Blockbuster mangaka Shūhō Satō was so disgusted by the exploitation he endured at the hands of big publishers that he exposed them in a series of damaging online revelations, and then started his own online manga distribution service in competition.
He lays bare the exploitative publishing industry straitjacket forced on mangaka in a candid interview, reproduced below.
Mangaka Shūhō Satō, author of such titles as “Umizaru” (published in Weekly Young Sunday) and “Say Hello to Blackjack” (Weekly Morning), has enjoyed great success, with Blackjack selling over 10 million copies and both having been adapted into TV dramas and movies.
Thus he is no rookie, having successfully been in the trade over a decade, but this only amplified his grievances, culminating in him making a damning series of accusations against publishers, complaining of dishonest and unethical practices, financial exploitation and high handed treatment.
He even relates that he felt he had no choice but to stop coast guard manga Umizaru in response to editorial demands that he portray the (then) Japanese Maritime Safety Agency as heroes of justice rather than a realistic organization sometimes forced to make difficult choices.
So aggrieved was he over these abuses that he decided the time was finally right for mangaka to make a clean break with the publishing industry dinosaur and embrace new technology and consumer behavior – he started Manga on Web, an independently operated online manga distribution site.
The site can be visited here (it requires significant knowledge of Japanese to navigate) – a large number of unknown titles, as well as his own, are available. Prices start at ¥10 per chapter, and are readable online in generous resolution in a normal browser, with free previews available – in fact covering most of the usual complaints levelled against online manga.
Speaking about how the publishing industry treats its mangaka in a recent interview, he pulls no punches:
You even revealed on your site that the manuscript fees you received for “Blackjack ni Yoroshiku” [a manga which sold over 10 million copies] whilst writing it under Kodansha amounted to only ¥23,000 [$250] per page, out of which you had to pay your assistants and even the cost of your own office, and as a result you were actually losing money, taking into account only those fees?
It’s a business so money is the first thing you have to talk about, and it’s weird to have an atmosphere where that is off the table. I don’t know why it’s such a big deal when you write about it on a site.
After all, even with part-time work you wouldn’t start working without even knowing your hourly wage, would you?
Even when I spoke to my editors about this, they came out with “only the editor-in-chief knows the fees for manuscripts, so it’s nothing to do with us!”
They didn’t make clear how much the guaranteed fee was, and writing manga like this without so much as a contract is pretty messed up, so I had a specialist draw one up for me. A lot of mangaka don’t even do this. They just don’t get that a contract is essential.
You were losing money on the manuscript fee, but weren’t you raking it in with the royalties?
No, it’s absolutely nothing like that. Even with a manga that sells a million copies, you’re getting less than 0.1%. I’m operating as a company, Sato Manga Works Ltd., but as the head of a tiny company I’m not making much at all.
Even with a hit title which sells a million copies, selling at ¥500 each, the sales might come to ¥50,000,000. You can get 4 volumes out in a year so that might be ¥200,000,000 [$2.2 million] annually. That’s nothing special.
Because that’s just the turnover – it isn’t my income. Employing 5-6 assistants is nothing to be sniffed at. And with only 0.1% or less being received as royalties, you can easily see it’s a bad business to be in.
And on top of that, the vast majority of mangaka don’t even sell tankobon like this. If even the top mangaka can’t rake it in there’s no real appeal to it as an occupation.
If mangaka can’t aspire to hit it big with a million seller and never have to worry about money again, they have no dream to aspire to.
And on top of all this half of it goes to the taxman.
But you can put out lots of volumes, and you have movie royalties and merchandising sales to look forward to?
That’s just a tiny fraction. As I said, you really don’t make much. Sure, the odd manga gets turned into an anime and game, and then the goods start flying off the shelves, but there are only a few people like that. The authors of One Piece or Dragon Ball might be like that, but for everyone else it isn’t.
And when it gets turned into a live action drama, there are no character goods at all!
For Umizaru, the first movies caused a new printing, but the next movies had no impact on manga sales, and for the TV drama we got a paltry ¥300,000 an episode. The movie grossed ¥700,000,000, but I didn’t see a penny in royalties – it was just paid as a flat fee beforehand. That is messed up, so in future I’ll insist on royalties.
When I was a kid reading these, I used to imagine the mangaka in the weekly magazines were all super-rich, but to think they were actually losing money on the manuscript fees…
Publishers have lately been keen to portray any decline in sales as wicked manga downloaders robbing mangaka of their livelihoods, although it seems rather more likely it is the publishers doing the robbing, ensuring that mangaka remain entirely under their financial and editorial thrall.
Little wonder then that they fear the opportunities offered by digital publishing so greatly – were mangaka to finally realise that for years now they have been able to sell directly to fans with no publisher intercession, they might finally break free of their financial control and cause the whole rotten structure to come tumbling down, only to be replaced by arrangements entirely alien to the big publishers.
Fortunately for publishers it seems most mangaka are sufficiently servile as to obey the established tradition without question (and they are evidently all but devoid of sound business sense), although ever shrinking circulations and rising demand for digital sales threaten this status quo ever more.