Despite the efforts of a few a pioneer publishers, educational manga has yet to fly in the U.S. market. Digital Manga Publishing tried a line of biography manga (Edu-Manga) back in 2006 with poor results and other companies have experimented with manga adaptations of literary classics like Shakespeare’s plays or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island with mixed results. This month, add No Starch Press to the roster of publishers looking to enter this uncertain market when they release the first of a series of manga-style technical guides intended to teach topics like statistics, calculus and physics.
Founded by William Pollock in 1994 in San Francisco, No Starch Press is known for its computer and programming books. (The publisher also has a line of LEGO toy books aimed at adult LEGO fans.) While a push for the education market may sound like a no-brainer, Pollock is taking a different route with his educational manga series. He’s focusing on his core audience: geeks—consumers obsessively and deeply interested in and knowledgeable about science and high-tech subjects of all kinds.
“We’re a geek publisher,” Pollock says. “So many geeks that I know, they love science. They have nothing to do with biology, but they want to learn it,” he explains. “We’re appealing to people who buy trade science books, people who want to be around science and math,” he says, emphasizing a critical overlap in the demographic.” A lot of these people, these geeks, love comics.”
No Starch Press has ten books scheduled for regular release, with one guide coming out every two months. The line kicked off in November with the Manga Guide to Statistics, followed by the Manga Guide to Databases in December. In March of 2009, the Manga Guide to Calculus will be published, followed by the Manga Guide to Physics, and the Manga Guide to Electricity. Additional guides will come out in 2009, including one for molecular biology, and relativity.
The books are a mix between a story and a lesson. Created in Japan by team comprised of an artist, a writer and a technical expert (the statistics book called upon a writer and artist as well as a mathematician), the stories follow the learning trajectory of a struggling student-disciple as they learn from their teacher more about the subject matter. “It’s a classroom in a book,” Pollock says describing the titles. “You learn while the subject of the story is being learned. It’s a great way to learn stuff.
The line of manga-styled guides is a co-publishing venture between No Starch Press and their Japanese licensor, Ohmsha, whose robotics books they’ve published before. Having had their own books published in 21 different languages, Pollock says he prefers this arrangement.
“When you have a co-publishing arrangement, it’s more than, ‘here’s your few thousand dollars and we never hear from you again.’ [The licensor] has incentive to think of other titles that can go into the series,” Pollock says of Ohmsha. “Everyone likes expanding their brand.”
He adds that translating a book in which the language is both highly technical and the book functions as a textbook was also a concern that the co-publishing venture addressed. “For technical books, translation can be very expensive,” Pollock explains. “Russian or German to English is cheaper than Japanese.” Thanks to the co-publishing agreement, both publishers share costs and revenues and Ohmsha will provide initial translation of all their books. The Ohmsha logo will also be on the books along side that of No Starch Press.
Pollock, who worked in textbook publishing prior to founding No Starch Press, aims at getting these books into college bookstores and in front of the student who may want supplemental materials. NSP titles are distributed to the trade by the computer book publisher O’Reilly, but Pollock is also exploring the possibility of entering the independent comic stores by way of Diamond Book Distributors.
In Japan, Ohmsha, which Pollock compares to the German STM (science, technology and math) publisher Springer Verlag, has sold between approximately 30-40,000 copies of the statistics guide in Japan. Pollock is optimistic about the series in the U.S. “I think the potential is huge,” he says.
Despite the inventory crunch at Borders, B&N and other retailers who are being cautious in stocking all kinds of books during this economic downturn, Pollock holds firm in his belief in the book market. “You can come out with a book and think it’s for one market, and it goes into another entirely different market.”
And besides all that, Pollock is himself a geek and a manga fan who’s excited about the prospect of others teaching and learning by using manga. “Manga is a fantastic vehicle for teaching people stuff in a painless way.”