Hikaru Sasahara, CEO of Digital Manga Publishing, first floated the idea of the Digital Manga Guild—recruiting manga fans to work in teams as translators—less than six months ago, and the idea is starting to take concrete shape. Sasahara said last week that he has acquired 508 manga titles, and hopes to start signing agreements with localization groups as early as this week. Once that is done, the groups can get to work translating, editing, and lettering the manga so it can be posted online at DMP’s eManga.com site as well as being distributed via the Kindle and Nook devices.

The Digital Manga Guild is an effort launched by Sasahara to both speed up the time it takes to translate manga into English and control the costs. "It has been tremendous the power and speed coming from Tokyo" Sasahara said. "I have never seen anything like this in my whole career. I think a lot of publishers in Tokyo see the economy still going down, and with the advent of the digital publishing, a lot of the publishers who used to do nothing but print editions of books are very afraid of what is going to happen to them, so they are now looking for new frontiers, somewhere besides Japan that they can do business."

Sasahara said he is finalizing the contract for the translation/localization groups and he could start sending them files to as early as the end of April. "All the digital files will start coming in next week from Tokyo," he said last Friday. "Those files are finished, so they could go straight to the localizers and they can start work on translating and typesetting. Hopefully they will wrap up 20 or 30 titles a month and send back all the digital files to us, and then we will put them first on eManga.com and then hopefully other platforms like the Nook and Kindle, and if they are appropriate for the iPhone and iPad, then we will obviously do that."

The manga will be available to all regions, not just the U.S. and Canada, Sasahara said, unless the licensors place restrictions on them, and he hopes to be able to translate the manga into different languages as the project continues.

The Digital Manga Guild is Sasahara's attempt to take some of the upfront risk out of publishing manga. Most manga publishers pay the Japanese publisher a licensing fee up front and hire a localization team (translator, editor, and letterer) to prepare the book for the local market. This means the publisher has to lay out quite a bit of cash before seeing any returns. "The minimum guarantee ranges from $2,000 to $4,000," Sasahara said, "so if you publish 100 titles per year, you have to pay up front about $300,000 or $400,000, which is a lot of money for a small company like us."

Sasahara's idea is that all parties—the Japanese licensor, the U.S. publisher, and the translation/localization team—should wait for their money until the book starts to bring in revenue. "No one will get paid up front, and the only time we get paid is when the title is placed on the web and people start reading it on the internet and pay for it," he said. "Then we will share the revenues among the three parties."

To find localizers who are willing to defer payment, Sasahara formed the Digital Manga Guild. Workers join up in teams of three or more, each of which must include a translator, an editor, and a letterer. (Melinda Beasi has been following the process from the inside at her blog, Manga Bookshelf.)

Digital Manga Publishing is already living up to its name with a robust publishing program on its eManga.com site, which features online manga from its June, Dokidoki, and 801 manga imprints, as well as manga from Yaoi Press and from Tokyopop's Blu line. Almost all of these are yaoi manga, romances between two males, but eManga also features Harlequin manga, which are Japanese adaptations of English-language romance novels. Dark Horse published some of the Harlequin manga in 2005 but stopped after a few volumes, but DMP seems to be having more success online. In fact, Sasahara said, they are among the top sellers on the site. "I have been going to Barnes & Noble bookstores every now and then to see their manga, and obviously in every Barnes & Noble they allocate a huge space for the romance novel section," he said. "I looked at those people who flock around the romance novel area. They are middle aged women. Then I went to Yaoi-Con, and looked at those people coming to our booth, and they all look the same. And I said maybe they cross over, the romance novel and yaoi manga. I was right."

Sasahara said that Japanese publishers and creators, who were once notorious for their reluctance to part with digital rights, are more willing to consider it now because of the money. "It's all coming from the cell phone, the manga viewing system which has grown so big in Japan," he said. "Not too many people read manga on the PC, but they all read them on the cell phone." This has only happened in the past eight years or so, and publishers have begun to realize the money that can be made from digital manga.

The eManga site is his preferred platform, Sasahara said, because DMP owns it. It currently brings in the most digital revenue, and revenues from that site have been increasing steadily over the past three years. The Kindle is next, but the Nook, Barnes & Noble's e-reader, is gaining swiftly on it. "We have less than 80 titles on the Nook, but the total revenue from the Nook is coming close to the Kindle, and we have close to 200 titles on the Kindle," Sasahara said. As for iOS devices, Sasahara said, "I don't think any of our yaoi titles will be placed on the iPhone or iPad because of [Apple's content] restrictions." Yaoi can often feature explicit sexual content.

While some publishers balk at the high fees Amazon charges to upload graphic novel files on the Kindle (because of the larger file sizes), Sasahara says it's just a part of doing business. "That is a problem for us, but what can you do about it? Just work with it and try to make the content slightly lighter bandwidth, and then possibly cut the whole contents into chapters and stuff like that," he said. "We still want Kindle and other platforms; that to us is almost like bookstores on the digital platform. Whatever the deal they are going to offer, we will take it and we will have to do things on our hand to make sure we get the most out of it."

Currently, eManga.com allows readers to "rent" manga for 72 hours or buy it outright. "A lot of people have asked for more days to be able to read, so we are going to close down the rental system and they can keep it forever for a slightly higher price than $3.50, probably 4 dollars a book, still 200 pages," he said. He is also exploring offering discounts on the print edition to readers who already own the digital manga.

If a title is popular in digital form, he would consider releasing it in print, Sasahara said, but he sees the digital and print markets as complementing one another, not competing for the same dollars. "There are definitely two different types of customers," he said, "light and heavy users. Heavy users always want to buy the print edition; light users want to read the manga once and not keep it on their bookshelves. Just running print editions to me is like a handicap. We want to cater to both types of customers."