This morning, a post from Simona Stanzani came across my Facebook feed for a charming little comic called Rosie and Jacinda. I did a little research, found a delightful video trailer for it and ended up buying the comic. (Which seems to have been on sale in limited quantity, so I have no link for you at the moment, perhaps when they get it back in stock/print.)
This comic created a storm of discussion on poor Simona’s Facebook feed, so I wanted to move the conversation (at least my part of it) over here, where we’re free to write lengthy dissertations on why people who don’t agree with us are wrong. ^-^
Okay, let me first disclaim – I am a futurist. That is to say, I embrace change, look forward to it, enjoy the shift and ebb of format and policy and await new man/machine interfaces and forms of communication and information sharing with delight. This puts me in a very small minority of fandom. Fans (well, all people) are, by and large, quite conservative. Change distresses people. They rely on models they know, fear things they don’t, and frequently don’t understand that, whether or not they can see the reason for change, change is happening.
So, let’s start with the current model of comics and manga. I go to a store (online or brick and mortar) and I buy a physical copy of a book. There is very likely to be no other legal way for me to read that comic, as there are few comic/manga libraries. This model – I must purchase it to read it – is the old model on which both anime and manga industries are based. (For a really excellent look at this model, take a look at Justin Sevakis’ three-part series about the anime economy on Anime News Network. Part two is the most relevant here.)
Before digital, if I wanted to read a manga, or see an anime, there was a very small, slow underground for subs or translations. Buying the anime once it was licensed was the only real, legal option and, of course, all “true fans” did that to show their support.
This meant that I, as a fan, became a collector. Comics fans are often comics collectors, because it was obvious that after your piles of comics became too large to keep under your bed, long boxes would help you keep them in order…and mylar bags would keep them in good shape just in case you ever wanted to sell them. Which of course you would never do. So those boxes accumulate and voila! You’re a collector. Same with manga. You start to read One Piece and a few years later, it’s got three shelves of space to itself and you can’t get rid of it, because, well, you have all of it since the beginning, so you’ll just shift those other books to the other room and keep collecting. And, let’s be fair – there’s a certain level of OCD among us who are “fans” (as opposed to mere readers.) ^_^
Okay, so the old model was – you want the content, you must buy the physical item.
I’m going to skip the digital revolution and the implication of scans and subs here.
Here we are in a future that no one expected – the very system that fans created to make it easier to enjoy content has now begun to replace the model of purchasing a physical copy in order to enjoy content. Unfortunately, those same fans who are perfectly willing to enjoy the content for free digitally, only want to support it by purchasing a physical copy.
In other words, the equation “In order to enjoy it, I must buy it” has shifted to, “I must be able to own it, or I won’t buy it.”
Let’s talk for a bit about those piles of comics and manga we own. Do we read and re-read ALL of them? No, obviously not. We certainly re-read some of them, but it’s highly unlikely that all fans re-read all of the material they have collected. I have comics in my closet that I haven’t looked at in decades. I have manga on my shelves I read once and probably will never read again. I justify keeping them because they are part of my unique historical collection. But who really gives a shit? I mean, let’s be realistic. No one. Well…maybe one or two people on the planet. ^_^ I’m keeping them because I, like the fan I am, cannot imagine throwing them away. I’ve learned to do that with titles I really didn’t enjoy, things I don’t want in the house, titles that are irrelevant to me – I do contests or sell them. They are weeded from my collection. But still, the piles grow.
This is the major difference between the content and the physical item – space.
Right now, we’re perched on a precarious swing – one way we swing towards the past – “Print copy or I will not buy,” is the eternal call of the fan who grew up in the 20th century. The future is the cry of children being born right now, “A book? Oh, you mean those paper things Dad keeps in his study. I don’t know why he even keeps them, we have /madeupformatname/ now.” (Much the same as younger folks today look at their parents’ LP collections.)
Publishers are being squeezed to produce digital and print right now, because fans want both, but will only pay for one, or maybe might pay for both if they are “reasonable” (which means the lowest cost that item has ever been sold for.)
What it boils down to is that fans want to “own” the content, because we are used to “owning” the physical container of the content. Being able to access content isn’t comfortable or sufficient – we want to download it, because we are used to holding the content in our hands.
I’m going to pick one series and use it as a straw man. Kaguya-hime, by Shimizu Reiko, was a truly fantastic series. The art is beautiful, the story cracktastic and I loved it. Right now, I can see all 21 volumes of the series on my shelves. I love the manga content, but I really, truly don’t need to have the physical copies. If I were able to access the content without having the books themselves on my shelves, I’d dump them. Because I cannot access the content any other way at the moment, I keep the books. They take up space. Space I could use for something else. I am not likely to read Kaguya-hime all the way through again, but I do read bits and pieces of it – and I like to write about it, because it’s so nuts. Having access to to the content without having to keep the books themselves would be perfect.
Can one ever “own” content? Yes and no. I can own the thoughts and experiences of reading that content and the knowledge of that content. In the same sense that when I read a print book I borrow from the library, I can write about that book freely, but if I am to quote large passages of it, I’m required to get permission to do so because I do not own that content, but I can own my unique impressions of that content.
I own books, those physical containers of content. But, although I own the containers of Kaguya-hime, I don’t, in any meaningful way. own the content of the story. It says right in the book who the owners of that content are.
Let’s say I buy access to a digital version of Kaguya-hime. I still don’t “own” the content and now I don’t “own” the container, either. I will still “own” my unique perspective on the story. Many people strongly dislike this arrangement. Here are some of the valid, proven reasons why:
1) What if that company goes out of business?
2) Their proprietary format does not allow me access on all my devices.
3) I want to “own” what I buy.
The first is, of course valid, and people have felt burnt when companies changed models, formats, or gone out of business. This is of course true about many things, not just content – your gym might close, and render your membership null. Your house might burn down and render all those content containers you own into ash. Your mother might throw out your comic collection, rendering the few copies left of some old title that much more valuable to those people who will pay for it. As a futurist, I cannot believe that fear of possible negative outcomes should ever limit my mobility. Other people will chose differently. Our choices are all valid…but…those old models will change, regardless of whether we agree with them or not. As I said, I prefer to embrace change.
The second is, in my opinion, the strongest argument, but not a complete one. Yes, companies ought to make every attempt to make material accessible. However, no company can be responsible for your decisions and if you chose to by a device that will not read software that has become the standard…that really isn’t the content company’s fault. I’m not a big fan of completely proprietary formats either, and prefer universal formats like PDF and epub. Many companies are making inroads with Android and iOS apps that allow you to share your library of content between devices. That’s getting closer to the kind of portability we feel we have with books.
While I sympathize with the idea of wanting to “own” what one buys, I feel that cable TV and Internet access has already killed it as a valid objection. You do not “own” any of the content you enjoy on Netflix or Pay-per-view, either. You pay for the right to access and enjoy that content. Why this model is so repugnant in regards to anime or manga is a little confusing to me. It’s a done deal – we do this kind of thing every day already for content. Except we never have done this kind of thing for comics or manga before. And that’s different because we’re not already used to it.
This third objection is simply a relic of previous models – you are used to a model in which you paid money for a container and were able to move that container around as you so chose – even lend it out, if you wanted, because you “owned” that container. If/when we can share digital content the way we share physical content containers, we’ll be right on the edge of that objection going away.
And based on comments below, I think I need to add a fourth objection:
4) This all sounds well and good but I want it NOW.
There is nothing to say to that, really.
But, will these objections actually go away if people can share content, and are assured that they can access it the way they want and when and where they want?
Probably not. And the reason for that has absolutely nothing to do with the objections themselves, however sensible they seem on the surface. Fans, as I am repeatedly made aware, are extremely conservative thinkers, as I said. Change is bad on the face of it, because we like what we like and why should we have to learn to like something else just because? We LIKE books. Obviously, we are used to books. We understand them and their use and limitations. They are portable, universal in format (print on paper) and the only limitation they contain is whether we can read the language on the paper. (Digital may one day eliminate that, by being able to translate what is on the paper, but that’s a different fairytale.)
My argument against all of these objections comes down to “Of course, because this is what you are used to. When you are used to something else, it will not seem strange.” Can you imagine someone explaining MP3s to your parents when they were buying their first LPs? ^_^ My Dad is 75 – he loves his MP3 player. People do get used to change.
Here’s my futurist fairytale – I have a device that supports all standard formats. On that device I can access any of my digital content, regardless of where I am, or whether I am connected to the Internet. I can share that content with friends AND still have it for myself, as I cannot with a physical container, because the content is no longer bound (literally or figuratively) to the container. My content is available in translation and in the original, so I can read it in whichever language suits me. I can switch devices and still access my content.
I no longer need to buy the containers for content, when I can access that content anywhere, any time.
I don’t own the content, but then, I never did. I just owned the containers and my thoughts about the content…and the two things that the content conferred upon me – portability and ability to share – are replicated by this new system.
Because content containers are no longer de rigeur, they have become less typical. They will, like LPs now, be collector’s items and works of art, like the swords I collect. Books are not objects of every day use, but efforts of craftsmanship and beauty. I have space on my shelves for these, because I can access the content I want anytime, so I can surround myself with the most beautiful physical objects.
No one will ask you to destroy your comics or manga collection, but I bet in 40 years it will be mostly gone. It made sense to replace your LPs with CDs and your CDs with MP3s, each one of which made your music more portable and sharable. It made sense to replace movie reels with VHS, and then DVDs and now on-demand video. It will likewise one day be quite sensible to get rid of all those old manga volumes, because you’ll have different ways to access your content.
As a futurist I believe that, since change is inevitable, embracing change leads to fewer heartaches. And if this next format fails, it’s really no big deal because there will be a newer, more flexible, more universal format right after that.
As always, the comments are open for discussion, digression and argument. However, today I am putting an additional limitation on posters. The usual rules here are, do not insult or attack your fellow commenter or link to sites with illegal content. Today I’m adding this one rule: You may not tell a fellow commenter that they are wrong. Please feel free to express your opinion as freely as you like, but please also respect that everyone else’s opinion is valid. Thank you in advance.
I look forward to your perspective!