The Jamie Lano file, part 2: Making a market

This week, in the days leading up to Kawaii Kon Day 0, I’m publishing excerpts from my conversation with manga artist/blogger/Princess of Tennis author Jamie Lano, who moved to Oahu last year and will be hosting three panels at Kawaii Kon. In case you missed it — and where have you been? We missed you! — and subscribe to the Star-Advertiser, you can check out my profile of her that ran in Sunday’s paper. You can also check out the other parts of the series below:

Part 1 (Sunday): The great adventurer
Part 2 (Monday): Making a market
Part 3 (Tuesday): The Prince of Tennis legacy
Part 4 (Wednesday): Kawaii Kon ahoy!

In this installment, Jamie talks about her goals with her new manga studio, Jamieism Pro … and how the Prince of Tennis live-action musicals helped make her a small pile of cash on the side in Japan.

Jason: I think a couple of days ago, you announced that you were starting your own manga studio, Jamieism Pro. Talk about that a bit.

Jamie: Well … this is what I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I’ve had really bad depression for many years, and I’ve been trying to get out of that. A lot of that is environment … environment and (being) able to get past that and actually work on things. It was more because … I’m on SNAP here, which is a nutritional assistance program … It’s like a debit card. I signed up for that because I wanted to make sure I could eat, and I qualified, so it was like, okay. So they made me go through this employment program, and I had to go there last month. And they said, “We’ll help you to find a job, or we’ll help you set up your own business.” And I said, “Please help me set up my own business, because I don’t really know what I am doing.” All the information is all over the place, like anything in dealing with the government.

The lady I talked to there was very nice and said they’d even reimburse me for my … you don’t need a business license like I thought! I didn’t know that! All I need is an excise tax license. So I actually got that, and I have it now. When she said that and she said, “If you can prove that you make over this amount, then we’ll get you out of this program.”

You can stay on SNAP until you make over a certain amount, which is ridiculously low, ridiculously low. Seriously, food here is so expensive. I get a lot of money per month to help with the food, but … I always run out two weeks in. And I try not to spend too much, but … I do a lot of cooking on my own, but still … unless you’re, you know, (eating) beans and rice every day, then you’re gonna go over. And without it, I would be starving all the time.

But it’s really good, helping. And then that got me into the other program, and they actually helped me set up my own business. And I said, “You know, I think this is actually a good push. It’s like a sign that says that you should do this.”

So my current goal is to be able to start … well, I’ve been taking commissions from people, which isn’t my goal, really. I want to draw my own comics, but I also have to make sure that I have enough income to live on. And now to stay in the food stamp program, I have to make at least this certain amount, which I think I can do. If I exceed this other X amount, which is about double that, then I won’t be able to receive them anymore. Which is fine; that’s actually my goal to bring myself up to the point of not just that, but I can save money, buy a car, get my own apartment, go to school, travel. I want to travel …

I don’t know, it just seemed like the right time, or even if it was scary, I had the factors there that said it: “You do this, or you’re going to have to keep on looking for another job,” and I just haven’t been able to find the right one. I said, “Well, you know what, even if it’s a struggle, I’d rather struggle doing my art than struggle doing this other … you know, whatever else.” I was like, “I’m just going to try it.” So now I’m licensed … or tax-licensed, whatever … and now I can actually do my own thing.

So the goal is just to draw, to be able to make enough to be not worrying, and then spend the rest of that time drawing my comics. And then hopefully, in another month or two or three, just draw comics and that’s it, and then use that to be my income. But of course there’s a lot of things that could go wrong here, that I’m kinda crossing my fingers over, like that people like what I make, and they’re not just buying it because it’s me, because then I … won’t survive on that. I need people to really get into it, to like what I’m doing and then say to their friends, “Hey, read this.”

If I can do that, then I can definitely … make it into a business and then grow that. I’d like to publish other people’s work in the future, kind of what Sparkler Monthly is doing now, publish work from people from all over the globe. I even have a few people in mind that I’ve met through the years, that I would like them to draw manga and put together a magazine and help grow manga in the U.S., but more like … not just Japanese-created. You know, quality content from really amazing creators all over the world.

I’d like to help spread that comics culture that they had in Japan. Everybody reads the comics magazines, and everybody reads the little tankobon graphic novels and stuff, all the time. The salarymen read it, the office ladies read it, the mother reads it, the kids read it, the teen girls read it. Everybody has their thing, and there’s something for everyone.

We don’t have that here in the U.S. at all. We have the manga and anime fans, and the comic fans, and they’re all both niche groups that might be growing a little bit, but it’s still not mainstream. Comics are superheroes or for kids or porn, they don’t really think of an overlap. Nobody here is making comics about a girl’s love life in Nebraska, right? I want to make that happen. Because I want to read that! And I’m sure there are other people that want to read that, too. They just don’t know yet.

We need comics about people who love wine, and people who love roller coasters, and some superhero or magic fantasy, and real-life drama. We have the same variation in movies, so why don’t we have that in our own comics? There’s some, but it’s all indie — which is great, but that makes it hard to find. There’s just no one-stop shop to find all the comics you could ever want and look up by genre; I can’t plug in “girl in love in Nebraska” on Amazon and come up with a list of comics or anything. It doesn’t work like that.

So I would like to be a part of that and help create that, so … help other people get their start, in the same way Sensei (Takeshi Konomi) kinda helped me in a way.

Jason: But what do you say about the naysayers who say there’s no money to be made in artistic endeavors, in comics, whatever?

Jamie: There might not be at some point. But I think if you don’t have a market, create it yourself.

This is really old and probably most people don’t know this about me anymore, but way before I worked for Sensei and I was just living in Japan, I was teaching English and I liked the Prince of Tennis musicals a lot. My first one I ever went to, I found that they were selling little photo sets. And there was some fandom online, but it wasn’t huge. I’d say in the hundreds. I bought some photo sets of the actors that I liked when I saw the musical, and I scanned them and put them online, which I know is a no-no, but this was a long time ago. So I scanned them and put them online in this LiveJournal community, and more people started getting interested. So what i did was, I went back to the same place and I bought all of them, scanned them and put them online in the community, and then I said, “Does anybody want some? I’m gonna put these on eBay,” and people bought them for outrageous prices.

Jason: Wow …

Jamie: Yeah. So i did that two or three times, and then I said, “You know what, it’s actually probably better if I set a certain price margin, and then take advance orders for people.” Like I’ll say, “They have these available. Which ones do you want? I’ll go pick them up and mail them to you, because you can’t get them outside the country.”

So there wasn’t that many at first, because we just had a small group of fans to work with that were there before I was. They ordered them, they sent me money through PayPal, and I went and pick it up and mailed it to them. Through that, I paid my entrance ticket out of the profit from that, and I paid for my own photos that I wanted as a fan. And I was like, “Well, this is perfect, because I do this little work and everybody gets the photos they want and I get all the photos I want for free.” And I thought, win-win.

So I started growing it from there. So what I did was, the first musical after that and I think the second one, I went and I bought all the photos and I scanned them all, and I said, “Who wants what? Pay me and I’ll get them.” So I did that. And then it grew, like, exponentially. People were sharing these photos all over. And this was way before you could click a thing and share a post.

There was certainly drama involved. Because I didn’t want anybody to know I was doing this, and I knew it wasn’t really OK in the eyes of Japanese people. But I kind of thought I was helping people … because how else are you gonna get it? So I grew it, and it just grew and grew and grew until I was having to go … like months before the musical even happened, I would say, “OK, we’re going to put up orders now,” and I would get thousands of people asking for photo sets. And so I would have to go to the musical when it opened and be like, “I need 52 of this guy here…” And the first time this happened, they actually sold out because I bought too many. And I’m like, “I’m so sorry.” So I had to fill out order forms to get more ordered in.

So I feel like because I was scanning and all this stuff, I mean, the community’s exploded. It went from a few hundred to thousands of people into this. All these people were buying stuff, and I did it partly for the fans and then partly because it paid all my expenses. And then I also had … I mean, it wasn’t something you could live on because it wasn’t that much money, but I have enough money to buy treats and things like that.

So I felt like I had created a market out of nothing, out of very little. I feel the same way about things in the future. I mean, it could have gone badly, but it went pretty well. It went really, really well. And I noticed that a lot of people ended up copying what I was doing, and then I got hired by Sensei, so I just completely dropped that at that point, said it’s not appropriate, I can’t do it. A friend took over for me, and then all these people were doing the same things, so there really wasn’t so much need. But now, the musical’s still going on, but there isn’t much in the way of people buying things anymore. And I was like, was I propping it up? I don’t know. It kind of grew into its own thing. But I feel like I was instrumental in creating it — not to be prideful or anything about it but I feel …

Jason: No no no! It’s pretty cool, though!

Jamie: Yeah! I feel like I learned a little bit about marketing back then, but nowadays I don’t know if it’s applicable. I don’t know. It was certainly an experience, and I really enjoyed it, too. I was good at it, and I liked it, and it’s fun, you know?

That’s how I feel about creating manga and things like that. If you have something of good quality, like the photos, and you put it out there, make it accessible to people, so it’s good and it’s available, they’ll come. And the problem is … those are just the only real problems, those two. You have to have a good product and you have to make it available to people and make them know about it. So I feel like if we can somehow come up with all the money that it costs for this advertising or if we come up with the right way to hit people, get it in front of them, and to get them interested, then we can make it happen.

There’s a group — to use an example that I actually am a fan of myself — there’s this group of two women who make yaoi comics, and they’re called Guilt|Pleasure. They did this really, really nice storyline, and when I first found it, I said, “Wow, I like her art.” But I don’t want to pay — they were selling, they were printing up doujinshi-style, like A4-size, I think B4-size, doujinshi-size books. And they were selling them for $12 or something online, and I was like, “Oh my God, that’s so expensive,” right? So I dragged my feet about it, and I kept thinking, “Maybe I should, maybe I shouldn’t.” They just released their own tankobons, and they’ve had their comic published in Japan, in B-Boy,and they’re Americans. And … these two girls have families, kids they’re supporting, and they are supporting everything based on these books. They have a huge fanbase. And I thought, now that I’ve read their work, I would actually pay $12 a chapter, like 30 pages. I would totally pay that in a heartbeat, plus shipping, for their work, because it’s good, and it hits me — it resonated with me in a way that I thought was really worth it.

So you just have to do what they’re doing, create something that people are going to like, and then they’re going to be willing to pay for it. Because they want it, and they want to be a part of it. I want to be a part of it. I just love it.

So I feel the same way. There are other creators, too, who I absolutely love their work. I would not hesitate to buy their books. There’s a couple of them, and I just … I dunno, maybe it took a while for me to discover it, but once it was there, I was like, I really need this. That’s just the way it’s always gonna be, you know? Maybe not everybody likes everything, but all you have to do is find the people that do like it.

And then you can grow from there. Grow all over the world. Once somebody like, say, my mom, who doesn’t like comics … if she found the right comic, that would probably make her pick up other comics, and it’ll blossom from there. But she’s never been hit with the right comic yet. We just have to get it out there, for people to know of it, and then to make sure it’s something they like. It’ll come if you work hard and have a good product in front of the right people. And as long as if you can figure out a way to make that happen — usually takes lots of money or luck or the right combination thereof, then you can grow.

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