A candid and personal examination of the Philippine comics scene from a social, cultural, economic and business point of view.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Examining the Digital Option

In order to survive as a medium, there are those who espouse that comics should go digital. Their reasons are not to be ignored. Because it is "paperless" production cost is lessened, creators have more creative control over their work, distribution cost is practically eliminated when the work is transmitted electronically, and electronic payment systems ensure a quicker, more convenient mode of service. The proposition does seem sound.

Already, there are those who sell digital comics, comics in electronic format from computer to computer or from computer to celfone, traversing great distances and borders. At present however, the process is still ongoing and not as widespread in Third World countries such as the Philippines where the benefits and accessability of recent technological developments from rich, developed countries are not as current as one would hope them to be.


Significantly, the trend towards digital comics is pioneered by the United States where for years, sales of its comics have not been impressive, striving towards the 100,000 copy level which is a far cry from the million copy levels of yesteryear. This development is confirmed by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon in their book: "Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book" (2003 ed.) to wit:

"The comics themselves are disconnected from any sense of larger readership. They're more stylishly illustrated to be sure, but they indulge in recycled thrills made stale by years of repitition in service to their value as licensing properties. Gone forever is the feeling of open-ended possibility, of free form fantasy willed onto a blank page, of giddy, self-aware, and slightly moralistic fun that Lee and his artistic collaborators brought to an art form lacking respect. Comic books are past the point of decline. The top titles struggle to sell 125,000 copies. Kids prefer to buy anything and everything else and at $2.25 per issue, its not certain they could afford to return. Even Stan Lee doesn't read comic books anymore. He doesn't have the time."


The problems of the American comics industry however, are not shared several thousand miles away in Japan. Until now, the Japanese comics industry's size is so massive that it overshadows the two other great comics producing nations of the United States and France combined. Approximately 40% of Japan's printed publications are comics or manga. Consider the history:

"Yearly sales of manga throughout the 1990s have been in the neighborhood of 600 billion yen including 350 billion in magazine sales and 250 billion in paperbacks. These figures do not include sales of manga appearing in general magazines and newspapers. The total sales of published material in Japan (including magazines and books excluding newspapers) is two trillion five hundred billion yen, of which manga sales account for nearly one quarter. Given a total Japanese population of 120 million, we can calculate that the average Japanese spends approximately 2,000 yen per year on manga in one form or another." (Source: www.dnp.co.jp/museum/nmp/nmp_i/articles/manga/manga1)

Though there have been efforts by Japanese companies such as Toshiba to produce a lightweight, two-screen LCD e-book having a secure digital card that can hold thousands of pages of manga, it is still trying to solve its weight and battery-life problem. (Source: http://archives.cnn.com/2001/tech/ptech/04/23/digital.comics.idg/)


Other than that, the millions of print manga still continue to thrive. This notwithstanding the fact that Japan's economy is largely based on electronics manufacturing. Why is this so? Ironically, computer access is very low in Japan due to several reasons. First, Japanese education favor traditional methods such that computers are not yet standard school equipment. Second, Japanese language and word processing is difficult. Third, software is relatively limited and expensive. Fourth and last, household penetration of computers is relatively low. (Source: Elissa Moses, "The $100 Billion Allowance: Accessing the Global Teen Market")


Also in France where its comics industry is flourishing, computers and the Internet are not as widely embraced either. The reason apparently is that the proud French are not only cynical about the security features of the Internet but that they also fear of being alienated by teh English-speaking or American-dominated entities. (Source: Elissa Moses, "The $100 Billion Allowance: Accessing the Global Teen Market")

France in fact, holds an international comics festival every year in the village of Angouleme' which is one of five national events sponsored by the French government to promote tourism. One of these five events is the Cannes Film Festival. The Angouleme' comics convention is also the biggest international comics convention in the world.

It is thus apparent that both Japan and France have a significant reading population for print publications. Not so however with the United States which is a different matter entirely.


Recent studies made by the Washington Post newspaper and the U.S. Online Publishers Association (www. online-publishing.org) found that young readers aged 18-34 are not interested in reading printed newspapers and magazines. Rather, they are more apt to log on to the Internet (46%) than watch t.v. (35%), read a book (7%), turn on a radio (3%), read a newspaper (3%) or flip through a magazine (less than 1%). In other words, young people in America prefer to read their news, information and entertainment in free sources such as the Internet.

Why pay for news or comics printed on dead trees when you can just as easily read them for free on the Internet? Why pay for a newspaper or comics subscription when you can choose from among thousands of online versions? This is one of the reasons why American comics publishing is down. This is why proponents for digital comics are strongest in the United States.


Yet there are those who view this humongous free access to mostly copyright-free content on the Internet as a deterrent to overall creativity and originality. To an extent, this may be true given the previous observation by Raphael and Spurgeon that most American comics today still indulge in recycled thrills and ideas mainly to fuel their comics characters' licensing and merchandising value.

In fact, the two largest American comics publishers, DC and Marvel, focus on and largely obtain, their income from licensing and merchandising activities rather than from comics publishing. Indeed, why bother publishing thousands or millions of copies of American comicbooks when nobody is buying especially from the target American youth market? Why buy when you could read them on the Internet for free or purchase a cheap copy from the discount bin? Except for the few comics fans and speculators, who wants the unwanted household clutter?


And yet as mentioned elsewhere in this blog, Japanese printed manga are the most read comicbooks in America especially by kids 7 to 14 years consistently surpassing the 500,000 to 800,000 copy level. Clearly, something is askew here. This intrusive fact shows that even in a technologically drenched society like the U.S., comics in print format can thrive. Not only does the Japanese output contain original, innovative, and compelling content but that they are relatively and inexpensively printed as well, appearing regularly meeting their target readers' demands.

This all shows that the Japanese are focusing more on the practical basics of comics publishing as a business by meeting their broad and varied audiences' demands. The Americans on the other hand, appear to have needlessly complicated the process by expending too much cost on superficialities such as creator name billing, computer coloring, glossy paper, controlled limited output to contrive and manipulate demand, and others.

In other words, the Americans are focusing too much on comics as an "artform" thereby limiting itself to a relatively small special interest group of comics fans and speculators. The Japanese meanwhile, are focused on comics as a medium and as a business thus obtaining a wider, broader audience who in return provide the income to fuel more creativity and originality from comics creators.


Ultimately then, its really an issue of how one manages comics publishing as a business, not as an artform, that makes it flourish. Given all the economic and social adversties around, it is respectfully submitted that it is the publisher's business and management acumen, not the artist's creativity, that ultimately initiates and fuels the whole process of comics publishing making it go around satisfying the needs of the reader, the comics artist, the licensee, the distributor, and all other participants involved. No one element is paramount.

The comics artist or creator, though essential are only but part of a publishing whole. The overemphasis on the importance of art and the artist has caused an undesirable imbalance.

To the extent that a publisher primarily sees comics as an "artform", his achievements will be limited only to that small world. But if he goes beyond that and sees it as a dynamic business reaching various readers and creating opportunities, his achievements will necessarily broaden. And, without intending it, even achieve his artistic goals.

Considering the digital option then, if one sees no hope, or is incapable of appreciating, the proper management of comics publishing as a business then it is but logical to abandon the same and consider another format.


At present however, trying to sell digital comics on the worldwide web, much less obtaining advertising for a comics site, is not as bright as one would hope.

In an article appearing in the March 6, 2005 issue of the Philippine Star newspaper entitled: "RP businessmen top list of Internet users in global survey" by Mary Ann LL. Reyes, a worldwide business owners survey conducted by Grant Thornton International reveal that:

"E-commerce in its strictest sense is still nowhere near its potential on a global basis. Business owners in general remain skeptical about advertising, marketing, buying and selling online. Some emerging economies like the Philippines, Turkey and Mexico, are leading the way."

Surveying 24 countries, the Philippines among them, it was found that businesses are generally dependent on the Internet mainly for research (not entertainment) purposes with a global average of +26. Businessmen in Turkey (+79), the Philippines (+57) and the U.S. (+50) agree most to this proposition while those in France (-10) and Japan (-38), do not.

It was also found that on a worldwide basis, businesses are generally not dependent on the Internet for ordering supplies (-21) or taking orders online (-27). Some individual countries however, think otherwise. The Philippines (+27) and Turkey (+25) were found to be most dependent on ordering supplies online while those in Turkey again (+22) and Mexico (+15) were the most dependent on taking orders online.

The survey further found that online advertising and marketing were not considered essential to most business owners, with a global average of -24. Only two countries however, Turkey (+39) and Germany (+17) were found to be most dependent on the Internet for advertising. Businesses use the internet mainly for research and for communication via e-mail of which Filipino businessmen were found to be the highest users worldwide.

Specifically, it is only in three countries: the Philippines (+76), India (+70) and Spain (+53), where most businessmen agreed that the Internet has helped increase business turnover the most. Most countries in the world are still hesitant to embrace e-commerce as they still remain skeptical of its ability to secure transactions from external threats such as virus attacks.

Since e-commerce appears to be more active in few countries such as the Philippines, India, Spain, Hong Kong, Turkey, Mexico and Germany, venturing into the sale of digital comics through the Internet would have to take these countries into prime consideration.

In addition, China has to be considered into the equation as well. In a recent development, Yahoo! has succeeded in getting majority shares from their Chinese internet service counterparts: alibaba.com and baidu.com. It is estimated that around 124 million chinese currently use the internet everyday mostly for domestic commerce. Many consider the China market eclipsing the American market in the near future.


To stress, the problem is we have too many comics creators or artists and not enough business planners or managers sympathetic to the cause of comics publishing.

And why should there be when comics creators and fans generally ape the American ploy of promoting comics as an "artform"? Most comics artists and creators in fact, fancy themselves as self-sufficient, and able to succeed by themselves on their own terms relying heavily on conjectures, surmises, hearsay, and half-baked analysis from fellow fans and artists who are fueled more by "emotion" rather than cold, hard facts. As a result, the comics publishing field in the Philippines remains dismal to this day.

Too many "fan" conventions instead of "publishers" business meetings. Too many costume plays and loud music instead of hard research and business plan formulations. Too many emotional, child-like, peter pannish, egotistical comics artists living near bohemian lifestyles and not enough solid professionals grounded on practicality. Too many short term sporadic successes and immediate self-gratification instead of long term goals and investment. Too many con-men and fly-by-nights instead of honest businessmen. Too many casualties of cultural globalization instead of original, innovative craftsmen inspired by their nation's culture and heritage.

The imbalance has got to stop.

Comics publishing is not an "art" problem that can be solved overnight by "good stories and art". Please. If today's generation of Filipino comics creators haven't succeeded in creating their own mark in Filipino comics publishing industry, how sure are we that they can triumph in the digital arena?


Blogger Reno said...

You are correct. Too often, the Philippines patterns its ways after the U.S. The same is true for komiks.

And you are also correct that most creators are artists and writers. There are no businessmen involved in the local publishing scene today.

It's a "chicken-or-egg" situation. Who's gonna start? These creators have no financial capability of becoming businessmen. And the businessmen have no interest in publishing. How can that be changed?

In my view, unless creating comics becomes a viable source of income locally, then these creators will continually seek out other opportunities in filling their and their families' bellies and just do komiks on the side for self-fulfillment.

Perhaps it's too strong a word, but because Poverty is so prevalent here, businessmen will continually seek out the "sure thing," and not invest in such a thing as komiks.

3:49 PM


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