About a month ago, DC Comics announced that it had made a major investment in Flex Comics, a Japanese company that develops comics for cell phones and the web. The news was noted at the time and then disappeared in the flurry of attention that DC caused when they announced their dedicated webcomics site, Zuda.
Keep your eye on Flex, though, because the folks at DC may have something interesting up their sleeves: They may be gambling that people who are accustomed to getting something for nothing will be willing to pay to get something better. It’s a strategy that has already worked for two other manga publishers, and this experiment may be useful to webcomics creators who are thinking about the best publishing model for their work.
Scanlations have long been an integral part of the manga world. In the early days of manga, when only a few titles were commercially available, they brought a range of manga to the English-speaking world. Publishers admit that they watch scanlations to gauge the popularity of titles, and hard-core fans still read scanlations to keep up with series that haven’t been licensed for publication in English. Still, there is a significant downside to scanlations: The quality of the translations varies quite a bit, and most of them have to be downloaded, with all the potential hazards that entails. Also, the preferred means of communication for scanlators is Internet Relay Chat, IRC, which presents a technical hurdle to some users.
Enter Flex. At the San Diego Comic-Con, CMX editor Jim Chadwick stated upfront that one reason CMX has partnered with Flex is to offer an alternative to scanlations:
He wondered why anyone would be interested in searching for a low-quality translation when professionally-adapted digitized versions of manga are freely available online.
The answer may be content: CMX’s initiative is only likely to work if they are providing content that fans can’t live without. Scanlations are the only way to read popular titles such as Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto and 20th Century Boys, which aren’t available in English for rights reasons, or Diary of a Yokohama Shopping Trip, which simply hasn’t been picked up by an American publisher. Flex is at a disadvantage because they are starting from scratch with original comics that have no word-of-mouth (or word-of-blog) recommendations behind them.
On the upside, however, they are adapting a model that seems to be working for two other publishers, Netcomics and Seven Seas. They have very different models: Netcomics makes its manga avaliable via an e-reader, charging about 25 cents for 48-hour access to a single chapter, or about $1 per volume. The comics stay online even after they are released in print. Seven Seas offers four titles as free webcomics, then takes them off the web and releases them as print volumes. There is some evidence that both are doing well: Netcomics has expanded its line to include Yaoi Press titles and Japanese manga, and one of Seven Seas’ webcomic titles, Hollow Fields, just went back to press after a first printing of 25,000, an impressive number for a single volume of manga.
Here’s the CMX/Flex business plan, in a nutshell:
Unlike more traditional publishers, Flex will focus on publishing manga for the online and mobile format, with an initial lineup of over 40 individual titles. Many of these will be aimed at a young male audience, but offerings will soon expand to also appeal to shoujo audiences. Flex is currently developing a proprietary manga reader application that will be available for download onto personal computers and cellphones. It also hopes to provide manga to users of the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP. As Flex puts manga online in Japanese, CMX plans to translate them into English, make them available online as well, and eventually offer the same titles in traditional book format.
Can they pull it off? Starting with boys’ (shonen) manga seems like a safe choice, because they are the best sellers, but it’s a crowded field, and the most successful shonen titles (Naruto, Bleach, One Piece) hit their mass audiences when Cartoon Network started running the anime. One upside: if CMX determines a title is not doing well, they can save themselves the expense of printing it (Netcomics has a similar policy toward their Japanese manga).
The proprietary comics reader is a gamble: If theirs is the one that catches on, they will rule the world; if not, they will end up on the ash-heap of history. The multiple platforms are interesting. Ultimately, content and marketing are the most important factors, though. You can have the greatest platform in the world, but if you’re using it for dull comics, the world will not beat a path to your door. On the other hand, if you have the title everybody wants to read, people will probably pay to read it online rather than hunt down the scanlation. That may be what CMX is banking on.