Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Random Thoughts Before Bed

Darwin said the species that will survive is not the strongest, or the smartest, but one that adapts the best to change. Or something like that.

I'm thinking of the comics scene, as I leaf through the latest comic I bought - the 'last issue' of Ujang and Apo? - I got at Pesta Buku Selangor.

The issue is the first Ujang or Apo? issue in a year or so, and it seems to be its last. There is a 'surprise', though, as you flip the cover and find the announcement to a new comics magazine - Bekazone.

Ujang inherited the mantle of Gila-Gila, the legendary comics magazine that sold over half a million copies every issue in its heyday. Some old comics hands put the number at over 600,000. This was the age where people actually read magazines. Even the lesser-read magazines such as Batu Api, Gelagat, Gelihati and the rest sold decent numbers then, that would have made them top of the pile nowadays, in this post-Internet world.

Even then, the numbers steadily declined and Ujang - though the best comics magazine in its time - managed to reach 200,000-300,000 copies per issue. 

I don't have the actual or accurate data and everything I quote here is anecdotal, so take everything with a grain of salt. I'm pissed off with this, but there you go.

I have long petitioned for various comics organisations in Malaysia to collect industry data so as to chart the scene properly and be able to improve things effectively when they have the means to do so.  Right now, if you ask anyone how many titles are there or how many publishers, no one can give you an accurate figure. Somebody knows, somewhere, but are they compiling it? Even Sasbadi - known to me and others as primarily a reference book publisher - has a comics imprint.

That, is another rant for another time.

After the Ujang magazine had its infamous crisis on infinite earths and the team split, a few magazines such as Gempak, Kreko, Urban Comics and Rileks fought over the vacuum. Gempak was the best-run, with a kick-ass distribution and financial muscle - strong fundamentals and sharp business acumen.

Gempak remains a force to this day, and they were bought over or something - I don't know shit, man! - by a Japanese comics company. Gempak books are now sold in 1900++ 7-Elevens as well as toko bukus and small mamak sundry shops, aside from their presence in major bookstore chains such as Popular.

The focus, it seems, has also shifted from the magazine alone to trade paperbacks - collections of comics stories instead of a monthly format. Gempak once sold over 70,000 copies fortnightly. If they still are doing those numbers, they would be the most popular magazine sold in stores in the country (Astro Mag has a subscription model).

I come from the newspaper industry and we all agreed that magazines would be the first sacrifice to the new Internet gods. And so it was. I currently do not know anyone below 40 that buys magazines or even reads them regularly. And 70% of our population are below 40.

Meanwhile, let's talk about digital comics. As far as I can tell - and I might be wrong - digital comics are the future, but the future is not now.

In 2014, digital comics sales in the States was US$100 million while print comics is US$835 million. 100 million dollars is a huge amount, right? And considering that it was only US$1 million several years ago for digital sales, this is good right? Well.

For one, sales growth for digital comics sales have decreased over the years. It was 180% in 2012, 29% in 2013 and 11% in 2014. Here's the clincher: Digital comics sales went down in 2015 to US$90 million. That's a 10% decline.

Japan's massive manga industry is safe, right? The newspaper with the largest circulation in the world is Yomiuri Shinbun. Number 2 is also Japanese - Asahi Shinbun. Surely print manga and digital comics for the techno-savvy Japanese society would thrive right?

Well, sales peaked in 1995 and then went on a downward trend. Manga magazines, graphic novels, all went down. When they go online, they were met with pirates who upload their comics and people download it for free. In the era of globalisation and borderless, pre-Trump economy, you'd expect they'd do well when they license their wildly popular stuff to the lucrative US or European market? Nope. Scanlators outnumber legit platforms and it has been - sparsely - documented that Japanese digital platforms fare even worse than their US counterparts.

Personally, I believe people - especially Malaysians - don't believe in paying for online content. They don't even like buying most things online, except tudung. Running Maple Comics, I can tell you less than 10% of our sales are online, except for some freak titles. 

I really can't say much about the local comics scene - it's not even an industry - BECAUSE I HAVE NO FUCKING DATA. I don't even know how many publishers there are, how many titles are produced in a year, how many artists are out there. I don't even know how many comics are in bookstores because NOBODY IS KEEPING TRACK. FUCK YOU. FUCK. YOU. YOU FUCKING MONKEYFUCKER!

I do know - anecdotally - that physical books is the way to go, for now. I believe that one day everything will be digital, but that day is much later than you might think.

So what does that mean for Bekazone or any comics magazines or periodicals? I don't know. If I know everything, I'd be a billionaire by now. I do believe that trade paperbacks are the way to go but if you have the financial muscle, magazines could be a good flagship to have.

There are other challenges for any magazines in Malaysia. They go through stringent control by the Home Ministry. They have GST. And you always suffer from a very short shelf life. A July edition of a magazine only has 2-3 weeks to market and sell. After that, it's stale bread.

Still, there are some good news. Some major players in the publishing world are entering the comics scene. They will bring more titles and some bookstores will take notice of this and perhaps there will be a push. I got some good vibes from some but we shall see what comes out of it, by end of the year.

There is an emerging crop of new artists who are fast and talented - a previously rare combination. Some artists are finding massive popularity on social media and this usually translates to better sales of their physical books.

The most refreshing thing I have found with young artists is that they come in with little to no baggage. Some know the very low expectations of a small comics scene. Many know international royalty rates - meaning I don't have to explain to them that I am not an evil corporation like Shin-Ra out to steal them of their millions.

As for the audience? The readers? Well, I believe that if you create something that is consistently good, you will slowly build a dedicated audience. Some will lose interest and drop off, some will stay on and you can attract new ones. You can never control people, regardless of what the 'experts' say. 

3. Icv2