Wednesday, November 15, 2006

So what's next?

My plan after finishing the evolution manga book was to start seriously working on this fictional idea I have for a manga series. But a month after that book was published, Otsuka-san emailed and suggested that we work on another educational book. This time on a topic that will have a much higher demand. “OK,” I thought. “I still have some time before my wife finishes her medical residency. If we can hammer out this book in a reasonable amount of time, maybe I can create a financial buffer to help ease that rough transition to going full-time.”

My wife is going to let me focus on my manga work after her residency, which means I’d quit my day job to prepare for a weekly or monthly series. That also means that there’ll be no income from my side for a while, so the manga career’s gotta work out or it’s not going to be pretty (think “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”).

So the next goal will be to finish the next manga book soon and get some sales in before my wife finishes residency.

This time, it’s a manga book on math.

“Math?!” you wonder. “Who would want to read about such a horrible topic!?” That’s exactly the point. In Japan, lots of people have to study math for college entrance exams (unlike evolution, which may just be briefly discussed). Obviously, not everyone is going to have an easy time learning math, so this manga book will aim to help get those people started by focusing on the basics.

Don’t worry. I’ll keep it really simple. I promise.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The economics of the manga business

OK. So now you know the direction I’m heading in, but you must be wondering about the practicalities of being a mangaka. “How does a mangaka earn a living?”

The short answer is that it doesn’t work out for most people. The sad reality is that, like novelists, just because someone is spending all his time making manga, it doesn’t mean that it’s working out financially.

To explain, let’s go over the two basic potential sources of income for a mangaka.

One source is getting paid by the page, which is dependent on your status as a mangaka and the publisher’s pay scale. $100 per page is typical, while beginners may get paid less. A superstar may earn $500 per page or more, but those cases are rare. So, at the typical rate of $100 per page, if you’re doing a monthly series at 34 pages a month or a weekly series at 17 pages a week, you’ll be earning about $40,000 to $90,000 a year. That’s really not much, considering that you’ll probably be working as hard as a busy surgeon.

The other source is royalties. This is what separates the successful mangaka from those that falter. For starters, a popular manga will get compiled into manga volumes, 10% of whose sales goes to the mangaka. The most popular manga may sell a million copies or so per volume over its lifetime. So considering that the weekly series pace produces about 4 books a year, if your manga’s popular, you’ll be doing well.

Then there are royalties from movies, anime, pachinko machines, and other products. This sounds good, but you have to keep in mind that just because a manga is popular, it doesn’t mean that it’ll be animated or made into products. The television studios have to expect a certain amount of viewership, and the secondary products need to be marketable. Ultimately, the biproducts, whether they’re anime or toys, need to sell.

The reality is that most manga don’t get any extra commercialization, so the income ends up being only the per-page fees and royalties from the books. Of those, many will never get published in compilations because they aren’t popular enough, so the mangaka is stuck with his $40,000-$90,000 income.

You might be thinking, “Hey, even if you’re working like a dog, if you like what you’re doing, that’s not bad.” But here’s the catch. A mangaka needs assistants. Some get by with none, but for a weekly, you’ll often see 4 or more people helping out with the fast 17-pages-per-week pace. Remember, it’s not just that you have to draw 17 pages, but you also have to come up with the story and dialog. In addition, you’ll need to ramp up the pace even more to offset the occasional rejection from your editor who says that an entire episode needs to be redone for whatever reason.

You may be able to find some assistants who are happy to work for a low wage or for free (for the sake of gaining experience or padding their resumes), but eventually you’ll want to pay an amount that allows you to get consistent quality and dependable work hours. So if your manga isn’t popular, you’re either blowing all your per-page fees on assistants or are killing yourself by pulling off all-nighters to make the deadlines. That’s why this business doesn’t work out for most people, and is a serious concern for the future health of the industry.

Being a mangaka is essentially the same as owning your own business. You hone your skills and create a product that you then market and commercialize. You hire workers to help, but unlike in academia, there’s no such thing as tenure. If the audience doesn’t like your stuff, you become unemployed the next day. And just because you’ve had one hit, doesn’t mean you’re set for life. I’ve seen some established mangaka have trouble getting their next hit, and sometimes just end up becoming one-hit wonders.

You really have to love writing stories and drawing manga, as you’ll be working far harder than most jobs require you to. I love manga and making them, but it also has to work out financially. So my mid-term goal is to get that first big hit...