counts their sales in the thousands, or, if they’re lucky, the tens of thousands. Japanese publishers can make a healthy profit despite the low price per unit, because they move a hell of a lot of units. American publishers can’t do that.

It’s a cycle that can seem vicious if you’re on the bottom, but lucrative if you’re on the top. Your prices are high because sales are low, and your high prices help to keep your sales low. Conversely, when your sales are high, you can lower your prices, which helps to increase sales.

Levy knew that he could sell more books to kids if he could bring the price down, and he did everything conceivable to do so. All corners were cut. One area where he made cuts was in the page rates of translators.

In 1990, I started do literal translations for Viz (which were then re-written by professional comic writers, such as Gerard Jones) for $6 a page. That quickly went up to $7. Then Viz started trusting me to do complete translations, without a re-writer, for (if I recall correctly) $12 per page. Manga sales in the U.S. grew slowly but steadily throughout the 1990s, and my page rate grew accordingly. For my last few years at Viz, I was making $16 per page, and at one point–before the TokyoPop Effect shook the industry–I was actually making $17 per page. (To the best of my knowledge, this is the highest page rate ever paid for manga in the U.S., though there may have been some one-shot deals out there that paid better.)

The point being, there were standards, and even a rookie was guaranteed a decent rate. There was also a screening process. When I first contacted Viz, fresh from finishing my M.A. at Urbana-Champaign, I sent them samples of pieces I had translated for academic purposes, was interviewed over the phone by Satoru Fujii (the Editor in Chief at the time), and was given a shot. Satoru offered constructive criticism, and, building on what I had learned earning a B.A. in Creative Writing at Penn State, I became a pretty good translator. But there was always feedback. In the first year or so, if memory serves me, it was not uncommon for Satoru and I to talk by phone about my scripts and trade ideas. (Yes, Satoru was an editor who actually edited. Crazy, isn’t it?)

I introduced Mari Morimoto to Viz because she was fluent, articulate, and had a solid command of language. I wouldn’t have introduced her if she had been just an enthusiastic otaku willing to work for peanuts. And my introduction was no free pass. She had to pass muster with Viz just as I had. When Mari introduced Lillian Olsen to Viz, the same rules applied. Mind you, there was no shortage of enthusiastic otaku willing to work for peanuts. It’s just that no respectable publisher ever seriously considered hiring such people unless they proved themselves, and even then they were paid a decent wage.

TokyoPop changed that. Why pay six bucks a page when there’s this kid here who will do something vaguely resembling a “translation” for five bucks a page? Or four? Or even three?

I was stunned when I first heard that there were kids at TokyoPop working for three bucks a page. That’s not even close to a living wage.

The practice was cynical on many levels. Obviously, it was exploitation of the translator. But it also revealed a contempt for the reader: These kids can’t tell the difference between good writing and bad, so why pay more for better writing?

Had it stayed in-house, I wouldn’t bother complaining. (After all, I never worked for them.) But the TokyoPop Effect had far-reaching, and mostly negative, effects. In order to compete with TokyoPop’s prices, Viz and other publishers also began to cut corners, and both the quality of translations and translators’ pay suffered. Talk about pay became taboo, because publishers didn’t want the new translators to know they were being paid a fraction of what the veteran translators were being paid. And eventually better translators stopped being offered work, or, worse yet, were forced to except pay cuts.

I should note that I stopped working for Viz in 1999, because I had begun teaching full-time at Kyoto Seika University, and couldn’t keep up with the work. But even I experienced the TokyoPop Effect in my last year of working for Viz. When Viz asked me to translate Banana Fish–a “dream project” Satoru and I had been talking about for years–they asked me to do it for $16 per page, rather then $17. I wasn’t happy about it, of course, but translation was no longer my main source of income, and I felt a debt of gratitude to the company that had helped me make my mark both as a translator and as a freelance writer, so I agreed. I never would have guessed that that one dollar was the first pebble in a landslide.

Mind you, none of this had to happen. Recall the rule of pricing I mentioned earlier. Sailor Moon and Pokémon ushered in a huge new market, and manga sales soared. Higher sales meant higher profits, and it also meant that there was no longer a need (if there ever really had been one) to keep production values low and pay sweatshop prices. They could have invested those profits in higher quality. They chose not to. After all, what did their readers know from quality?

The problem (for TokyoPop) was that those kids had grown up, and, despite having become inured to lousy production values, they could not be expected to keep on buying greasy kids’ stuff forever.

After TokyoPop’s relationship with Kodansha fizzled out, finding manga to translate must have been a challenge. Presumably that is why, like those early low-brow comic-book publishers, TokyoPop turned to original work by unknowns who were happy just to have their work published. And those young creators got the same sort of treatment TokyoPop’s underpaid translators had gotten.

The old American comic book publishers–Marvel and D.C.–continue to struggle to regain what relevance they had back in the so-called Golden Age, but they are still hobbled by decades-long habits of greed and shortsightedness.

TokyoPop could have worked to nurture a mature customer base and remain relevant, but they were, in my opinion, similarly hobbled by greed and shortsightedness–greed and shortsightedness that tainted the entire North American manga publishing industry.

Let us hope that the damage is not irreparable.

POSTSCRIPT: Katherine Dacey introduced this post on her blog, sparking a conversation including great contributions by former TokyoPop freelance editor Daniella Orihuela-Gruber and my fellow veteran translator, William Flanagan. William’s comments, in particular, are an excellent supplement to what I’ve written here.