Navigating the Seven Seas of (Web)Comics
Some pundits claim that every comic that is released is pirated almost immediately and posted for free somewhere in the vast thicket of BitTorrent sites, IRC channels, and cheesy websites that make up the underside of the comics iceberg. But is that a bad thing?
It seems wrong, but it's true; giving a comic away online can be good for sales. Look no further than Megatokyo, which is the best selling global manga of all time, even though the entire comic is available online for free. And just last year, Phil and Kaija Foglio decided to stop printing floppy comics and put Girl Genius online, a move that saved them money and apparently increased sales of their trade paperbacks as well.
While this may be a good choice for a creator, it's still unusual for a publisher to put entire volumes of a comic online for free. Seven Seas is the exception: From the very beginning, they have published their works as webcomics before releasing them in print form in order to build demand for the print versions. Curious about how they make money on a product they are giving away for free, I e-mailed Adam Arnold, their senior editor and webmaster as well as the writer of Aoi House, and peppered him with questions about how they turn webcomics into money.
Brigid Alverson: First of all, I want to talk about how Seven Seas incorporated webcomics into its business model. You are the only company that puts up substantial portions of their manga online for free. What ever made you think that was a good idea?
Adam Arnold: When Seven Seas Entertainment first came onto the manga scene back in fall 2004, our line consisted of all original titles that we were creating from scratch. The obvious problem you face with OEL [Original English Language] manga when compared to licensed titles from Japan is that no one is familiar with the titles beforehand. This means that you really have to work to generate interest and get people excited about the series you’re doing.
By putting up enough of a series online for fans to read, it means that you’re giving them more of a chance to get into the story and really get a feel for it. With American super-hero comics, you can generally post a couple of pages and people will know if they want to pick it up. But with manga, they’re often more of a slow burn in terms of story progression, so it often takes upwards of 20 or even 40 pages to know if a book is something you know you wanna be reading.
As for putting up a large chunk of our books online for free, it’s actually something that’s really helped us in the long run. There’s very few negatives to putting up an entire book online and keeping it online. It sure doesn’t hurt sales. In fact, more than anything, it actually helps sales. When you keep a preview online, then it allows your site visitors to read that book and they might like what they see and want to pick up the print edition. It’s basically free advertising, if you get down to it.
BA: Do you usually put up an entire volume, or do you take it down before the last chapter?
AA: With the exception of Aoi House, we tend to run between 75 and 100 pages of the first volume of a title online. Once a series wraps up its run on the web, we don’t take any of chapters offline like other sites tend to do. We actually leave them online for new visitors to discover and enjoy.
In the case of Aoi House, ever since we started running it on Gomanga.com back in January 2005, it’s become one of our main draws for the site, so it’s definitely going to be a permanent fixture on the site through the end of January ‘09, when the series wraps up.
BA: About how often do you change the titles that are online?
AA: We tend to cycle in new series every six to eight months. There are also times when we’ll run a short preview of a manga series we’ve licensed from Japan. A good example of this would be I, Otaku: Struggle In Akihabara, which we ran as part of our “Otaku Month” back in October ’07.
BA: How has your strategy changed since you started doing this?
AA: When Gomanga.com launched back in October 2004, we had a pop-up manga viewer that we used to preview our four launch titles (Amazing Agent Luna, Blade for Barter, Last Hope, and No Man’s Land). This was fine for 600x800 monitors, but it proved to be too small when larger monitors started becoming more common. I still really like that interface because it was PHP-based, and that allowed for faster loading and greater browser compatibility than the flash-based viewers other sites were using at the time.
When we launched Aoi House, we knew we wanted to run it as a normal webcomic, so that meant we needed a page-per-day type of interface. The plus to this was that it also allowed the art to be presented a lot larger, which meant it was easier to read. And since we got a lot of compliments about that, we decided to shift to that model for any new OEL titles that we decided to run online.
What’s kind of funny, though, is that other companies were seeing how we presented our previews and started to emulate us. If we had a pop-up, PHP-based page viewer, then other sites started to add them. And when we suddenly went to a larger webcomic-type interface for page-a-day updates, we started seeing some other manga companies going that route as well. So, in that way, you could think of us as being a bit of a trendsetter.
BA: Do you have any way of measuring how many readers you are getting? If so, how many?
AA: In the case of Aoi House, it brings in over 700,000 page views per month, and accounts for roughly 65% of Gomanga.com’s non-forum traffic.
BA: How does the print version differ from the online comic?
AA: When we start running a series online, it’s often quite early in production. So some titles might not have their toning, or the artists may want to go back and touch up some of their original panels...or draw entirely new pages! There have also been some titles where we’ve gone back and spiced up the dialogue for the print edition (as we did with Ravenskull), or even completely relettered the book from scratch (like in the case of Moonlight Meow).
BA: Do you have any idea how presenting the works as webcomics affects sales?
AA: Well, it’s not ever an exact science, that’s for sure. We can only guess as to how running certain titles online will eventually pan out when the books hit store shelves. Our theory is that by running a series online, readers will get excited about it and want to pick up the print editions. We also try to add some extra enticement by leaving off at a big plot point or a cliffhanger so that there is a desire to see how it gets resolved. Other times, as with Aoi House, we put out the print editions while the volume is still running online so that fans can get the jump on everyone else and see where everything ends up.
While Aoi House is definitely an example of a series that has benefited from the online exposure, we do know that it doesn’t always correlate into sales. Sometimes, try as we might, we do have some titles that fall through the cracks. And yes, it really does get to us, because we’re all about putting out the best quality OEL out there. And to us, they’re all gems.
BA: Is there any chance that we will see some of the Japanese works you license as webcomics?
AA: I’d love to be able to run some of the series we’re licensing from Japan as webcomics, but the contracts are often far too restrictive to allow for it. And there are also new copyright laws in Japan that various publishers are interpreting in different ways.
In the case of I, Otaku, we were allowed to run the entire first chapter online, but with Strawberry Panic, we could only get permission to run one-third of the first chapter, which was the minimum amount we could run without paying royalties per view. Unfortunately, since that particular first chapter was only sixteen pages long, it meant that we could only run five pages of it online.
BA: Do your creators know from the beginning that their work will be presented first as a webcomic?
AA: Yes, we consider it part of the promotion process for a title, so every artist knows right from the start that we'll be running some portion of their series online for readers to enjoy. We also create sections for the series on our forum, and the creators are welcome to drop by and interact with the people enjoying their work. From my own personal experience, the more you interact with your readers, the more they feel like they are a part of something special and will want to stick around for the long haul.
BA: Does that affect the work in any way? For instance, do they usually feel that each page has to work on its own, as well as being part of a complete story? Or do they assume people will read all the pages at once?
AA: Since Seven Seas conceives the majority of its OEL as eventually having a print release, we tend to not worry about if a story will work on a per-page basis online. That said, sometimes action titles don’t necessarily work as well in a webcomic format since some of the heavier action sequences can take several weeks to finish online, so readers are more likely to take a break from those and then come back to them. So series with comedy elements or shorter scenes and/or chapters often make for more engaging webcomics overall and encourage long-term loyalty from the readers.
BA: Your own Aoi House is the only manga that is presented in its entirety on the site. Like Megatokyo, it’s all up there for free. How did you develop the story?
AA: With lots of PEZ and Diet Pepsi!
But seriously, I first had the idea of doing a series about an American anime club back in fall 2004. I had been brought to Seven Seas’ attention through my work on the webzine I ran at the time, Animefringe: Online Anime Magazine, as someone that could create and run their website. I discovered that they were doing original manga using American writers and artists from all over the world, so I asked them if they’d be open to me proposing a story, which they were. I then gathered my thoughts for a while and come up with a story set in an anime club that’s a pretty different than what we see today. The original proposal had a bit of a shoujo slant to it with the two female leads that ran a college anime club and have aspirations of becoming manga creators...and one friend just happens to have romantic feelings for the other.
Obviously, that’s not the story that eventually got written. Jason DeAngelis liked the idea of a story about an anime club, but felt the story needed to be more harem-esque. So I put my original proposal aside and started over from scratch with two straight guys that are forced into joining a live-in anime club house that they later discover is run by all sorts of crazed yaoi fangirls. Unfortunately, Jason was unsure about how it would do in the market, and even less sure about a first time writer (I was doing English adaptation work on manga and freelance writing at the time, but this would’ve been my first self-written series). So we agreed that I would write the series as an online webmanga, and based on how it performed online, we’d consider putting out print compilations later. Little did we know what an immediate, overnight hit it would be!
Within days of launching the series, we started trying to figure out how we could eventually do print volumes of the materials. At the time, Jim Jimenez was the artist and the series was being written panel-by-panel like an American comic with each page being episodic with mini gag-based story arcs. As fate would have it, Jim had another job offer to do a full-length series, so it was decided that Aoi House would be completely relaunched as a full-fledged manga with fan-favorite artist Shiei (Amazing Agent Luna) bringing her own unique style of cute to the series.
The cool thing about the relaunch was that it felt like a course correction. It allowed me to go back to an earlier version of my proposal and add back in Sandy’s pet hamster Echiboo, which meant enormous new possibilities for the story, as it allowed for us to tell a fresh new version of the story that people hadn’t seen already. And from a storytelling perspective, I was able to start writing the series in screenplay format, which meant that instead of dictating everything panel-by-panel, Shiei was free to plot out the panels and pace the scenes as she saw fit. Essentially she became the director, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Shiei has an amazing eye for layouts.
BA: Do you envision the story in separate arcs that could go on forever, or is there an overall narrative that will eventually come to an end?
AA: When I first started, my goal was to just get all the characters introduced, and have some adventures while working towards the DDR showdown and the first volume’s cliffhanger. I did know a little about where I wanted to be heading later in the series, so I was able to drop some hints about an eventual trip to Hatsu-Con and also introduce the mysterious Oniisan into the equation.
Once the first volume was in the can, it was a bit like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Starting really is the hardest part, but once you’re out of the gate, you start thinking long-term and figuring out what new and fun things you can do with your characters while moving them forward. I was able to start plotting things out more long-term and could really have some fun with the stories.
My original goal early on was to do five books with the first two comprising Alex and Sandy’s first semester with Aoi House, the third being the gang’s adventure at Hatsu-Con, and then two further volumes set during the second semester. But I realized about halfway through writing the third book that the series was going somewhere else—somewhere better, in fact. So I did a course correction and reworked the series into four books spread across two seasons (Aoi House and Aoi House In Love!), and I’m really pleased with the results. The fans are absolutely going to love the final volume.
As a bit of a plug... we start running the final volume of Aoi House online starting March 5th, and the print edition (Aoi House In Love! Vol. 2 – Happy Endings) will be out this June. We’re also putting out a 352-page omnibus edition of the first 13 episodes this April for a real bargain price of $10.99.
BA: One of the big questions with webcomics is always the interface. What sort of a reader do you use to display the comics?
AA: We currently use a custom-built PHP script to display our webmanga pages. There’s also some CSS and a whole lot of plain ol’ HTML at work. It took a while for us to get to where we are now with the interface, but once we did... it sure made things a whole lot easier to update.
BA: Does the fact that your comics read right-to-left cause any confusion?
AA: Not really. Webcomics come in so many shapes, sizes and orientations that readers have a pretty easy time adapting to the style used. Just to make sure, though, our interface does say, “Read me right-to-left.”
BA: What can we expect from Seven Seas in the near (or distant) future in terms of webcomics?
AA: Before I get into the upcoming titles, let me give a quick plug to It Takes A Wizard, which is a title we just started running on Gomanga.com back in December. The best way to describe it is saying it's "Escape from New York" with magic. It’s this really epic fantasy series where Manhattan has become this dark kingdom where magic runs wild, and it’s at war with the rest of the United States. And now, this former wizard’s apprentice named Isaac Silverberg has been plucked from Death Row to redeem himself by rescuing the governor of New Jersey’s kidnapped daughter. Great stuff.
Down the pipeline a little, we have InVisible by Tristan Crane (How Loathsome), which is something that’s sure to appeal to yaoi fans. It’s kind of best described as a reverse Kashimashi. The main character is a model with a handsome boyfriend, but she wakes up one morning and she’s suddenly a guy.
For fans of fan service and Lupin-style action, we have 10 Beautiful Assassins (the title alone gives you an idea of the craziness to expect). It’s being drawn by the incredibly talented Elmer Damaso, who did our recent Speed Racer title.
And finally, there’s the Lovecraft-inspired Arkham Woods, which is a title I can’t wait to start running online. It’s being drawn by Jhomar Soriano, the artist of Mr. Grieves, and the art and story are just mind-blowing. Definitely a can’t-miss title.