Wishing For An Otaku Media Conglomerate

By Ishaan . October 4, 2009 . 2:45pm

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A friend of mine brought the recent Spice & Wolf novel debacle to my attention the other day. For those not in the know, manga publisher Yen Press is going to be translating and publishing Japanese author Isuna Hasekura’s original Spice & Wolf novels in the U.S. starting this December. As you would imagine, given the popularity of the anime, many were pleased with the announcement.

 

The catch is that marketing light novels can be a tricky affair. Yen Press founder and director of publishing, Kurt Hassler points out that the common misconception, based on past examples, is that it can’t be done. However, Hassler argues, when you really come down to it, a light novel is simply a novel with illustrations. And given that there are far more readers of novels than manga fans in the West, with the right approach, light novels can be viable in the market. It’s this "right approach," however, that is causing all the debate.

 

Hassler writes on the Yen Press blog:

"The unfortunate reality we face, though, is that these designs that we adore, while they work brilliantly in markets where manga is ubiquitous, tend not to be impactful with more general audiences here — and we want everybody to enjoy these books! So the challenge we have to undertake is to come up with new cover designs for these fantastic books in hopes of garnering for them the readership they deserve."

 

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The result: The U.S. cover for Spice & Wolf vol. 1 is quite the departure from the art style people have come to associate with the franchise. It looks like something aimed at the Twilight or Sweet Valley audience, and who’s to say that Yen Press don’t want to give off that impression? Diehard fans who want the original cover (via a slip-jacket cover freebie) will require a subscription to Yen Plus magazine. Needless to say, it’s causing a fan uproar.

 

As fans of Japanese games, we’ve seen our fair share of similar localization changes, too. Take, for instance, the redesign of the Star Ocean 4 user-interface, or even the original Revelations: Persona on PS1 as a more extreme example. Or you could take it a step further and even look to Japanese publishers like Koei Tecmo who are effectively desgining a Japanese Gears of War in the hopes that it will take off in the West.

 

While I may not agree with these decisions, I can understand why they are made. Yen Press are an excellent publisher and if they say they’ll run into marketing trouble with the original S&W cover, I’m inclined to believe them. Manga, anime and games are, at the end of the day, businesses that need to be profitable. My question is, if Japanese media as a whole faces such a significant challenge selling to an overseas audience, why isn’t the industry doing anything to turn the situation around?

 

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In their country of origin, the three major segments of the "otaku" market — manga, anime and games — are intimately connected. For example, Japanese animation studio Production I.G. also own a manga imprint named Mag Garden, which in turn publishes several manga magazines. Enterbrain, the publisher that owns Famitsu also own an original manga imprint named Comic Beam.

 

And of course, the biggest example are Square Enix, who not only own the majority of Japan’s biggest game franchises, but also publish popular manga like Fullmetal Alchemist and Soul Eater.

 

Namco Bandai, too, are similarly involved with games and anime, and the results speak for themselves. The cross-pollination between the anime and game adaptations of series like Gundam and .hack has contributed greatly to their success. But the factors behind success go well beyond just cross-pollination.

 

Enterbrain — in addition to Famitsu – also publish a wide range of other magazines aimed at the gaming audience. These range from B’s LOG, a magazine aimed at female gamers, to Tech Gian, a magazine focusing on adult games. This is important to note because it indicates that the industry is taking measures to promote a wide variety of experiences and give them the exposure they need.

 

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Surely, in the U.S. where the market hasn’t been hit as hard by the economy, the otaku entertainment industry can take a leaf out of its Japanese counterpart’s book and start to invest in actually expanding the audience? One could argue that Yen Press might not be facing the challenge they do with Spice & Wolf were they a little closer to the sizeable videogame audience. I love Yen Press and I wasn’t even aware that they were publishing Spice & Wolf until recently, simply because it’s hard to keep track of so many different publishers across three different industries. Now it’s definitely on my radar.

 

Similarly, maybe games like Mana Khemia could reach a wider audience if NISA or Atlus or XSEED kept a closer eye on the manga or anime fanbase.Word of mouth is how niche games sell. After all, Final Fantasy enjoys a sizeable female audience that doesn’t play games otherwise. Why aren’t more companies looking for ways to replicate this success? Who’s to say Rune Factory or Harvest Moon couldn’t be just as appealing to a female audience, if not even more so?

 

What prevents companies like Atlus or NIS from partnering with, say, Otaku USA or Tokyopop for some aggressive cross-promotion? Or with Video Games Live for that matter. What prevents them from trying to make strides into the rest of the Japanese media industry in an attempt to synergize their product line-up? Sure, otaku media is considered mainstream pop-culture in Japan — a significant advantage that it will probably never have in the West — but this is the entertainment industry. Creating demand is what we’re supposed to do best. And demand is created by showing everyone how awesome you are — something none of these publishers seem to be doing.

 

Of course, this is by no means an easy task. There’s the considerable investment you’d need to take into account and the fact that you’ll probably go through a lot of failed experiments before striking gold. But then again, publishers that are in the niche game biz weren’t looking for easy money in the first place, were they?


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  • MisterNiwa

    That was a good read.

    I totally agree with you.

  • http://myanimelist.net/profile/Kuronoa Kuronoa

    Ugh I’m glad they are releasing the novel but wow it’s… different. As a fan of the anime I… well I’ll have to get used to it I guess. As long as the pictures are still in I’ll still look forward to it.

    I wish it wasn’t a Yes Plus deal though, I’m not interested in that and it feels like I’m “Recommended” to get it just for a cover.

    I can understand why they did it. I just hope it actually.. you know… sells. It would suck if they did this all for nothing.

  • Aoshi00

    I’ve been out of the anime/manga scene for quite a while, except still do some light reading/watching. Been wondering what the special title “Spice and Wolf was about..

    W/o delving too keep into the matter, both Jpn and US do the same thing, changing art style to cater to their audience. Crackdown has an anime-ish Riot Act cover, and that baby blowing bubble DS game I forgot what the title is became a cute fairy.. To fans such changes might be unnecessary and unwarranted, but from the marketing standpoint it’s not unreasonable.

    In this case, I thought the US cover is not that bad at all, kind of has a mature Neil Gaiman graphic novel feel, just like I’m perfectly fine w/ the Star Ocean US 4 interface (or Dragon Quest VIII) which I felt are superior to the Jpn counterpart, just making the menus much easier to navigate. I don’t think people should make a big fuss about such thing, look at Megaman 9′s joke cover box art on PSN, we have come a long way.

    Also, despite Naruto and perhaps some other big titles making best sellers in recent years. Aren’t manga and anime not as popular as back in the 90′s in general?

    I’m wondering if this manga is good, maybe I’ll give it a read (too lazy these days..)

    • Aoshi00

      Just saw the “mouth” on the cover, guess it’s kind of horrible.. before I just took a glance at the silhouette and didn’t even see the fox tail..

      Will drop by Kinokuniya tmw to see if I could pick up the manga, too lazy to read the 12 volumes of novels…

      • http://twitter.com/matty_125 matty

        I really liked the U.S. cover till I saw the mouth, too! It’s creepy…

        This reminds me of the deal with ICO for the PS2. The Japanese version had a very beautiful cover art that really captured the homage to the artist that inspired it as well as the feel of the game. Then you look at the U.S. cover and, well, you know how to feel about that.

        Still, as long as the actual content is unaltered (as in not changing the plot, settings, and such) I’m ok with it. Yeah, it sucks much in the same way that films heavy with subtitles can’t be released in mainstream theaters and MUST be remade for Joe Schmoe Jr. to be a financial success, but its really not hurting anybody. That’s just the way it is till someone really does something about it.

        • Aoshi00

          Yeah, I thought it’s not that big a deal either as long as the manga illustrations inside the novel are left intact. I guess they were going for the vampire feel w/ the creepy mouth thing, just the shadow was actually kind of cool for a graphic novel. Actually I’ve been wondering what this title is about but thought the cute anime girl w/ dog ears was kind of generic. I’m going to pick up the first volume to check it out tonight. Oh yeah, the Ico cover, we still had horrible covers back in the PSX / Saturn days, remember the He-Man-like Guardian Heroes? Interesting that both US & Jpn ver of Colossus only used uniformed CG and didn’t have cool arts though..

          • Vaane

            That reminds me of awful western messups like the Megaman cover back in the day :D

            I do prefer the original cover, but I’m just happy the novels are getting localised at all. I’ll probably buy a slipon cover frome ebay or something :/

          • http://www.siliconera.com/ Ishaan

            Dude, I need a way to get in touch with you. E-mail or anything?

          • http://www.younganimal.com/berserk Mr_Qoo

            What? Just because every RPG back in the NES days received the “Swords and Serpents” box art treatment doesn’t mean they were in the…wrong…wait a minute.

            Even movies, TV Series, and Books have had some bad treatments over the years. It’s kind of sad, isn’t it?

  • EvilAkito

    Yuck! When I first saw that Spice & Wolf cover-art on another forum, I thought it was a Photoshop hoax.

    • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

      Oh, it’s a bad Photoshop alright, only it’s unfortunately not a hoax…

  • http://www.nisamerica.com NickyD

    Lots of great reads popping up here today!

    I’m also curious why smaller companies don’t band together different entertainment mediums aimed at primarily the same demographic. Maybe it’s the entry cost? It’s tough to call, but it would be great if one of the companies mentioned about would step up and give it a shot.

    Why, Yen Press might want to publish some visual novels, for example. Or Atlus could bring the Persona anime over (it’s quality notwithstanding), if nobody else will. Et cetera, and so on, again and again.

    • http://twitter.com/matty_125 matty

      Didn’t J-List (a Japanese online shop for otaku) help produce a few visual novels?
      That’s the right idea! Although, I read, yet, another “uproar” from the VN community that they also censor or alter some content (I don’t know what exactly, but it seemed very minor).
      Welp, can’t please ‘em all!

  • Slashlen

    I really like the idea, but when most of these companies try to increase sales, their idea seems to be to try to appeal to non-otaku rather than try to grab more otaku.

    Whenever a company makes changes like this, it always seems a bit dishonest to me. It’s as if they don’t believe in the product and they have to trick people into buying it. If they thought the original Spice & Wolf cover was a problem, they could have swapped covers with a later volume or used some offical art or something.

    I seriously wonder if this even works. Really, how many sales did Square Enix got out of changing the UI of Star Ocean?

    • http://twitter.com/matty_125 matty

      I see the same thing with anime and the “explosion” years back when it seemed like things were really picking up.
      The problem many publishers had was that during that time they didn’t expand their marketing when they had a great opportunity to do so. They did grab more fans in the hardcore base, but that’s all. Now we see volumes not being completed, projects getting scrapped or passed over to other companies, or just generally very slow releases.
      ADV Manga practically just sat on the Yotsuba series for nearly TWO dang years before they finally let it go to Yen Press.
      I’m not saying this was the cause of all the problems going on today, but if these people really focused on expanding the reader and viewership then things might not be as rough. It isn’t the product they don’t believe in. It’s when they see time after time that titles don’t sell as well as they expected because the base they thought was there suddenly isn’t there anymore.

      For that, I can’t blame them at all. Do what you can to survive.

  • CleruTesh

    Hmm… I have noticed lately Yen Plus putting novel excerpts in the mangazine, which I routinely skip. So they may very well be on the right track in marketing them a different way.

  • Kris

    My god, that spice and wolf cover is horrible…
    Like NES game art horrible.
    However, your article is 100% accurate. Perhaps something like an expanded Siliconera would be a good place for an Otaku-conglomerate.

    • http://www.siliconera.com/ Ishaan

      Hohoho, that’s an interesting thought.

  • Xien12

    Ew. Twilight.

  • Pichi

    Nice article about this!

    I can see why they changed it. It does has a chance of attracting more people who like those sort of novels/doesn’t like or know anime art. It is like changing box arts for for a certain region all over again. Not sure if I’m okay with that 100%. Just a case by case for me, I guess.

    I wonder, do these companies even know some of their properties can by combined like that? So much good can come out of that and help spread it if they do. I can’t see it as a monoply issue or anything, worth a small risk with a title or two to see how it goes.

  • epy

    I understand why they’re doing it. It makes complete sense from a business point of view, but what if it DOES succeed? Every single publisher of japanese media goes back to the practice of the 90s of changing, censoring and in any other form altering all anime/manga art in their releases with the hope of grabbing the attention of the mainstream? I’m sure I don’t want that happening.

    I wish there was a way of telling how the changes they did to SO4 impacted the sales on the 360, if at all.

    • http://twitter.com/matty_125 matty

      Then another publisher comes up and says “we want to stay true to the original content’s ideal!”, then it becomes a breath of fresh air to see this type of stuff again and wonder why it was changed in the first place.
      Then five years down the road the market isn’t doing too hot and it’s back to square one, and so and so on…

    • Hraesvelgr

      Doubt the sales of SO4 were impacted by something as minor as that. If they were, however, that’s pretty damn sad. I mean, the game is terrible either way, but if you’re going to pass it up because it’s lacking some anime art (which isn’t even that great, btw), that’s just sad.

  • Xien12

    I still think that if publishers are going to drastically change an aspect of the series, the named series should stay unpublished.

  • http://www.facebook.com/devin.faulhaber Devin Faulhaber

    I wish Yen Press the best. I’ve been burned twice by Light Novels. The first time was with Kino no Tabi (Kino’s Journey), as the second novel was announced but then never released. The second light novel series that was seemingly canceled was Boogiepop Phantom. I bought one of the novels in the hopes the rest would be brought over and if memory serves, one was, but then, nothing.

    At this point, I’m hoping fans translate the rest of the novels and just upload them online. Or, best case scenario, someday down the line, Kino’s Journey and Boogiepop Phantom would get anime sequels that I could actually support by buying the dvds!

    • http://myanimelist.net/profile/Kuronoa Kuronoa

      Also I think Tokyopop is dropping Full Metal Panic too, the 4th volume hasn’t been released yet, not a good sign since it was suggested for a holiday 08 release.

  • Hraesvelgr

    Quite frankly, I don’t see the big deal about some minor changes like that. For one thing, there are plenty of great books with absolutely garbage covers. Don’t get me wrong, I would prefer as few “changes” as possible, but it’s not hard to understand why they do it. Hell, Japan has and still does change some of their imported things to have more of an “anime” look. It’s all about the market, really.

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