Digital Manga Guild Contracts Examined; Are They Exploiting Contributors?

Last month, when the Digital Manga Guild released its first title, there was an odd quote about contracts from the Digital Manga Publishing CEO Hikaru Sasahara. Now that someone has run the numbers on the legal agreement, we can see that it wasn’t just a passing concern or bad word choice. (Hint: That the post I’m linking to is titled “Smells Like Exploitation!” gives you an idea of the position of the writer.)

From the post:

While DMP hasn’t officially set a price per book, the example they gave in the presentation was about $5.00. So let’s run with that for now:

12% of $5.00 is $0.60.
As per above, we’re assuming localizing one tankobon should be worth at least $290.00 in labor.
At 12% of $5.00 ($0.60), it would require 484 sales just to reach $290.00.

$290 is the U.S. minimum wage for 40 hours of work. And this estimate assumes one person can do all the work — translate, edit, and lettering — for a given book. If you take longer, or if you have to share with partners, the numbers of books that have to be sold for you to be making minimum wage increases proportionally. There’s more, again per the post author, with questions surrounding the material selected for localization as part of this effort:

It’s all quantity over quality. These are high-volume licenses. The titles were not really chosen at all, let alone chosen based on some criteria that might ensure that there was at least SOME interest in the title beyond “it’s BL.” The willingness of Japanese publishers to hand over the rights to these titles with no upfront guarantee doesn’t really inspire confidence in their quality.

And to make matters worse, “localization teams” get no choice in titles, yet are effectively competing against each other for sales. Of course, DMG claims that it assigns titles randomly out of the desire to be “fair” to all teams. …

DMP puts pretty much 0 work (time/money) into each title and consequently has taken on no risk on a per-title basis. They have no particular interest in making sure a given title is successful since they’re effectively getting people to work for free on something which may never have even had the potential to turn a profit. But it doesn’t really matter to DMP (or the Japanese publishers really) since NEITHER company has anything on the line here. Do they care about over saturation and under exposure for each group? Nope. DMP gets paid for EVERY volume that sells, despite putting, again, ZERO work into each individual title.

There’s additional information at the post about delayed payment — like Google ads, DMP doesn’t have to send out any money until the worker is due at least $100, which might take quite a while to add up — and that the company reserves the right to not publish your work or to pull it at any time without owing you anything. Also, instead of 12%, if they print the book, you only get 5%. This is all based on the agreement, which you have to pass one of their tests to see.

Of course, most of the participants in this effort aren’t trying to do this professionally, so to them, it’s pin money, received for something they’d probably be doing anyway. Gravy, in other words, for college kids. But that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to exploit themselves.

That’s why guilds/unions are necessary: there are always people who will work for less, or even free, to “get a foot in the door” or get started or get a green card, especially in entertainment fields. It’s not until they get a bit of experience under their belts that they realize what a bad idea that is — because if you let people exploit themselves, then the drive to the bottom will eventually eliminate a living wage. You don’t have the ability to keep working for peanuts once you have a home and family to support, so the end result is a field, whether movies or technology, fueled only by the young and stupid (or let’s charitably say “inexperienced”), overseen by a few people making obscene profits on the back of kids. That’s why I find it somewhat ironic that Digital Manga has labeled its “work for free” effort a Guild. Where’s the worker protection or value for skills?

9 Comments

  1. “Of course, most of the participants in this effort aren’t trying to do this professionally, so to them, it’s pin money, received for something they’d probably be doing anyway.”

    I’m kind of confused about who exactly is doing this. Do you know? I hear about scanlators being the DMP translators, but scanlators, like the author at 19.04s mentioned, are probably unlikely to translate whatever random manga DMP assigns them for free when they could just scanlate something they like for free. It also sounds like DMP has awfully high standards – too high for the remaining group of people I can think of who might do it: young people with basic-but-not-advanced Japanese skills and a fair bit of free time. So who’s left? I’m sure there are a couple of people who will grasp at the opportunity without working through how much they’ll be earning, but even if some of them join in at the beginning, they’ll run headlong into reality sooner or later.

    Maybe that’s just how it’s going to be. I want this initiative to work – like you, I like the idea in theory. Set up the way it is, I can’t see this as a long-term business.

  2. I don’t think there’s been many details released about exact numbers of applicants or their background. Since they’re allowed to use pseudonyms, it’s hard to get a good idea. Anyone who wanted to be a professional translator, though, would likely see that working for free in a cattle call situation wouldn’t be good for the profession or craft.

  3. I don’t know if that was DMP’s intention or not, but shrouding the identities of the participants seems like it would make it hard for them to contact each other, figure out how much they’re all making and so on. Maybe DMP’s hoping the participants won’t figure out just how little they’re all making?

  4. [...] but then uses site visitors to form “teams” that develop a legal English-language edition. Some have criticized how little DMG’s “workforce” gets paid, and also whether the model will ever attract any [...]

  5. [...] the Digital Manga Guild program, where fans translate titles for free with the potential for later payment, has been successful enough for the publisher that they’re expanding from boys’ [...]

  6. [...] recent post, Melinda explains how the group she first joined fell apart over contract issues (a not-uncommon concern). She attributes this to “lack of effective and accurate communication between DMG’s [...]

  7. [...] and Digital Manga Publishing, which I know first-hand are very reliable companies. According to http://comicsworthreading.com/2011/09/01 they do not pay much compared to a regular part-time job, since I'd imagine you'd have to [...]

  8. [...] eight in the second, with each book about 200 pages long — and were translated through the Digital Manga Guild program. They’re tagged as both “josei” (why I was checking them out) and [...]

  9. […] news that Digital Manga will be publishing previously untranslated works by Osamu Tekuza via their Digital Manga Guild. Specifically, their deal with Tezuka Productions Co. Ltd. aims to “bring Tezuka’s backlist […]

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