One of the interesting things about the Internet is the way things sort of bubble up from the bottom and become genuine phenomena without anyone managing it or (until the last stage) making any money off of it, like I Can Has Cheezburger or Talk Like a Pirate Day.
Scanlation is like that. It’s a true grass-roots comics movement, in which people who were captivated by Japanese comics went to the trouble to find them, break them up and scan them in, translate the text (some people actually learned Japanese in order to do this), edit, retouch, and publish them on the web, just to be able to share them with others. Scanlations are free to read, but they also violate the original copyright, and no one makes money on them.
Manganovel was an attempt to create a Web 2.0 version of scanlations. A joint project of the MIT Media Lab and Toshiba, it allowed readers to download Japanese manga, translate it themselves, and upload the finished product. On the surface, it seemed like a neater, cleaner version of scanlationâ€”no copyright violation, no cutting the books up or melting the glue off the spine, no downloading from dubious servers. Users earned points for uploading translations and could also purchase points, which they then used to read the premium comics; other comics were available for free.
It didn’t work. Last week, Manganovel announced that it was shutting down and that all services would be terminated on Feb. 27, 2009. No official reason was given, although this response did appear in the forum:
Unfortunately, we could not find enough traffic of Manga contents trade to support our business and we decided to withdraw.
So what happened? I would guess, from the outside, that they failed to build up a community largely because, despite the MIT association, their interface was awful. The website looks like it’s straight out of 1995, with teeny-tiny type (gray on white, for minumum readability) and no unifying design scheme. Their system was also too complicated, with six steps just to read the free sample. Contrast this with Netcomics, which is run by a Korean publisher but is becoming a web portal for other companies as well. At Netcomics, you can read the free samples with a single click, and accessing the paid content is straightforward as well.
A bigger problem, from my point of view, is that the user has to download a proprietary comics reader, which is Windows-only, in order to read the manga. I use a Mac, so I was shut out. I would cheerfully have read and reviewed the comics on Manganovel, except that I couldn’t. I don’t want to be a Mac snob, but in my experience, people in the arts tend to lean towards Macs, whether for technical or cultural reasons. When I go to comics conventions, and I sit with the other manga and anime bloggers, we’re all pounding away on Macs. You can debate how influential reviewers are in building an audience, but cutting the majority of us out doesn’t seem like a good move.
Finally, the scanlation world is very social and a bit clubbish, and an active forum would have been a real plus. Manganovel chose not to put a Forum link on the front page (you have to click the “Explore” tab to find it), and their forum interface doesn’t allow you to read threads. Furthermore, the forum was clearly designed for technical issues only, whereas manga fans like to have a place to chat about their favorite matchups, which manga will be licensed next, that kind of thing.
Even with a better web interface, it’s not clear that Manganovel could have succeeded. Sometimes getting the grownups involved wrecks things. Scanlation groups are a little society of their own, with their own slang, code of ethics, and customs, and it’s hard for a commercial enterprise to replicate that. But Manganovel missed at the very first step, with an unattractive web page and comics that were too hard to get to. There are lots of sites that offer free manga in the web browser with a single click. To compete with that, you need a simple interface and compelling content. Manganovel failed on the first count, so I never even got to find out about the second.