In my work as Publishing Trends’ International Editor, I happened upon this remarkable conversation between Ken Akamatsu, manga artist and J-Comi founder, and Professor Takekuma Kentaro, who is a manga editor and writer. Manga publication—even in its multi-million dollar heyday of the early 2000′s—has usually stood a step apart from general trade publishing in the US. But these two experts in their “niche” have a plethora of observations on what lies ahead for all book business–not to mention great intelligence and verve. You should read as much of their (seven hour!) conversation as you like, but there one part’s been sticking with me. It’s a bit obtuse and idiosynchratic, but I’ll talk through what I think it means afterwards, and if you can “go with it” without feeling like you’ve “got it”, your own interpretation could be just as valuable.
Ken Akamatsu: In Akamatsu-ian Theory, there’s a concept called the “entertainment fee”. If you’re enjoying what you’re drawing [or writing], you are paying your own work’s entertainment fee, and so you won’t make any money from it. If you draw something so that your editor and your readers enjoy it, you receive that entertainment fee. If you’re enjoying what you make, you’re paying your entertainment fee, and it’s harder for other people to enjoy the work, while your chances of debuting also decrease.
If a genre requires [the author to pay] a high entertainment fee, it means that the genre is also fun to draw, causing everyone to be attracted to it, and the number of writers in that genre will become very high. When that happens, [rates of payment-per-page] will go down, and you can’t make money. That’s why you shouldn’t get involved with something with a high entertainment fee when you can help it. On the flip side, commercial magazines have to make all sorts of people happy, so you have less freedom to enjoy yourself. As this happens, the chance that you’ll receive that entertainment fee becomes higher.
Takekuma Kentaro: Does that mean that you couldn’t stand to continue doing what you do if you couldn’t make money from it?
Akamatsu: That’s another way to put it. If you look at it the other way around, I feel that something drawn by an artist who’s doing nothing but entertaining themselves couldn’t possibly make money. I’m not saying that it’s karma, though.
The Balancing Act
I don’t think either of these men is saying that you can’t ever make money doing something fun and fulfilling. What they are discussing is the general rule that the things with the broadest appeal aren’t usually the things that have gotten Two Thumbs Up from just one person. That’s what writing workshops and being edited and having cover-art critiques and all the rest of it are about—making it possible for other people to access your art.
As book-making professionals it’s hard to have a happy career without both paying and receiving the “entertainment fee”, as Akamatsu puts it, and finding a balance can feel like the Search for the Holy Grail. For example, if you work for a really commercial imprint that reaches a lot of people and offers you a living wage, are there places where your “niche” passions sometimes gets to spread their wings unchallenged? Conversely, if you’re trying to forge your own way with literary translation, are you clear about the parts of your own “entertainment” you are willing to concede in order to “entertain” (serve/satisfy) someone else who can pay? And then there are the times—too often in this business, I fear—when you find yourself in a place where you are giving up all your professional satisfaction, but not being paid for that sacrifice. What then?
Letting Other People Find Your Voice
Mr. Akamatsu’s bit of arithmetic certainly isn’t the only way to think about making a living in book-business—nor should it be. I find it most interesting for its depiction of listening to others and giving up some of the things that we think are “right” or “good” as a way of audience-building. It also nicely underlines the fact that audience-building is about making a book accessible to readers—and their money. It comes down to two variables:
- Other people satisfied with the book: The more “entertainment fees” you want to get paid, the more the desires of the people paying that fee (readers) need to be studied and served.
- You satisfied with the book: The more “entertainment” (satisfaction, joy, fulfillment) you want to receive: the more you can refuse to change just because (you think) your audience will like it. You just need to have a pre-filled piggy bank.
This is all common sense. But it’s as important for this new generation of book-makers as it was for any other: in the final count—philosophically and economically—it’s not primarily about us. It’s about readers. Which is not to deny that at the best moments, the requirements of both sides become exactly the same, and publishers, authors, and agents are both filled with personal artistic pride and showered with dollars. The beautiful thing: sometimes this even happens.
But most of us are forever between these two poles—in every job, in every task, in every day. The balancing act is up to us, but the good news is that “book-making” can satisfy different people in different ways at different times. Sometimes the happier party is the “buyer”—your agent, your editor, your marketing department, your bookseller, your reader—and sometimes it’s the creator.
Thank goodness the only constant is change, right?