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How to Survive as a Small Yaoi Publisher

June 07, 2008 | | Comments 0 |

A conversation with Simon Jones of Icarus Publishing. (Part 1.)

Recently, there’s been some discussion about how some small yaoi publishers have been struggling despite offering quality yaoi titles to their readers. With DramaQueen in particular, it saddens me to hear of their difficulties — I’ve enjoyed their work, found their enthusiasm infectious and have great affection for company president Tran Nguyen, despite having only met her a couple of times — she’s just that cool.

So, the question for me is “How can a small yaoi publisher survive, even flourish, in today’s competitive bookselling marketplace?” To get some answers to that question, I reached out to Icarus Publishing’s Simon Jones. I started corresponding with Mr. Jones on Warren Ellis’ creator forum The Engine in 2005 (a forum which, alas, has since shuttered its doors). This was right when I was first conceiving the Yaoi 911™ project and since then, I’ve found our email correspondence and the articles of his (NSFW) blog very helpful and inspiring.

Mr. Jones is not a yaoi publisher — in fact, the work he publishes is very much heterosex comics for straight guys — but it shouldn’t surprise you that I would want to hear what he has to say: This whole project is about being inclusive, I feel we’re all in this together when it comes to publishing erotic manga and, most importantly, Simon Jones knows his stuff. He has a keen understanding of the comics publishing industry and his blog has a strong reputation for excellent articles about all forms of erotic manga publishing, including yaoi.

When Simon Jones has something to say, it’s worth listening to. Especially if you’re a publisher of erotic comics, such as yaoi — or even if you’re a reader who’s just looking to see yaoi publishing actually survive the next decade.

So let’s get started!


Mr. Jones, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about these issues. Let’s start off by introducing you to our readers. What is your title and how would you describe the work you publish?

I’m the publisher, editor, graphics, pre-press, licensing, and janitor of Icarus Publishing. We produce porn manga; we see ourselves more as a manga publisher than a porn publisher, and that guides the way we do business and how we present ourselves.

I’ve heard you describe your work as “ero-manga” — how would you define ero-manga for those not familiar with that term?

I find it interesting that you ask how “I” define ero-manga, as if it were subjective, its essence malleable by my whims… it’s not. Ero-manga are explicit pornographic comics from Japan. A commercial, physical product. There’s no nebulous concept or lifestyle to be ascribed to it, no depth to be probed outside of itself. As a publisher, I neither shape it nor direct its development. I merely serve, and act in service of, the material.

You say you see yourself more as a “manga publisher” than a “porn publisher” — what do you see as the distinction there? How important do you think story and character are for ero-manga?

The strength of most manga is actually not the plot. It’s the focus on storytelling and the likability of its characters. This holds true for ero-manga which, lets face it, usually aren’t very deep in the story department. There is excitement and energy in the art, angles are dynamic, the pacing is predictable but clear, and the framing is varied and not afraid to get up close. Characters emote.

What got you interested in being a publisher and how did you get started?

I publish manga because I like manga. I publish ero-manga because it’s one genre that I like, that almost no one is publishing. As a fan, that sucks. So my motivation is similar to most other publishers out there… we want to work on material we believe in and enjoy. We want the market to suck less.

Have you ever been tempted to create your own manga?

Of course, I dabble in drawing occasionally. Don’t have the dedication required to make a manga now, or the time. There are 1000 pages of hi-res manga scans across three computers I need to clean and reformat. Sorry, my dear Intuos tablet, back on the shelf you go.

Icarus Publishing’s anthology magazine Comic AG has been called ero-manga’s “most popular series.” That’s pretty cool. As a publisher, how do you define success?

While flattering, being considered a top-tier ero-manga publisher is in some ways a hollow victory. There’s very little other ero-manga being officially produced, and the market overall for sex comics has dwindled since its height during the 90s. Does Comic AG successfully present ero manga to English readers? Yes, I strongly feel that we’ve produced the best products we can under current market conditions. Have we been successful in fully exploiting ero-manga’s potential in the marketplace? No.

So, in terms of success, it sounds like you take pride in the quality of the work you’ve been able to introduce to English readers, but that you still see that there’s a lot of untapped potential in the market. In particular, you say the market for sex comics has “dwindled” since the 90s. Why do you think this is? Do you expect it to come back and is there anything publishers can do to hasten that?

This is directly related to the number of retail outlets in existence available to us. We are not distributed through mainstream book stores, and we may never be. Direct market comic stores are run by individuals who can choose whether or not they want to carry adult material (and we are thankful to every retailer who does.) Adult bookstores have given way to DVDs and online porn.

[Ed. note: The number of Direct Market stores were greatly reduced in the mid to late 1990s as a result of a severe contraction in comic book sales. Speculation and poor business and creative decisions were most likely to blame for this.]

As a publisher, have things worked out how you expected? Any big surprises?

As far as meeting our modest goals, yes. But what I didn’t expect was slow acceptance by both fans and retailers who readily embrace ero (or hentai) anime, which is essentially the animated form of ero-manga.

What do you think are the biggest challenges a publisher of ero-manga faces?

The biggest challenges are ones we have very little control over… retailer apathy to outright avoidance of pornographic material, proliferation of unauthorized material online and the sense of entitlement that creates, the usual suspects. And of course, finding solid sources of investment.

Which is a topic you discuss specifically in relation to what’s happening with DramaQueen over at your blog. In the comments of that post, you also discuss the dangers of being a fan-run business — namely that a fan’s optimism might get in the way being realistic about how to run their business. Yet it seems you consider yourself a “small, fan-operated publisher” as well — are there ways where being small and fan-run can be a business benefit, both for ero-manga in general and the yaoi market in particular?

I can’t speak for anyone else but myself, but we only license 10 to 12 books a year, so every one of them is special to me. Or look at the books DramaQueen has managed to release… from a production standpoint, they’re beautiful. Of course, there is a direct flip side to this. Again, I can’t speak about DramaQueen or any other publisher specifically, I don’t have that knowledge. But just speaking generally, a rabid fan publisher might be less willing to make certain concessions. Maybe it’s the quality of the paper stock, or maybe it’s skipping a deadline to make the book perfect. We all think very highly of the books we work on, but we also need to be able to step back and say “this isn’t the Sistine Chapel. We have to ship.” As a licensee, I have to think of it this way: we need to make money for our licensors and artists. That means making good books, *and* making sound financial decisions. Interior color is great, and french flaps are lovely. But if they’re going to wipe out our margins, we just have to make do without them.

So, that’s the end of Part 1 of our conversation with Simon Jones, publisher, editor and janitor of Icarus Publishing. In Part 2 (now posted) we talk about manga publishers behaving badly, whether it’s possible to screw with a Japanese businessman, and what small yaoi publishers can do to survive in a tough market.

And if, in the meantime, you are finding yourself a little curious about Mr. Jones’ titles, you can read about them online at his NSFW online store and find them for purchase at your local comic book store. (And hey, if all those boobies on his web pages are making you a bit wary and you’re wondering what’s in it for a yaoi-loving straight girl, then Mr. Jones recommends A Wish of my Sister by female mangaka Masahiro Itosugi, an ero-manga trade paperback which features “boy-toy” (read: uke) character Keisuke. You can read a review of the work over at AnimeonDVD.)

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About the Author: Filmmaker by day, yaoi creator by night, Alex has dedicated himself to helping cute guys fight evil and find love.

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