The fansub and scanlation debate is an old debate and not really something I feel like getting into. This post isn’t really about that, though it’s certainly related. What I want to address is more general: in this economy especially, how much of the entertainment people buy have they already sampled? How much of it do they decide to pick up spontaneously, as they’re browsing through the store aisles?
For anime, how many of your DVDs contain series you haven’t seen at all until you bought them? The number of series being broadcast on television has been dwindling for a while, but more and more companies are streaming their goods online, in whole or part, so there are still plenty of legitimate ways of seeing a series at least partially before buying it (and in addition to DVDs, there are now also budding download-to-own schemes for various platforms). Does anyone walk into the store without an idea of what they want to get? Does anyone just decide to buy a title coincidentally sitting next to the one they intended to get, thinking that it kinda looks interesting?
For manga, there are less legitimate routes to sampling. There are companies that have begun putting their comics online, but they’re almost never in complete collections: some will have a few pages; some will have a few chapters. The few manga magazines we have left and scanlations fill in the gap… along with grazing in the manga section of the bookstore, i.e., sitting around in the aisle and reading the book at the store. How many people buy comics without at least flipping through them first? Who goes off of cover design and backflap synopsises only? Because a vast majority of series are contained over several DVDs or graphic novels, I find it hard to take the risk of buying a single volume of something I may end up disliking. It’s an investment every time I buy something; I don’t buy something without the intention of buying all of it. A four DVD anime series (approx 12-13 episodes) can run up to $100 if they’re particularly expensive. A twelve volume manga series will be least $130. That’s a significant lump of money. Thus, sampling beforehand is pretty much required for me.
Movies and other television shows work similarly. How many people buy DVDs of movies without first having seen it in theatres? Who buys TV dramas without having seen the television broadcast or online streams? Or from a rental? From watching a friend’s copy? There might be exceptions in the five dollar discount bin, but hey, I can buy a sushi lunch for those five bucks instead of picking up a potentially crappy movie that no one else wants either. Music is also similar. Stores have listening stations. Online stores have clips. There’s the radio, Pandora, and related services. Except the cases where they’re already very familiar with the artist, few people will buy an album without sampling it first.
Books might be the trickiest bit. Libraries make them some of the easiest to sample entertainment items ever, and some publishers will have excepts ranging from a page or two or an entire chapter. And yet, most people that read books from libraries probably won’t bother buying a copy of their own, perhaps because the rereadability of books may be less than the rereadability or rewatchability of other media, at least over a short period of time. All the same, book buyers may be among those that are most likely to spontaneously purchase something based only on a synopsis or a book review or a recommendation. Those things certainly influence anime, manga, movie, comic, music, and other buyers, but certainly not to the same degree. Perhaps because paperbacks are among the cheapest of media, book buyers are just be less picky and more willing to take a risk? There’s also much less commitment. Even books in large series are often self-contained enough to buy on their own.
Assuming those assertions are true, it’s interesting that the media that’s easiest to get free is also the media that’s most likely to be purchased without sampling. For the former, is it just a rereadability issue? For the latter, is it just the price point? Is it because library users and book buyers are just different kinds of readers? And are those readers just different from the consumers of other media? Would a book buyer that often buys books based on reviews buy a movie based solely on reviews?
And then there is the question, how many of those that sample anything actually end up buying? Do they not buy because they’ve already sampled or did they just never intend to buy at all? For many media, samplers are usually pirates, but I don’t actually think that matters much. Sampling is sampling, whether or not the means are legitimate. In the end, they can all be split into the following groups:
1) Those that sample something because it’s available. They have no intentions of buying anything ever. Most steretypical pirates probably belong to this group. They download everything because they can. They don’t ever intend to buy anything. If they can’t download it, they just won’t watch it. No big deal for them. They don’t care. These are the people that go into grocery stores and eat all the free samples without ever intending to buy the product. Companies don’t really lose sales over these people; these people were never their customers.
2) Those that sample something because it’s available. They don’t necessarily have intentions of buying it, but might if they really like it. Most respectable fans probably belong to this group. They might watch broacasts or download fansubs and scanlations or ebooks or whatever. They aren’t necessarily looking to buy something, but it’s never out of the question. They are not adverse to supporting those that entertain them. It’s within this group that much of the illegal sampling debates center around. The big question is: how many people are on the fence about buying but end up not doing so because downloading is just easier and cheaper? They might feel guilty, but they still do it. Morality VS Money is a difficult thing. But if they don’t sample anything at all, how will they ever be exposed to something they might want?
3) Those that sample something to decide whether they want to buy it. They buy it if they like it. They don’t if they dislike it. I don’t actually know many people in this last group, but I’m sure there are a good chunk of them. After all, they must be the bulk of people keeping various entertainment industries afloat. These are the people that want to buy things, but aren’t sure what to get.
Maybe the trick is just to put out more products that people actually like love so that more people in group #2 will be compelled to buy. It doesn’t really matter whether or not people are getting a hold of something beforehand if the product kind of sucks. Or maybe people should somehow, impossibly, be forced to not download things and then we’ll see how many actually stumble onto products on their own? Who knows?