regarding our sources of gems and cake

I recently found and read one of the best manga series Iʼve ever come across.  Beautifully drawn, mostly beautifully written.  Charming, poignant and amusing by turns.  But thatʼs not what I want to write about.

What I want to write about starts with the fact that I had never heard of it.  Thatʼs not unusual; there are more manga in Japan and on the Net than are dreamt of in any one place on Earth.  And Sturgeonʼs Law applies – ninety-five per cent of them are crap.  Many of them unbearable.  Yet here we are; amidst the worthwhile five percent, a gem.  And I would never have heard of it if it hadnʼt been for: scanlation sites.  Nor is this the first time Iʼve come across excellent works in this way.

Scanlations arenʼt the only way in which we find good things.  But I am rarely inside of a couple of hoursʼ walk of a bookshop, and the bookshops arenʼt what they were, so I havenʼt been in one for a long time.  I am rarely inside a dayʼs journey of a comics shop.  And even Forbidden Planet donʼt stock anything like the range of works to be found as scanlations.  Which leaves online bookstores and general manga/animé/comics sites.  Oh, and libraries.  (And probably other options, but thatʼs enough for now.)  Some of the previous manga gems Iʼve found turned up as recommendations on Amazon or similar sites.  Iʼve never found actual gems in any sort of bookstore.  Even if Iʼd had time, chances are I wouldnʼt have the money, because expensive, and I must have travelled (also expensive) to get there.  Online purchases are easier on the finances.

Or, you can get them free, from scanlation sites.  Which brings up the whole question of copyright, struggling authors, struggling publishers, etc.  Points:

  1. Canonically, ninety-five per cent of manga is crap.  This includes about ninety-five per cent of works officially translated and marketed heavily enough that Forbidden Planet are likely to have it in on the rare occasions when Iʼm nearby.  I will neither buy the crap there, nor (even if they stocked it) in the nearest bookshop to me; nor read past the first few pages on scanlation sites, nor (even if they stocked it) in my nearest library.
  2. Canonically, five per cent of manga is good.  (The boundary is likely to be a bit less sharp, but, fine.)  The chance of finding it anywhere other than through website recommendations, fan-site commentary, scanlation sites, or some combination of these, is – from experience – slim; or non-existent when it comes to the gems.  (Seriously; I have never found gemlike comics in book- or comics shops.  Fairly good, yes; gems, no.  Your gemmage [1] may vary.)
  3. I havenʼt paid for everything Iʼve read on scanlation sites.  Much of what I have read is out of print.  If I had to stick with what is currently commercially available, I would read very little manga.  But where possible I do buy the good stuff, which as noted, I would not have found through ordinary means.  Even Amazon doesnʼt usually have it available.  So I sometimes import originals from a dealer in China and check the scanlations for full comprehension.  Where publishers wonʼt distribute officially in this part of the world, this remains difficult.
  4. This behaviour is similar to two things:  Browsing in the bookshops, and browsing in the library.  Bookshops may be happy to let people sit in and read along the shelves as long as theyʼre buying coffee.  Theyʼve usually paid for the books up front, so thatʼs fine from the struggling (or not so struggling) publishersʼ point of view.  Libraries have also bought copies, and (in many countries) pay public lending rights fees.  It may not be lucrative, but no realistic understanding of publishing can ignore marginal pricing.  Different people always paid different amounts for similar product access.  Professional writers, artists, and publishers do not generate income solely on official sales.
  5. Like many people, especially the bulk of the target audience for mainstream manga, I have only so much money.  If it were possible to force me to pay for every page I read on scanlation sites I would not buy more, only read less, and so be less motivated to buy anything through discovery of good things.
  6. Nevertheless I recognise that as things stand, scanlations are usually copyright breaches, somewhere.  And there is supposedly a potential inhibiting effect on official translations, if a claim to copyright for the unofficial translation could be advanced.  (A problematic but interesting argument Iʼve heard.)

Scanlation sites then are at best legally dodgy.  Sometimes the content is not even -lated, but just scanned from the official translation.  But is even this really a problem?  For comparison, other ways I could – in principle – read these things free are in libraries and bookshops.  There are various ifs of geography here, but letʼs run with it.  Then, thereʼs private borrowing, and gifts.

Since 1990 large bookshops have been mostly turning into coffee & cake retailers with reading facilities and book-takeaway counters.  (This is not true of either of the independent bookshops near me, but they predominantly sell other things now.)  The same may or may not be coming true of libraries.  Libraries do pay for the books, so there is a possible income stream for the publisher.  So does someone at some point when preparing a scanlation, but libraries also have PRL.

I like libraries, and not just for the restful sight of books.  Not just because, quiet, either. [2]  Iʼm not sure I can describe it.  And it occurs to me that if libraries were illegal in the same way as scanlation sites may-or-may-not-be in different jurisdictions, there would be less publishing.  Historically, fewer people would have bought books, because they would not have had the opportunity to read them free and decide if they were worth having or giving.  Now?  Things have changed and arguably libraries as we knew them are out of date.  Hopefully the trend will not continue towards turning them into coffee shops with books at the back.  I rather fancy a focus on their study facilities and local knowledge.  But, you might say (if you were opposed to libraries), even local knowledge – even good scans of archive materials can be put online.  And youʼd be right.  High quality, carefully prepared scans are easier to work with for most purposes than the originals, and it is less damaging to them, so almost everyone wins.

This week I see the National Library of Wales has finally got the Llyfr Aneirin online, though you need to do a bit of Photoshopping before you can make it all out.  (Itʼs an archive image, not a wholly legible one.  There are legibility-focused images of it elsewhere on the net.)  For those who donʼt know, this is a copy and partial translation which some enthusiast about 750 years ago made of some older and otherwise lost pieces of Welsh literature.

So what are we talking about?  Oh, yes.  Libraries need to go online, for various reasons.  Theyʼll find it difficult of course, because underfunded.  Need to organise the library volunteers to do some of it, I expect.  As and where libraries have their friendsʼ groups and voluntary workers.

Weird then that weʼre being told that scanlators are evil, collaborators with Kim Dotcom, and should be driven off the net and their operations shut down, in order to save struggling artists.  And capitalism.  Please think of the capitalism.

Because what scanlators typically are can be summed up in one word: unpaid.  And in another word: enthusiasts.  Almost the same as library volunteers.  In fact, most scanlators are basically guerilla librarians, arenʼt they?  Though not always very good at it.  There may be exceptions, but they prove the rule.

So what am I talking about?  If libraries really went online and stored their actual archives safely away for the rare occasions when a different type of looking was necessary, would there be any real difference between them and scanlation sites, other than the threat of legal action?  Apart from some insignificant points of guerilla ‘attitude’ and website design?  And of course, scanlation sites donʼt sell coffee and cake, which is obviously a problem.  Kim Dotcom should probably take note of that.  If you sell enough cake, youʼll have the sugar industry on your side next time.

To be more explicit:  Scanlation sites are perhaps the best model imaginable for the libraries of the networked future.  Only, they need to be welcomed into the fold.  And better indexed.  There needs to be some regulation, surely, but as much of it is needed to protect our upcoming volunteer librarians as it is to protect artists or ensure a new fair balance in copyright.  Surely none of it is needed, now, to defend the existing media industry; their power and voracity is greater than ever.

Where can this adjustment and welcome come from?  There is unlikely to be only one answer to this, but I suspect the main driver will be the artists.  We see this already across a range of fan sites, where independent artists have accepted fans in a collaborative form of online distribution and comment.  (Not to mention fanfic, welcome or not.)

This works for popular living artists who still have a story to tell; but for our collective – and nowadays this has to mean global – cultural memory; for works of the past and works in different languages:  To the lawful librarians Iʼd have to say: your best resource is amongst the guerillas, hiding out under pen-names, living with the threat that their efforts may be wiped out in the next police raid, or the next inter-group squabble or funding shortfall.  These kids arenʼt doing it because theyʼre not interested in the subject matter, but because they care and love it, the way you did.  So help them find more things to care about.

Itʼs not long since we had samizdat – the scanlations of an older generation.  And we had book burnings in the name of legally-approved culture; not much longer since we had library burnings, by the legal authorities of one kind or another.  Kim Dotcom may not be the saviour of human culture, and ninety-five per cent of the things on the Megaupload servers were, canonically, crap; but if you, the lawful librarians, donʼt present a better opportunity, who else will?

Anyhow...

Iʼm about done here.  Iʼve managed to get hold of five out of the six officially translated volumes of this manga gem from Amazon.  Interesting how the official translation varies from the scanlation.  It gives the overall experience of reading that bit more depth, like different translations of Aristophanes or the Tao Te Ching.  The fifth in the series is unavailable anywhere Iʼve looked, and out of print.  But, well, I can re-read the scanlation, and then volume six.  Volume seven remains untranslated, but maybe some kind person will start a project for it in the next while, and I might get the original print edition from Hong Kong before it too goes out of print.  If only on-demand printing and distribution was not so expensive...

I wonʼt tell you the manga title, because we never agree perfectly about which five per cent of human culture isnʼt crap, and you can make your own choices, just like you make your own choices about whether to support cultural freedom and some sort of libraries, or the imprisonment of culture inside the acceptable profit margin of the biggest and wealthiest media companies the world has ever known.  I don't know when you last had a choice about it, of course.  But I hope we both get one.

 


  1. Oh look I coined a word again, probably.  It shall be defined as “rate of encounter with gems”, and some online dictionary with less restrictive referencing policies than Wiktionary shall one day quote this page.  Right?  
  2. YES English has a new preposition, and Iʼm loving it.  Because simpler.