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THE ART OF LICENSING, PART 1

Imagine yourself deciding all of a sudden to start your own manga company. Yes, you!

What, are you crazy?! In this oversaturated climate, where the McDonalds and Burger King of manga companies like Viz and Tokyopop are firmly entrenched, and everybody else and his brother has already jumped onto the bandwagon?!! Impossible! And besides, you have no experience in publishing, and wouldn't even begin to know where to start.

Well, three years ago, that was me.

I had no idea whatsoever about how to actually acquire a manga license, let alone who to contact. I didn't really have any special connections, I didn't have much money to speak of, and I'd never dealt with a Japanese publisher before. Licensing would be out of the question, at first. Besides, I wanted to do something new and different.

So, we started Seven Seas with an original manga line. For a Japanese culture freak like myself, who only reads manga in the original Japanese, you might think that making derivative "amerimanga" would be against my creed, but really, our goal was to make original manga with great artwork that seemed as authentic as possible. Was I trying to capitalize on the manga boom and make some keen marketing move? Nah, me and my team were just trying to have fun, and love manga so much that we wanted to make 'em instead of just translate them. But that's another story for another time. This week, the focus is on the licensing game.

We finally did get into licensing manga after our first year of producing original manga. The question is... how the hell did we do it? How did a new, unknown publisher like ourselves convince these big, scary Japanese companies to grant us licenses, and how do we continue to compete against other big US publishers?

First what you need to understand about the manga licensing game is that it's highly cutthroat and competitive. If there's a popular title out there, you can bet your bottom yen that EVERY single manga publisher here already knows about it and covets it, and has already put in an offer on it. It's gotten to the point, as I mentioned last week, where in order to stay competitive, you have to start making offers while titles are still being serialized in magazines and before they become tankoubon!

Of course, the success of a licensing program is fully dependent on the knowledge, skill and connections of its licensing director. Luckily, 7Seas has been blessed, since its inception, with the very best licensing director in the business, one Ms. Yayoi Ihne, who has worked at one time in licensing for both Viz and Del Rey. Yayoi comes across as a Japanese energizer bunny, and everybody who meets her likes her, and admires her for her spunkiness and good humor. So much so, that she often gets offers from rival companies to jump ship and join them, but she'd rather stay with 7Seas. We're like family here. (Competitors who are reading this blog, beware: if you attempt to hire her away, she'll listen politely, glean as much information from you as she can, and then decline. Keep the offers coming, really!)

So, Yayoi has been key to us getting into the licensing game. Still, you set up meetings, you fly off to Japan, you dress up in your best suit and tie and try to shake off the jetlag, you take subways and trains all over Tokyo, you carry a briefcase and show some samples of manga you've published, and then what? It ain't easy. They've seen it all before.

I'd say the two most important factors in convincing the Japanese to give you licenses are A) Trust and B) Status. Now, we don't have a big, fancy name yet, so we've had to rely on winning trust and building relationships. This is a fulltime job, to be sure.

The fun thing about licensing is, it's like treasure hunting. You do the research and seek out titles, great and small, ones that may have been overlooked, obscure ones, big ones, ones that are just coming out, ones that are yet to come, ones that you think will sell if you put them out in a different format, whatever. And then you go out and get 'em. Or try, at least. Do you have what it takes to convince the Japanese that you deserve a license more than company X? Without the weight of a huge name behind you, it will require guts, charm and a lot of luck. It's a strange bit of alchemy and no exact science.

I'm proud to say that after we got our first license, things started to snowball from there, and we managed to snag many a license that the Big Boys wanted. There'd be a license that everybody made offers on, and we'd work our butts off to outdo them and prove our worth to the Japanese licensors. When we happened to succeed and got a much sought-after title, we'd cheer and give each other high fives. We became the Millennium Falcon of the manga industry, ragtag and unconventional, swooping out of nowhere to outmaneuver our enemies.

(By the way, when I say "enemies" do I mean that in the literal sense? Sadly, it seems that the answer is oftentimes yes. You'd be surprised-or maybe you wouldn't-but now that the manga market is Big Business, it's become as ruthless as Hollywood or Wall Street, with its share of two-faced posers, egomaniacs, and dark sith lords with world domination on their minds. Yes, we came in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, intending only to do right by others and to have them do right by us, but I learned the hard way that the manga world is a big and dangerous place.

So, what I don't like about the licensing game is its competitive, ugly side. We're the little guys in the biz and we do our best to be respectful and gentlemanly, but for many American manga publishers, this is war. On the Japanese side of things, the dark side of manga publishing is that it's often like a high school dance (and I'm not referring to the goofy 80's music). All of us American manga companies are trying to court the Japanese and get them to dance with us, and we're constantly falling in and out of favor. There's tons of gossip, publishers trying to undermine each other, infighting, and bitter rivalries-all for the purpose of winning that prized license or the affection and favor of the biggest and best Japanese publisher.

In the midst of all this chaos and scrambling for power, we've flown in on stealth mode, Millennium Falcon style, under everybody's radar, and have managed to get lots of great titles (many of which we haven't announced yet). At first, we were the new kids on the block, and the Japanese were tired of the usual suspects, many of whom had disappointed them in one way or another. Our down to earth approach was refreshing, and they welcomed our sincerity and passion. Since then, inevitably, we've had our share of missteps, made a faux pas or two, and had times when somebody else got the license that we wanted with all our hearts. We've also gotten dragged into the constant brinksmanship and the occasional betrayals by people in this industry, but in spite of that, have managed to survive up till now. Yet the dangers and pitfalls are many. Friendship and good cheer only go so far in Japan; in the end, the licensing game is like a popularity contest, and the Japanese love those Big Names. Can the high school nerd at the school dance stand up against the jocks and the in-crowd and the bullies, and win the heart of the prom queen? Namely, will we survive an increasingly antagonistic and bloodthirsty climate, and still manage to hold onto our very souls? You bet we will!

Jason DeAngelis
June 13, 2007


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