Making a Living in Manga: Part 4

Publishers, Self-Publishing and Making It in Japan

MBQ Volume 1
MBQ Volume 1. © Felipe Smith / TOKYOPOP

In Making a Living in Manga Part 1, we talked about 9 reasons why the manga-making ecosystem in North America is broken. In Part 2, we looked at "Original English Language (OEL) manga label, and the problems it has left in its wake. In Part 3, we talked about the training gap, and how art school does/doesn't prepare aspiring artists for careers in comics. In Making a Living in Manga Part 4, we'll be looking at publishing and publishers.

Knowing how to draw is just one part of the comics-creation equation. You'll also need to get people to find, read and maybe pay to read your stories. That's where publishers come in.

Publishers can give creators' work greater visibility than they would otherwise get by self-publishing. Editors can also provide feedback and creative guidance. When your comics are published by a major publishing company, your work has a greater chance of being seen and sold in bookstores and comics shops across North America, and possibly beyond.

But here's the deal: Fewer and fewer North American publishers are willing to take a chance on original works by new comics creators – and the odds get worse if your work has a lot of manga influences. It doesn't help that TokyoPop shut their North American publishing operations in mid-2011, and Borders Books and Music, one of the more manga-friendly bookstore chains in North America closed their doors in 2011 as well.

For a handful of creators, the dream of making a living drawing comics in a Japanese style leads them to the motherland of manga. But are they facing even longer odds in Japan than if they tried to pursue their passions in North America?

For other creators, self-publishing is the way to go. Thanks to webcomics, print-on-demand and Kickstarter, comics creators now have more self-publishing options than ever.

Self-publishing means having complete creative control –- but it also means taking on all the risk and expenses of publishing too. Is it possible to make a living from webcomics and/or self-published comics?

It's these questions and more that we'll tackle in Making a Living in Manga Part 4: Publishers, Self-Publishing and Making It in Japan. Let's see what you had to say.


For many creators, TokyoPop was their first shot at being published by a 'big' company. Some, like ex-TokyoPop creators Amy Reeder (Madam Xanadu), Becky Cloonan (Demo), Brandon Graham (King City), and Felipe Smith (MBQ, Peepo Choo) have gone on to bigger and better projects because they kept drawing/kept growing. But not all TokyoPop ‘Rising Stars of Manga’ went on to stellar careers in comics.

Many talented editors and comics pros got their start at TokyoPop, and many creators have expressed gratitude to the editors they worked with. However, there are also hard feelings out there in the creative community about series that were never completed, but have their publishing rights tied up in legal limbo with TokyoPop.

From what I’ve heard, the company has never made back their investment from publishing these original stories.

This is possibly why TokyoPop is holding on to the rights to these series -- It's money they may be hoping to recoup someday with movie or other publishing deals, even though TokyoPop shuttered their N. American publishing operations in June 2011.

As one of the first to undertake publishing manga-style comics by non-Japanese creators on a large scale, TokyoPop ventured boldly into unknown territory. They gave a lot of talented creators their first shot, they had a few successes, and they made their share of mistakes.

TokyoPop made many contributions to the growth of manga in America, so it’s too bad that their past efforts have left a long-lingering sour taste in the industry. Looking back on what they accomplished, what can we learn from TokyoPop's manga publishing efforts?

"My main problem with most of the OEL Tokyopop used to publish is that most of it was awful! Badly written, drawn and edited. I loved The Dreaming and Vampire Kisses though. I'll read any comic if I like it, but I'm not going to spend ££ on things I hate."
- Eleanor Walker (@st_owly)

"Looking to TokyoPop as an example of original graphic novel success is like looking at the Titanic as an example of boat safety."
- Thiefofhearts (@Thiefofhearts), Video Game Professional, Editor

"TokyoPop poisoned the U.S. manga scene/business. Cheapened work and dumped bad product in the market."
- Lea A Hernandez (@theDivaLea), Comics/webcomics creator and illustrator, Rumble Girls (NBM Publishing)

"Indeed, they highlighted some pretty talented people but their business practices really hurt the overall trend."
- Laur Uy (@laurbits), Comics creator, Polterguys

"Tokyopop died for many reasons, low-selling OEL was just a fraction. Reason No. 1 was losing their good licenses." (Note: TokyoPop published several bestselling titles from Kodansha, including Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth, and later lost the rights to publish these titles.)
- Jason Thompson (@khyungbird), Author, Manga: The Complete Guide, comics creator (The King of RPGS), former Shonen Jump editor, and Otaku USA magazine manga reviewer

"I feel like it's such a shame, they barely even tried! It's been a while since TokyoPop (closed) & still no time at all to test stuff. I just hear a lot of people blame TokyoPop for 'poisoning' OEL (manga) - No dice, nobody else has done better yet."
- Zoey Hogan (@caporushes), Sequential artist/Illustrator at

"The best/harshest critique I ever got was a TokyoPop portfolio review in 2007. Scrapped my comic, started over. I don't regret it at all."
- Deanna Echanique (@dechanique), Webcomics creator, La Macchina Bellica

"Even with their mistakes, I learned a lot from editors at TokyoPop. (I) now try to pass the knowledge to other artists."
- Kôsen (@kosen_), Spanish comics creators Aurora García Tejado and Diana Fernández Dévora. Daemonium (TokyoPop) and Saihôshi (Yaoi Press), and at

"Tokyopop almost destroyed itself trying to give OEL (manga) a real outlet. We can learn from what they did, but not if we write them off."
- Lianne Sentar (@TokyoDemons), Manga editor/adaptor, Co-author of Tokyo Demons, a light novel series.

Next: The Sad Tale of Minx and OEL Publishing Today


Another famous failure in the annals of original English language manga is DC Comics' ill-fated, girl-centric Minx comic imprint. Minx was announced in 2006 and closed in 2008 after publishing only 12 single volume graphic novels.

While it was never sold as 'manga,' Minx titles were nonetheless geared toward the same readers who read shojo manga: female teens/tweens.

The Minx books were published with the same trim size as manga. It was priced at the same price point as manga, and was often shelved with manga in bookstores. DC signed up some talented creators to create original stories for Minx, like Mariko Tamaki (Skim), Derek Kirk Kim (Same Difference and Other Stories), and Andi Watson (Skeleton Key). So what went wrong?

Well, speaking as a reader, I found most of the Minx titles to be… dreary, preachy, and so self-conscious about sending a politically correct message about 'girl empowerment,' they forgot to be fun, and (gasp) as trashy/romantic/silly/sexy and addictive as shojo manga, or even Twilight, for crap's sake. Nice try, DC -- but given how much you missed the mark, and how quickly you gave up, maybe you didn't try hard enough.

"Minx failed because it 1) didn't have time to mature, and 2) they completely missed the mark."
- Lea A Hernandez (@theDivaLea), Comics/webcomics creator and illustrator, Rumble Girls (NBM Publishing)

"Five to six years ago, every publisher was trying to imitate the YA (Young Adult) manga format (DC Minx etc). Now they've given up. @shaenongarrity used to say (Minx would) have succeeded if they only had one. Decent. Vampire story."
- Jason Thompson (@khyungbird), Author, Manga: The Complete Guide, comics creator, King of RPGs, manga editor and reviewer

"It didn't even have to be decent."
- Shaenon K. Garrity (@shaenongarrity), Comics editor, writer, reviewer and comics creator, Narbonic


You can't put all the blame on publishers for being risk adverse, and opting to not take on original series from new creators. It's not realistic to expect publishers pay/take chances on new creators if there are too few paying readers.

Most of the manga-style comics content published in North America today is either graphic novel adaptations of bestselling young adult novels (Yen Press' adaptations of Soulless, Gossip Girl and Twilight are prime examples), or new stories based on established licensed properties (like Mameshiba and Voltron, both published by VIZ Kids, and some of the ShiftyLook webcomics published by Bandai/Namco.).

Seven Seas continues to publish original comics like Amazing Agent Luna, and Udon Entertainment has published a few original stories like Makeshift Miracle and Random Veus. However, a fair amount of original 'manga-style' comics are simply sold as 'graphic novels' (without the baggage of the 'original English language manga' label). Many are published by publishers who aren't considered to be 'manga' publishers, like First Second and Oni Press. So there are original comics created by artists/writers who are influenced by Japanese comics -- the main change is that many of them are not calling what they create 'manga' anymore.

"Yen Press and their talent search is a beacon of hope for North American manga artists in getting work published thanks to their OEL lines."
- Laur Uy (@laurbits), Comics creator, Polterguys

"Does Yen do original books? Aside from (Svetlana) Chmakova, I see mostly YA (young adult novels) adaptations. That's still great, but not for everyone."
- Kasey Van Hise (@spacekase), Comics creator, Winters in Lavelle

"But to be honest, that's all the publishers are looking for. They don't want to risk picking up an (original) series."
- Audra Furuichi (@kyubikitsy), Comics creator, Nemu-Nemu

"Right now, it seems that most 'YA' graphic novels are big standalone volumes, usually in color, like from First Second. I'd be curious to know how any of Seven Seas' many OEL properties did/are doing. Yen and Del Rey are mostly just doing licensed-property OEL. It's not the same as TokyoPop's old days. But for the artist, adaptations are just work for hire; (it's) not like doing your own stuff (even w/shared copyright). I mean, work for hire is nice $$, but it's not The American (Manga) Dream of making your own hit series."
- Jason Thompson (@khyungbird), Author, Manga: The Complete Guide, manga creator, editor, writer/reviewer

"To answer one question that comes up a lot, when we publish original material at Yen, the rights still very much belong to the creator."
- Yen Press (@yenpress), publisher, Soulless, Nightschool, Yen Plus Magazine

"I do have to say, I think the closest to being a OEL publisher currently is Oni (Press), a lot of titles are definitely manga-inspired."
- Danny Ferbert (@Ferberton), Comics creator

"Creating new content is never easy, nor cheap. But it's more interesting than just licensing others stuff IMHO (in my humble opinion). It should be a effort by both: artists put their body and heart in the pages, publishers their $ and marketing power."
- Kôsen (@kosen_), Spanish comics creators Aurora García Tejado and Diana Fernández Dévora. Daemonium (TokyoPop) and Saihôshi (Yaoi Press)

"Thing is, a publisher/creator relationship NEEDS to be symbiotic. You benefit from them, they benefit from you, like ANY business relationship. Publishers got Megatokyo books in FAR more bookstores than I *ever* could have done myself. At the same time, no publisher is going throw money at you and then help you make awesome stuff. You ARE the content they are looking for, their job is to help you reach more people with your work. They are good at that."

"Though creator-owned projects are not as valuable to a publisher as their own IP (intellectual property) is. The trick to being successful in publishing (at least it used to be) was to have lots of books over time. No one book makes anyone."
- Fred Gallagher (@fredrin), Comics/webcomics creator, Megatokyo (Dark Horse) and


For many young creators inspired by manga, the dream seems to be to move to Japan & try to make it there. But without Japanese language skills? Good luck.

Even if you can speak/write Japanese fluently, it's important to remember that the Japanese manga biz has so much homegrown talent, they really don't need anyone from North America who can just pump out more of the same stuff, in the same style as they can get from a Japanese creator.

That's not to say it can't be done. Creators like Felipe Smith, Jamie Lynn Lano, Christy Lijewski, and Steven Cummings are trying to make a go of it in the motherland of manga. But even they'll tell you that it's not easy.

"The real dream is to use TokyoPop as a stepping stone to get a book published (or republished) in JAPAN!"
- Jennifer Fu (@jennifuu), Comics creator (Rising Stars of Manga) and illustrator at​

"This has been the dream since 1970s-80s."
- Lea A Hernandez (@theDivaLea), Comics/webcomics creator and illustrator, Rumble Girls (NBM Publishing)

"One of the weird things is Felipe Smith, made it all the way to Japan and now his stuff is getting translated over here."
- Danny Ferbert (@Ferberton ), Comics creator

"Don't forget, Felipe works his ASS off. He's a high energy guy, but Japan's manga biz is a grind that even wears him out." (NOTE: See my interview with Felipe Smith, where he describes his experiences in Japan)
- Deb Aoki (@debaoki), Deb Aoki,

"I still think every kid who wants to get into the manga biz should read and deconstruct and MBQ. Lots of juicy bits in there."
- Ed Chavez (@MangaCast), Manga editor, translator, Marketing Director at Vertical

"Ah, the dream of being a westerner working in manga... I think the Lotto is easier. (Can't speak Japanese?) The publishers here won't talk to you if they CAN'T talk to you."
- Steven Cummings (@Stekichikun), American comic artist in Tokyo. Credits include Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Pantheon High

"LOL. That was me years ago. Reality hit me like a truck when I got there, but it was a good learning experience. I was in Japan from 2000-03 on the JET programme. Mostly it was failing to get into Comiket on the gaijin ticket and being told by US cartoonists over there that Japanese companies weren't looking for Americans who (drew in a) manga style."
- Jennifer Zyren Smith (@JenniferZyren), Webcomics creator, LaSalle's Legacy

"Decided after first visit to Japan in early 1990's not to try for career there. Rose-colored glasses removed! Visited about 5 publishers in one week. Impressed by everyone I met, but complete lack of interest in Western comics. Anyway, realized it was a tough, closed world. 20 years later, no one has really made progress. Lots to admire, but not the life for me. Did consulting work, but never tried to do comics there. Am fine with that."

"Individual creators like and admire Western comics, editors and publishers couldn't care less. It's OK, their prerogative."

"Also, (I) didn't realize what extensive power editors had over content and creator's lives. Editors really run the show over there, big time. That was a real eye opener. Several creators wanted to get into self-publishing."

"Didn't live there, was not there for more than a few weeks. Did consulting work long distance. An exchange student we hosted worked at Bandai They were interested in learning about American market. I learned a lot too. But no interest in US comics there."

"Yeah, my reality check was actually kind of crushing for a while, but I got over it. It's not just hard to break in as a U.S. artist -- It's so hard for even top manga-ka to stay on top. Really tough, grueling business. Gotta admire anyone who can make it there.
- Colleen Doran (@ColleenDoran), comics creator, A Distant Soil and Manga Man

"Not only disinterested, but admitting I have worked in the U.S. industry has resulted in editors telling me 'no thanks.' (I have more to say) than 140 characters (will) allow, but to sum it all up; amekomi = bad. If I have worked (in the American comics business), I have the mark of Cain to some (editors in Japan)."
- Steven Cummings (@Stekichikun), American comics creator, now in Japan

"Even with Japanese language skills, still a shot roughly the length of forever. Seems like such a different industry over there."
- Svetlana Chmakova (@svetlania), Comics creator, Dramacon, Nightschool, and at

"As much as I'd like to work for Shonen Jump, I constantly hear them say stuff like 'We encourage other countries to start their own thing.' I'm pretty sure Japan in general isn't thrilled about embracing American creators. Webcomics is a much better bet."
- Maximo Lorenzo (@MaximoLorenzo), Comics creator, Bombos vs. Everything (TokyoPop) and at

"Oh, they're open to it. Just keep in mind that it's not like they have any shortage of stuff that doesn't require translating."
- Fred Gallagher (@fredrin), Comics creator, Megatokyo

"I don't think that's necessarily true. Japan just embraces that which it can feel comfortable with."
- Brent Millis/Made in DNA (@idiotandroid), Author, translator, now living in Japan. Editor/publisher of Kizuna: Fiction for Japan

"Talent is there, but even for Japan as of late the shining lights are few and far between. Maybe another culture's influence may help."
- AltMindz (@AltMindz), Comics/pop culture blogger at Alternative Mindz

"Japan is all over two of our titles: Bravoman and Wonder Momo. Both feature CANADIAN creators. ;)"
- Rob Pereyda (@rpereyda), Producer & Editor-in-Chief of ShiftyLook for NAMCO BANDAI

"I wholeheartedly agree with exploring the world and expanding your horizons. However, you do not need to move to a foreign country to make comics."
- Jeremy (@whydoisay), Podcaster, Destroy All Podcasts, writer, and comics creator, Golden Gate Riot

"I still don't get that 'go to Japan' thing. What's wrong with being an artist in your own country?"
- Stefanie Battalene (@jadiejadie), Comics creator, Lost Nova

Next: Self-publishing With Webcomics


When many opportunities to get picked up by North American publishers dried up after TokyoPop pulled the plug on their original publishing efforts, many creators looked to webcomics to bring their work to readers directly via the internet.

With its relatively low cost, webcomics offers many possibilities to aspiring creators that were not available back in the day when one had to cough up money to print their own comics, and schlep them to comics shops/conventions to sell them.

But webcomics is far from the fast track to success. For artists who don’t know how to market themselves, it can be difficult to get their webcomics in front of readers and keep them coming back for more. Also, the big problem with free content? If webcomic creators don’t create work that lends itself to merchandising like t-shirts or toys, much less know how to manage their own business, how do they make money to support themselves, much less pay their server bills?

Yes, self-publishing is empowering, offers ultimate creative freedom, and it’s a great way to build storytelling skills while developing a fanbase for your original stories. But I’d caution webcomics creators to not be so quick to dismiss the role that publishers and editors can play in the creation of great comics.

I enjoy reading good web-/self-published comics, but in many cases, I feel that many self-published stories would benefit from some editorial guidance.

Too many stories out there are self-indulgent, have poor pacing, weak character development, horrible dialogue, terrible art, or some combination thereof. There are gems out there, but there’s also a lot of coal. With so much to out there, how can casual readers find promising up-and-coming series worth reading?

"I'd love to see a publisher step up for us, but in the meantime I'm happy with webcomics. You don't need to wait for someone else."
- Kasey Van Hise (@spacekase), Comics creator, Winters in Lavelle

"Personally, I've had to change my style drastically to get any comics work. Webcomics are the only way I can draw the way I want."
- C. Ellis (@bybystarlight), Comic artist, illustrator, Amidst the Sea of Stars

"I fantasize about drawing for a living too :( All the work put into the content for webcomics are loss leaders. #sadfact"

"Even the 'manga' industry here, because even in it's heyday, it is really just a licensing and translation industry. No one has ever figured out what to do with those of us who actually make the stuff. We're just kind of a big pain in the ass. And so, there is the Webcomic. All this excitement about 'ohh, digital!'... phhfft. I've been 'digital' for 12 years :P"

"My theory... when manga was growing in popularity, people went online looking for more, which meant digging through webcomics. It's one of the main reasons Megatokyo reached so many people."

"After (the) manga presence in book stores went toes up, people once again went online to get their fix, except this time they aren't wading through webcomics - the scantranslation sites all fill ever need a manga fan could want. We are competing against free content that isn't just other creators -- it's like, the pro stuff. ^^;; I still think people are happy to support and buy stuff related to properties they really like. We just have to be that good."
- Fred Gallagher (@fredrin), Comics/webcomics creator, Megatokyo (Dark Horse) and online at

"People talk endlessly about good/bad comics. In reality, distribution influences readers profoundly."
- Dan Kanemitsu (@dankanemitsu), Translator, cultural reference consultant based in Japan

"Comic Rocket is a newish site for tracking webcomics. Pretty easy to find new works to follow."
- Stefan Autsa (@AutsaHD), Comics creator, sodt

"Webcomics are imperfect too - all that extra legwork can distract from creating + improving. But fuck it, I'm an optimist."
- Ananth Panagariya (@ananthymous), Comics/webcomics creator, Johnny Wander and Applegeeks

Next: Funding Self-Publishing With Kickstarter


In addition to webcomics, many comics creators are getting their comics published thanks to Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website. Comic creators can set up a Kickstarter to raise funds to publish their comics, and solicit donations / advance orders for their books, months, sometimes years before they're published.

Several comics Kickstarter projects have been wildly successful, and have raised many times their target amount.

BL webcomic Artifice comes to mind, which reached its $7,000 goal in two days. The latest Tiny Kitten Teeth hardcover book is another Kickstarter success story. But there are also many Kickstarter campaigns that don't meet their goals too.

At a time when North American manga creators are having a hard time getting picked up by publishers, is self-publishing via Kickstarter the answer? Is it a sign of the times, as creators take the reigns of their comics destiny, or just another symptom of a dysfunctional publishing system that can't/won't take risks on original content?

"Nowadays, the only publisher that's taking any risks is Kickstarter."
- Jason Thompson (@khyungbird), Author, Manga: The Complete Guide, comics creator, manga editor and comics critic

"Publishers have set the terms of what genres get out, who gets to be paid and who doesn't, how we learn, and what styles are viable. Now, because of Internet and things like Kickstarter and comic apps, they are losing their grip. CREATORS WILL HAVE VENGENCE!!"
- Maximo Lorenzo (@MaximoLorenzo), Comics creator, Bombos vs. Everything (TokyoPop)

"Kickstarter may not be ideal, but it's an avenue that puts what people make directly into the hands of people who want it. I'm glad Kickstarter is there until/as a more vibrant market/delivery system develops."
- (@Lea A. Hernandez), Comics/webcomics creator and illustrator, Rumble Girls (NBM Publishing)

"I agree there a lot of great things and projects Kickstarter makes possible. I guess I just worry about dependency."
- Dave Roman (@yaytime ), Comics creator, Astronaut Academy (First Second) and Teen Boat (Clarion), and at

"(Kickstarter) doesn't strike me as the best way to reach kids & teens or even young adults. It's a fantastic fund raiser for some projects, but comics shouldn't end up relying solely on it."
- Andre (@andrecomics), Comics creator, at

Also worth a read on this topic: Mark Andrew Smith's New Manifesto on Kickstarter and the Comics Creator as Retailer" on Comics Beat about his Kickstarter experiences.

Now that you've heard what others have had to say, it's your turn! You can add your comments about this article on the blog post introducing this article in this series.

You can also tweet your comments to me at @debaoki or @aboutmanga.

Coming up: Making a Living in Manga Part 5: 5 Ideas for Fixing America's Manga-Making Economy and Why What Works in Japan Won't Necessarily Work in North America.