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Thursday, Sept. 7, 2006

Web gives niche interests a chance in the free market


Special to The Japan Times

Economists right back to Adam Smith in the 18th century have exalted the concept of the free market, where all commodities can be bought and sold without tariffs or subsidies. In Western neoliberal political thought, market freedom had become viewed by the 1980s as an extension of personal autonomy. But the association operated almost in reverse by the end of the 20th century: With the rise of branding, people seemed to define their identity through what they chose to buy. Lifestyle decisions, political principles and ethical positions all become consumer choices.

News photo
"AK of Troy," owner and main translator of the site Toriyama's World, at his "scanlator's desk.

In practice, though, consumer choices have always been limited by what the market has chosen to sell. In the late 20th century, retailers had learned that a small number of popular products aggressively marketed would sell in huge numbers. It became superfluous to stock or produce a large variety of products destined for low to moderate sales. The main casualty was niche marketing: The catering to such eccentric tastes as, say, a preference for Studio Ghibli animation over Disney. Instead of tailoring particular products to satisfy individual tastes, companies began to choose products that could be marketed easily, and to neglect the rest.

The growing popularity of phenomena such as "scanlation" and fansubbing is part of a reaction to this tyranny of company decisions. Japanese culture in the West has always been a niche interest. In the 1990s, its devotees were almost starved. Big companies only made available commercially safe bets: films by Akira Kurosawa, for instance. Technology has made this obsolete. DVDs can be burned cheaply; subtitles, often produced for free by fans, can be added at minimal cost; and the Net gives instant access to potential markets. Individual fans are choosing to release what they want to see. In the process, they are rendering the function of companies unnecessary.

The United States has been a fruitful field for amateur subtitling, perhaps because U.S. copyright laws, unlike those in most developed countries, specifically excluded films never before released there. Initially, online retailers took advantage of this fact to copy and release imported, subtitled DVDs, often from Hong Kong.

Increasingly, however, these retailers have begun to copy Japanese source material and to write and attach their own subtitles. Often these amateur releases look as professional as officially licensed copies and, like them, include substantial extras: cast profiles, explanatory essays and so forth. One even offers the option to alter the position of the subtitles to fit whatever size TV screen the viewer has, a feature which few official DVDs can match. The legality of some of these releases is questionable: for instance, films by Nagisa Oshima that once received distribution in the U.S. are now available on DVD. Still, one suspects that Oshima, with his revolutionary contempt for private ownership, might approve.

The main moral argument against this sort of private action is that while it benefits fans, it does nothing for the creators of the work. But in another medium, creative artists are actively exploiting the new weakness of the company, and alternative methods of distribution, for their own advantage.

Publishing has undergone a quiet revolution: the growth of private, once demeaningly termed "vanity publishing," now increasingly seen as a legitimate way to place work in the public arena. Again, this is a response to large publishers and chain bookshops increasingly choosing to publish and stock only likely best-sellers, plus a back catalog of reliable classics. Since new technology allows very short print runs to be produced economically, it has become possible for authors to recover their initial outlay with relatively modest sales.

A Japan-based example is Printed Matter Press. The wide-ranging catalog of this small publisher, covering poetry, fiction and nonfiction, is determined by writers themselves, rather than by commissioning editors. But instead of mediocre or desperate writers, its list of authors includes such illustrious figures as Donald Richie and Edward Seidensticker -- two of the most eminent Japanologists of their generation. Indeed, private publishing may be uniquely suited to such niche writers, who can depend on sales to a small, committed fan base. This makes initial printing costs modest; meanwhile, royalties are considerably higher than in conventional publishing, where the publisher retains most of the profits.

Chris Anderson, in his 2006 book "The Long Tail," has argued that the future of business is "selling less of more," on the basis that a large number of niche products will, collectively, outsell and generate more income than the handful of popular ones. The growth of amateur subtitling and private publishing shows that the future is already here.

Alexander Jacoby writes a monthly column for The Japan Times Weekly and is writing a forthcoming handbook of Japanese film directors.

See related story:
Fans lift J-culture over language barrier





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