Medium Matters (Part 1): School-Live!

I really like School-Live!, the manga. Although as the story winds to its end – the final English language volume went on sale in late August – the plot seems to be getting a little lame, it’s still a legitimate portrait of the survivors of a zombie apocalypse and the psychological burdens they would bear. All four of our main characters, Yuri, Yuki, Kurumi, and Miki, have some form of PTSD, and they have to deal with the consequences of it.

And that seems honest.

The anime made from it seemed to me to be relatively lame. They made changes in the story structure, but I don’t think it was those changes that made the difference.

They also made changes in the characters and “feel” of the series. Now we might be onto something.

From left, Yuri, Kuruma, Yuki, Miki

Now, School-Live! was an award winning manga. Why would an anime producer mess around with a hot property and turn it into a lame one?

It’s easy to blame it on foolishness or incompetence or some other personality characteristic that allows us to look at a property we love and blame someone for spoiling it. But it’s also instructive, I think, to take a look at the economics of the businesses and the different natures of the two media – structural elements, not personality problems – to see what we might see.

This is going to be another two-parter. Sorry. No point writing one long post no one will read. Instead I’ll write two short posts no one will read.

Some of the differences between manga and anime are obvious. I’ve said it a dozen times: Text is generally deeper and more complicated than video.

That’s not a new or unheard of opinion. It’s actually pretty simple: in a text there’s more room for content than there is in a TV show. TV is running time: You have 22 minutes for everything. In a manga you can have pages with nothing but drawings – a picture is worth a thousand words, right? – or pages inundated with dialog and narration.

Plus in video people have to DO stuff. It’s a motion-based medium. In text people can EXPLAIN stuff.

You can see this very clearly if you put the Black Lagoon anime and manga side-by-side. Same story. Same characters. The anime is a rock ‘em, sock ‘em adventure story (yeah, with a few moments of introspection, usually Revy educating Rock). The manga gets deeper into character backgrounds and motivations. It’s slower, which it has to be since fast action doesn’t read in text, but deeper, more complex.

The different media have different economic models as well.

The manga business is based on a unit sales model. You put out a book, and it brings in an amount of money based on the number of copies it sells.

This is a model I’m most familiar with as a writer. When I write a short story I can be paid a flat fee for certain of my copyrights, or on a royalty basis, where I get a certain percentage of the net sales.

You can probably guess which I prefer. Royalties only pay if the book takes off, and people who pay royalties usually don’t know how to make a book take off. Oh, yeah.

But if you’re a mangaka, or selling novels, your primary income comes from two sources, advances and royalties. A royalty is a royalty is a royalty: you get a certain amount for every copy sold. An advance is money up front (Yay!). The trick with advances is they are literally advances…you’re getting your royalty payments IN ADVANCE. They hold up your royalties until they have paid off the advance.


Now, since advances are usually nonrefundable, from an author’s standpoint you’re okay with that. If the books doesn’t take off, no problemo. You already got paid.

But the really big bucks start to come into play when you score a hit that sells monster numbers of copies. Yeah, they hold your royalties until your advance is paid off, but after that the royalties start to pile up. Booyah!

It’s really a low budget model. I mean royalty rates are usually pretty low, but the publisher assumes all the other costs: advertising, printing, promotion, overhead, shipping, all that stuff. By the standards of media none of those things is REALLY expensive – you don’t have to buy and equip an animation studio – but they support a volume model: put out lots of titles, throw them at the wall, and run with the title that hits. If you have a hit book, like School-Live! or Black Lagoon, you want to keep the content coming, because you got to get people to buy the book.

And if the book does doodly in the market, you can cut your losses. Pull the ads, pull the marketing, tell the distributors to remainder whatever copies are out there. Now you’re just out the advance, which is why you paid as small an advance as you could.

Anime is a totally different model. First, it takes a BIG initial investment. You have to buy the rights to the property – which might be substantial for an award-winning property like School-Live!. You have to have a substantial investment in infrastructure. Your cast and crew is all larger and, while you pay them peanuts, you can’t pay them royalties, and you have to pay them before the show is finished.

Watch Shirobako if you want a good look at how an anime is put together, and remember: all those people are getting paid somehow: on salary, a flat fee, as piecework. Paid. Oh, and the people who pay them have to get paid, too.

And at the end, your show has to attract eyeballs. If no one watches it, you never get any of that money back. The investment is higher, the risks are higher, and the audience has to be A LOT larger to pay it all off.

That means that manga can be a riskier medium than anime. There’s less at stake.

Less? Less money.

Why, what did you think these companies are in business for?

Okay, how does that specifically affect School-Live!? Tell you next time!

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

2 thoughts on “Medium Matters (Part 1): School-Live!

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