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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
Are you a fan who wants to break into the manga biz? 
3rd-May-2008 07:40 am
Candybar Doll
If you have a particular knack for drawing pretty pictures, you might become a manga creator. If, on the other hand, you have a particular knack for writing coherent sentences, you might become an editor. Or you might become someone like me, a freelancer grinding along on the periphery of the manga industry. All three of these streams should by this point be well known, and I have noted of late the emergence of people with whom I have much in common in them.

However, there is a fourth career "stream," and it is one that I have not yet seen anyone my age attempt to tap: that of the literary agent.

(Dear Editor Friends, please do not kill me.)

In book publishing, the push-pull between editors and agents is legendary, and nowadays it's safe to say that it's the agents who ultimately have the most control over what gets published and why, not the publishing companies. Once upon a time, the relationship between author and editor was an intimate one of support and mentorship, and publishers provided authors with contracts that authors signed more or less without question. Agents, when they were utilized at all back then, worked more like author's assistants, keeping track of all those little book-keeping details that busy artists can't be bothered with. But then one day one ambitious agent who has since become legendary in the field had an idea: He--and not the publisher--would be the one to draw up the contract. And ever since, agents have become the proverbial gatekeepers of talent, and publishers have become profoundly dependent upon their expertise. (Many will not even consider unagented submissions.) Not to mention each others' rivals. Agents routinely pit publishers against one another in order to secure the best deals for their author clients.

Comics publishing a la Marvel and DC does not work like book publishing. This is not my area of expertise, and I'm sure there are people who can explain the system in more detail. But suffice it to say that, as a creator for Marvel, you are doing work for hire, and you do not, as say Stephen King does, hold the copyright to your work.

Where, then, "manga"? It's widely accepted, especially among comics people, that the advent of manga has moved comics publishing closer to book publishing and that all of the issues that affect and afflict book publishing are becoming issues for comics publishing as well. This, to my mind, will include the power of the literary agent in the field. Note the future tense. I say "will" because it hasn't happened yet. Yes, there are a handful of select agents working in the graphic novel field, and some have already begun pitting US manga publishers against each other. But there are entire subgenres of manga--BL is the most notable example--that are still emerging categories with a large potential market, and for which there are no agents whatsoever (at least as far as I can tell) with sufficient expertise. If you're an aspiring BL artist here in the States, you're going to have lots of trouble getting published under terms favorable to you--and if you're picky, you won't be published at all.

Naturally, manga publishers do not want to go the way of book publishers in respect to this dependence upon literary agents and its accompanying loss of revenue, and most of the them (most famously TOKYOPOP) have not yet. After all, there is serious money to be had in franchising. Batman floppies in the comic book stores don't make DC money; it's the feature films, the action figures, the mountains of branded merchandise that keeps them in business. But thanks to the agent, book publishers do not have this profit engine. Don't for a moment think that, just because Random House published, say, Ian McEwan's Atonement, that they're the ones who made the most money off of the critically acclaimed film adaptation Atonement (movie tie-in editions aside).

But I'm not convinced that manga publishers are going to be able to hold the line indefinitely. We already have two of the biggest US book publishing conglomerates Random House and Hachette USA competing in the manga field, and important book publishers from Penguin to Scholastic, desperate for profits and new markets wherever they are to be found, want to get into graphic novels and "manga" too...and you can bet that they won't be doing it by licensing titles from Japan. In fact, they're probably going to go about publishing manga like they publish prose...or as close to it as they possibly can. And this is liable to mean an institutionalized reliance upon agents. Nobody likes to change, and these powerful companies are not going to learn new ways if they don't have to. If they decide to set the rules, chances are even mighty VIZ Media, ever the conservative company, is going to play by them.

So, as the so-called battle for talent ratchets up with more competitors entering the field looking to publish every conceivable sort of comics content, I think you will start seeing more literary agents who specialize in manga--and ones who are interested in shopping not just safe comics for kids, but stuff like BL and josei as well. So if you're a young man or woman (especially woman) who wants to break into the manga biz, look seriously at a career as an agent! The field is wide open! Granted, it's a high-pressure job for "people people" with broad competitive streaks, but the hours are flexible, and it can be quite lucrative. More so than being an editor, which is why editors often reinvent themselves as agents.

And, yes, in case you were wondering...I'm being selfish here: I want to see more agents in the manga field, not because I want to see my editor friends annoyed (an unfortunate outcome) or because I want to see my creator friends making tons of money (a fortunate one), but first and foremost because I'm a reader who loves manga. And I know that a functional manga industry, not a dysfunctional one, is more likely to give me the best of what I love.
3rd-May-2008 12:26 pm (UTC)
Do you mind if I submit this to metafandom? :)
3rd-May-2008 12:27 pm (UTC)
Go for it. :P
5th-May-2008 03:56 am (UTC)
and you can bet that they won't be doing it by licensing titles from Japan. In fact, they're probably going to go about publishing manga like they publish prose
Does the heavy reliance on Japanese manga (and in turn the Japanese publishing industry) favor agents? The OEL market is still pretty small, so I'm wondering how effective agents can be while the market is still highly dependent on Japan and therefore still kind of work for hire.

(here by way of metafandom-and I think it'd be cool to be a lit agent)
5th-May-2008 04:04 am (UTC)
The three biggest Japanese publishers have near-exclusive deals with only two US publishers, Viz Media (Shuueisha, Shougakukan) and Del Rey (Kodansha), respectively. They hog the bulk of the Japanese talent (and they're mining a stagnant field, anyway), which has driven other manga publishers--as well as book and comics publishers salivating at the growth of the graphic novel industry--interested in "manga" to domestic talent. THIS latter fact means opportunity for agents.
5th-May-2008 04:13 am (UTC)
THIS latter fact means opportunity for agents.
I guess that's my second question-dpes domestic talent attract enough of a fanbase to be profitable? The vocal sect of manga fandom tends to be of the elitist "only East Asian stuff is worth reading" variety, but I know that isn't reflective of mainstream fans. Where do mainstream fans fall out?
5th-May-2008 04:20 am (UTC)
People will read what they like, no? The vocal fans do not represent the majority. Look at the blogosphere, which tends to be pro-seinen--yet seinen doesn't sell well. The first Tokyopop book to ever clear 1000 on the Amazon.com rankings was one of those cat Warriors manga...definitely not Japanese in origin, that!
5th-May-2008 04:32 am (UTC)
The vocal fans do not represent the majority.
Oh, I know that-I happen to own tons of OEL-I like manga that fits my sensibilities, and I figure other fans aren't that different. (Plus HP fandom had already taught me that lesson.)
yet seinen doesn't sell well
It doesn't even do well in the scanlations, which tends to go shounen ('specially the stuff already licensed in the states) & shoujo (and popular series at that)-which are the big American sellers.

was one of those cat Warriors manga
That's cool, though it was a tie in for an already popular series. What are the stats for original stuff?
5th-May-2008 04:42 am (UTC)
For numbers you're going to have to ask people who have Bookscan access. I'm a freelancer, so I don't.

Tie-ins are interesting...because they're contested ground between agents and publishers. *shrugs* All of these things are still evolving--heck, I could be wrong about where it's going to go.

But agents pitting manga pubs against each other to benefit the creator has already happened at least once, and I know of another creator who (not sure if there was an agent involved) got competing offers from two pubs. Competition in book publishing is traditionally fierce because the profits are so low, growth in manga is leveling off as more players enter the field...looks like ripe opportunity for aspiring agents to me.
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5th-May-2008 05:12 pm (UTC)
Note that this was not a post on "How to Become an Agent." That's not my field; I have little advice for that.

While I think you make some interesting points, you also have present a large number of misconceptions in the process:

As I said, it's perfectly possible for publishers to accept unagented submissions

Not always. Some publishers--Random House comes to mind--do not accept unagented submissions. Period.

So the publishers are hardly reliant upon agents.

Which means, then, that those publishers that don't accept unagented submissions ARE in fact reliant upon agents.

Only bestsellers have real clout.

Surprise bestsellers make pubs a lot of money, which is why they're always looking for a promise of new talent. Bestselling authors like Anne Rice and Stephen King are break-even propositions. The pubs want them because having them on their lists are prestigious.

When you create something, you hold the copyright to it. Period.

Wrong. dorrie6 is right about Gaiman, and I refer you here about the way American manga publishers are behaving.

So in the manga industry, where the best-selling books are those imported from Japan -- and where there is no shortage of good comics creators -- it's unlikely that we'll see any shortage of talent any time soon.

The Japanese manga industry has been stagnating for the past decade, and pubs here find that they can't mine the backlist too deeply because those don't sell. Also, Viz/Del Rey have locked up first-refusals on the bulk of the material available, which means that everyone else, including traditional book publishers, who want to do manga have to look elsewhere.

Right now the manga audience wants Japanese-made (and some other Asian-country-made) works.

How sure are you about this? Have you actually polled people? What about that Warriors manga? (Or does that not count because it's a tie-in?)
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5th-May-2008 07:38 pm (UTC)
Maybe this is just a semantic difference; as far as I'm concerned "reliant upon" means that the publishers have no other way to find promising new authors.

Yeah, I think you're quibbling over semantics. The fact of the matter is--and I have spent time myself rejecting submissions for a publisher each day every day--even those that accept unagented submissions are liable to treat ones with agents attached to them more seriously. They rely upon agents to do that initial sorting for them. And especially the star agents, i.e. "if soandso is behind this book, then I guess I'd better take a serious look!" Otherwise, you-aspiring-author end up doomed to oblivion on the slush pile, and I'm sure we can agree that that's not where you want to be. :P

As you said, it's because they can get away with paying an unknown author peanuts. There's nothing the agent can do to prevent this, except make the peanut slightly bigger than the author might've gotten on his/her own.

It's true that profits are only modest even with agents a lot of the time, but every once in awhile, the peanut gets WAY bigger with an agent. Do you know the story behind the flop Londonstani? Or Pausch's Last Lecture $5.7 (was it?) mil advance? Unbelievable amounts of money in advances to more or less rookie authors, thanks to their agents, because pubs got pulled into bidding wars.

So it seems clear there's not much of an audience for American-made comics; if there was, it would've materialized in the last few decades.

What about all this so-called OEL manga? (Though Tokyopop has already retired that term.) Maybe it's just a matter of perspective, but I see a massive influx of comics, manga, graphic novels, whatever you want to call them, on bookstore shelves over the past few years. And not all of them are Japanese. You might argue that TP is just throwing it to the wall to see if it sticks, but some of it DID stick. I was just as NYCC a couple of weeks ago, and it was clear (from cheers in the audience) that Dramacon has devoted fans.

I've often noticed that publishers can be slightly superstitious about the whole process. Sure, they know that x and y are likely to sell, but the industry abounds with anecdotal surprises, along with tales of woe about things they were sure would sell but didn't. It's really hard to know what demand will be anyway, since we could argue that every book is to some degree different. Just because Naruto sells doesn't mean Ninja Book B will.

Never heard of Warriors. What's it about? Who publishes it?

It's a Tokyopop/HarperCollins co-branded manga. About warrior cats. I was talking about it with story645 above.

After all, it's not like the manga boom is new; it's been going on for at least the last 5 years. And it's not like there aren't lots of wannabe American mangaka out there; every halfway decent fanartist and American doujinshi circle would leap at the chance if it was available.

They are head-hunted, they do leap, and because they're young, overeager, and naive, they're often being exploited. *shakes head* I don't know how you can say there aren't any American manga out there; I write manga release schedules for Anime Insider every month, and I see lists from every publisher...and no offense but you must be out of touch. Heck, just met a friend of a friend who signed with Tokyopop.

Interesting, even the American arms of Japanese and Korean publishers (Viz, Aurora, Netcomics) have all expressed interest at some point in developing Western talent. Whether they ultimately will or not is an open question because that requires manpower that they might not have. But I think it's interesting.
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