Greetings, and welcome! Earlier this year a reader asked me to comment on the current state of the popular martial arts publishing industry. I have certainly noticed a couple of interesting trends. There are many fewer martial arts magazine on the shelf at my local book store. And those books that are still stocked in the ever shrinking martial arts section tend to be more more substantive in nature than the endless rows of skinny “how to” books that I remember dominating the 1980s. But it occurred to me that if we hoped to make any progress on this subject it would be better to assemble a group of experts, individuals who have dozens of years of experience in the industry, and ask them for their candid opinions on the state of martial arts publishing.
After a quick round of discussion I was able to convene just such a panel. But before jumping straight to the action, I would like to introduce our experts:
Gene Ching is the Publisher of Kung Fu Tai Chi and the author of Shaolin Trips. He brings a focus on the magazine industry to the current discussion, though his career includes countless articles, books and television appearances. Kung Fu Tai Chi is the largest English language magazine and website devoted exclusively to Chinese martial arts. Additionally, he has written well over a hundred scripts for martial arts instructional videos. He also appears on El Rey Network’s Man at Arms: Art of War, a reality show hosted by Danny Trejo where they recreate and test ancient weapons.
Louis Swaim joined North Atlantic Books in 2013, continuing a career of more than twenty-five years in book publishing. He loves engaging with manuscripts, authors, editors, and designers in carefully shepherding good books to publication. A longtime taijiquan practitioner, Louis has published two translations, Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan and The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan with NAB/Blue Snake Books. In addition to Chinese language, philosophy, and poetry, Louis is passionate about birds, hiking, and jazz.
Mark V. Wiley founded Tambuli Media in 2013. He has written extensively on the Filipino martial arts, and produced hundreds of articles on a range of subjects relating to both the traditional martial arts and wellness practices. His background in the martial arts publishing industry is extensive. Before starting Tamblui he served as book editor for Tuttle Publishing, Unique Publications and Multi-Media Books, and in various editorial positions for Martial Arts Illustrated, Martial Arts Legends magazines and the Journal of Asian Martial Arts.
KFT: What are the biggest changes that you have seen in martial arts publishing in your time in the business?
Gene Ching: The biggest changes were the recent shifts in culture: the collapse of the independent newsstands under the mega-bookstores then the subsequent collapse of the mega-bookstores and of course, the rise of the internet. Anyone in the book industry could see the bookstore collapse coming years prior to when it happened. There just wasn’t enough margin in book sales to sustain mega-bookstores. Standard retail operates on a 50% mark-up. Books are much less, like 20%. Given that, there was no way that mega-bookstores would survive. Once the mega-bookstores crushed the independent outlets (as any mega-company does) they realized that there wasn’t enough profit to show any sort of growth beyond that initial conquest. So they failed. Add to that the impact of the web with vendors like Amazon, and U.S. capitalism effectively rendered our nation’s masses illiterate. It was all quite tragic.
My generation remembers so many bookstores. They used to be fantastic community hubs. Now there are only very few. This had a dramatic effect on magazine publication because we relied on those indie bookstores which also held newsstands. Martial arts is a niche market, so it’s not worth it to invest in magazine insertion programs in typical magazine outlets like supermarkets, convenience stores or airports. We depend heavily on indie bookshops and those have all but gone extinct.
Mark Wiley: To echo what Gene said, when I began working in martial arts publishing in the early 90s, there were so many magazines on the newsstand and quite a few large book store chains carrying martial arts books. I remember at one point, Borders had nine shelves in our area of just martial arts books. Shops in the UK and Asia had even more. The hunger for content was enormous.
Over the years, the trends changed from kung-fu to ninja to taekwondo and jeet kune do, to Brazilian jujitsu and MMA. So the areas of interest, and thus the types of books and articles published, emerged and changed. There was always a market.
These days the changes relate both the style (MMA, and so-called “tactical” arts) and also in format. Printed books and magazines are less interesting to the martial arts masses these days than 10 years ago. Even DVDs are not popular. Today, Youtube rules, and free clips shared on Facebook and other social media, and streaming content have dwarfed the printed materials.
This is depressing, for me, as an avid collector and curator of books and magazines.
Louis Swaim: Returning the discussion to traditional books, here is one more factor to consider. The growth in academia of martial arts studies has raised the bar for writers of martial arts books. Not all martial arts books are written by scholars, nor are they necessarily intended for scholars. But there is a greater expectation in publishing that martial arts books will bring a careful scrutiny to their subject, with an eye for authenticity, accuracy, grounding in genuine lineage, or tested practice experience.
KFT: What new trends in the publishing industry do you find to be the most exciting?
Mark Wiley: I think the most exciting trend for me is that with social media we can directly face our audience. We can offer sample chapters or video clips and speak right to the potential owners of our content.
The flip side to this is the sheer onslaught of content being pushed in readers social feeds every day. It is just more difficult to get their attention. And with so much free content being shared by the practitioners and teachers, it’s hard to convince people to purchase the published materials.
Louis Swaim: Martial arts can act as an avenue to greater cross-cultural understanding that can be very enriching to the practitioner. Having a greater appreciation for the origins, history, and cultural traditions of martial arts challenges the reader to critically examine their motivations for martial arts study and practice. Recent attention from the fields of history, anthropology, sociology, and comparative literature open up greater possibilities for readers and writers of martial arts books to seek greater self-understanding through their personal practice. All of that is critical at this point in time.
Gene Ching: Well, from my perspective the big story is once again the internet. It’s so much easier to publish things on the internet and to reach your target demographic. And there’s a lot that can be done with social networking and video, stuff that was unimaginable before. Now we can publish an article in our print magazine alongside a parallel web article and both can cross-promote each other. We can publish videos that compliment both our web and print publications so easily and affordably. Plus the networking power is astounding. We can chat with people all over the world – masters, researchers, practitioners and fans. We can connect like never before.
What’s more, self-publishing is easier than ever. This has allowed many obscure books to be published, which on one hand is great because some of that stuff would never be published otherwise. On the other hand it is noisy because a lot of self-publishing is really poor quality. When there’s no editors, there’s no editorial standards. However, this does allow for some great small presses to arise and that’s very promising.
On more growing trend which I’m really excited about, and this gets back to Louis’ prior point, is the increase in scholarly martial publications. In recent years, we’ve seen some tremendous scholarly works, like yours Ben, that are really taking martial arts to the next level. They are dispelling myths and looking into history with an academic rigor that we’ve not seen before. Despite all the negative trends in martial arts publishing, this is our saving grace.
KFT: Thanks! And I should add that this has also been a really exciting time to be involved with academic research on the martial arts as scholarly publishers and journals are showing an interest (and demand) for our work which was just not the case ten years ago. So I think that the emergence of a more informed popular readership, the emergence of some really interesting obscure stuff that none of would have heard about a couple of decades ago, and more openness to martial arts studies within the academy is opening the way for some very interesting work.
KFT: What are the biggest challenges facing martial arts publishing today?
Louis Swaim: It is always a challenge to remain viable in what is necessarily a niche market. There is a proliferation of self-published martial arts books, sometimes to good effect, but in some cases yielding books of poor quality, lacking good editorial scrutiny or peer review. As Gene noted the ease of self-publication is a real double edged sword. The value that an established publisher can bring to an author’s book through careful editing and stronger distribution is the best way of meeting this challenge.
Gene Ching: Keeping the interest of the next generation is tough. There is a pervasive ADHD twitter-driven mentality that seldom gets past sensational headlines nowadays. Originally, when we began publishing on the web, we were delighted at how inexpensive it was to post long articles. A 5000-word article wasn’t really any more expensive to publish than a 2000-word article. In print, that’s like 6+ more pages of copy, which is a lot of real estate when you have a limited page count.
But then we realized that readers generally don’t stay engaged for that long on the web. It’s a staggeringly shorter attention span. So now, we generally limit the length of web articles to under 2000-words. Web articles have to hit hard and fast now, which makes it challenging to plumb the depths of the martial arts.
KFT: Yeah, as someone who who publishes a blog with lots of 4000 word essays, I can second that. I think there is an audience for the “long-read” think piece…but its clearly a niche readership.
Mark Wiley: There are quite a few daunting challenges to martial arts publishing today. The first is the presence of Youtube, which in my opinion has deflated the market immensely. Before Youtube, you had to buy a book to learn about an art or get the sequence for a form you didn’t know. Now, all of this and more is available for free, 24/7. You can see a form or applications of any given style by hundreds or even thousands of teachers in real time, at any time of day or night. You no longer need to figure out the transitions between printed photos, or to assume the power or timing of a techniques or movement.
The second challenge is the current lack of interest in traditional arts. With BJJ and MAA pressing ahead in the media and minds of people, and all the bashing from their athletes towards traditional arts, an entire counter culture has emerged and literally overwhelmed the interest in our traditional systems.
If you are trying to publish in martial arts today, whether books or magazines (or even video), you have to compete with free Youtube, the rise of MMA and shrinking of traditional arts, and realize the youth of today fuel up on free digital media and trading on torrent sites. You have to really focus on the “long tail” of marketing, or digging deep to identify your specific market and try to get your product directly in front of them. And that is a skill we are all trying to master in this new world reality. The books stores are shrinking, so we must develop more ways to find and directly engage our audience.
KFT: Given the direction that our conversation has gone, I think that next logical question has got to be, what kind of role can social media, blogs and youtube play in strengthening, rather than challenging, traditional publishing?
Gene Ching: Our most visible platform now is facebook and that’s so inexpensive and easy to manage. We have about a half million likes there. We post something there every work day – new articles (posted on our home site KungFuMagazine.com), announcements (like when the new issue hits newsstands), videos, cover stories, advertisers, and of course, sales from our primary sponsor, MartialArtsMart.com. We offer all of our web content for free, and the advertising allows us to monetize our publications. We also post our extra photos from events and such. Ordinarily, when we cover an event, we can only run a dozen or so photos in print due to space limitations. We shoot hundreds of photos, so now we post those in facebook albums and our readers love it.
YouTube has been powerful for us because, just like with event photos, we have a lot of footage of events and such. We have nearly 17,000 subscribers now. Now, when masters come to our studio for photo shoots, we ask them for videos too. Like Mark said, gone are the days of static step-by-step photo essays to describe some technique. Now we can show it in action, in real time. Do that for enough years and you have real archival value.
We still run our online discussion forum too. While that might seem like an antiquated web tool nowadays, it has the advantage over the social networks in that it’s a searchable database. Search any topic on the Chinese martial arts and it’ll eventually lead you to our forum, often on the first page or so of your search. We have 23,00 members there. It’s free too. So I would definitely say there are some productive possibilities. Mark, what has your experience been?
Mark Wiley: I really believe that if traditional martial arts (which is my passion) are to make a comeback, social media is the platform to effect that change. If everyone who loves our books and magazines and digital media would work toward the goal of keeping these alive, they can do it by blogging about the book they just bought. Post a pic holding it. Share a review you wrote. Do a youtube video talking about the best chapters from the book, etc.
It’s important that the buyers as well as the publishers work together in a shared goal of spreading the word and getting the release of the books in front of the people who want them. That is how you sustain a community.
Louis Swaim: Social media is always a mixed bag. Some online discussion forums, for example, tend to dumb down the discourse and frame martial arts in a narrow perspective of “what works in a fight,” with little appreciation for the more subtle aspects of martial arts. Still, there are some excellent blogs, translation sites, and shared videos that bring good information to light that would likely not come forward through books alone.
KFT: Tell us about the next big thing on the horizon?
Mark Wiley: For Tambuli Meda, we have begun creating deep-dive, online streaming, martial art and wellness courses. These are streaming courses that can be viewed from any device, that also contain written materials and access to private member only course groups. It is in the member groups where the teacher engages the students of the course from wherever they are in the world, and forms a virtual family/school.
This has been more successful for Tambuli than traditional book publishing. And so our courses will include the books as additional offerings as related to the courses.
Louis Swaim: I think my answer is going to be a bit more aspirational here. What I hope to see on the horizon is a greater examination of gender dynamics in the history and current practice of martial arts. The philosophy and ethos of some martial arts traditions can challenge well-worn assumptions of what defines masculinity or femininity. In like manner, modern martial arts students should scrutinize the inherited traditions they are learning for lingering strains of sexism or chauvinism that no longer have a place in our changing society. Martial arts practice can enhance body image and situational awareness, provide insight into sexual harassment issues, and reframe social discourse on gender politics. In light of this, I look forward to new contributions from women martial artists, writers, and translators.
Gene Ching: For the past decade we’ve been expanding our tournament, the Tiger Claw Elite KungFuMagazine.com Championship. While this might not seem directly related to publishing, it has proved to be a great source for content and networking. Our YouTube channel is filled with professionally shot videos from past events. And many of the champions are rewarded with appearances in our print magazine, not to mention the massive facebook photo albums that it generates.
KFT: That makes total sense. Writers have got to have something to write about, and so if publications can support new events, new communities or new social movements, there is the possibility for some really interesting synergies. It interesting to me that while you each talked about something very specific, all of your answers were headed in the same direction.
KFT: What do you see as the main positive contribution of the publishing industry, in its many forms, to the development and practice of the traditional Asian martial arts today?
Gene Ching: Documentation. The plus and minus of the web is that it is so fleeting. You can edit and delete things at any time. When you publish something in print, it’s set in stone. If you make a mistake, you have to print a retraction. You can’t just edit it through admin. So print writers, researchers and publishers have to be so much more committed.
Louis Swaim: Adding a different slant to that same thought, some really important contributions have come from small independent publishers, in the form of translations of traditional materials, insights into history and cultural features that had previously received little attention, and sheer exposure of the reading public to a wide array of martial traditions from distant times and places.
Mark Wiley: I agree with what Gene and Louis have said. I think the publishing industry is deeply responsible for the documentation and proliferation of martial arts around the world. Yes, movies that showcase the arts attract attention for a period of time. But the books and magazines have created a canon, an archive of material on nearly every art, including historic photographs, translated thesis and poems, basics and techniques and photos of the older masters for us to measure ourselves against.
Without publishing, many of the arts and the masters responsible for spreading them would be gone from our memories. We owe a debt of gratitude to the early pioneers in the field, including writers like Donn Draeger, Robert Smith, EJ Harrison, Jane Hallander, and publishers like Tuttle, Kodansha, Japan Publications and CFW Enterprises.
Kung Fu Tea: You just described my bookshelf! Nor do I suspect that I am alone in that.
KFT: Here is my final, and in some ways my most challenging question. Can the publishing industry play a role in attracting more young people to traditional martial arts? What do we owe the next generation?
Louis Swaim: I will tackle the last part of that question first. It is important that publishers help potential readers understand that the study of martial arts by young people can lead to greater self-confidence, self-discipline, and community responsibility. In addition to physical conditioning, good martial arts practice trains the young person in situational awareness, and in how to avoid or diffuse violence. In a culture where children are faced with bullying, and threats of violence in their schools and neighborhoods, martial arts training can provide physical and emotional tools for the young person to cope with these hard realities. That is a message that we need to get out there. Mark?
Mark Wiley: For me this is hard to say. I think television has always been the force that has attracted youth to the martial arts. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, and the like. The arts get into the subconscious of the youth who then join local schools.
The trick is how to get them to read good magazines and books on the arts to then transition out of the generic school and into a real kwoon or dojo.
KFT: Right, and to do that before they become disillusioned with the whole thing.
Gene Ching: That is a tough question. Our reading demographic is not kids, frankly. Our readership is mostly adult. It’s funny because every martial arts magazine tried and failed to tap the youth market. We all tried comics (ours was the longest running, I’m proud to say). There were even a few martial arts magazines exclusively targeted at kids. However no one has been able to sustain a martial arts kid publication. It just doesn’t seem to work out for print magazines at all. I’ve yet to see anything succeed on the web either.
Here I could default to our parent company, Tiger Claw. They supply 22,000+ schools and stores across the nation and many of those are driven by young students. But this doesn’t really get at what you’re asking.
I hope that our content is of enough quality to inspire all of our readership, including the youth. I hope that the youth read our magazine and realize that there’s a lot more out there in the martial arts world than what happens in their schools and what they see in the movies. But I treat them as adults for the most part, except maybe when they are crying over losing at our tournaments. Someone’s gotta lose. In fact, there has to be more losers than winners. To get back to your question, I’d say we are looking to inspire adults and hoping for a trickle-down. So we may not be targeting the youth directly, but we are definitely looking out for the next generation.
Kung Fu Tea: I want to thank you all for participating in this roundtable. As often happens in these events, the scope of our discussion expanded and evolved as the conversation went on. But it did so in the most helpful way. What started off as an investigation of the state of the publishing industry really became a meditation on the martial arts themselves.
As so many of your answers have suggested, at the end of the day, it is not really possible to separate the two. The way in which we document the communities we love is never totally distinct from how we construct, promote and attempt to grow them. That is one of the things that has really struck me during my historical research on the emergence of the Asian martial arts. As soon as these martial arts systems have gained a mass following in pretty much any time period (Ming dynasty, the Republic period, the 1950s) books, whether fist manuals or commercially printed novels and opera scripts, have been right there. These things have always been deeply entwined in ways that scholars are only just coming to appreciate. While both traditional martial arts and the publishing industry have faced many transitions over the last couple of decades, this conversation has highlighted several new and exciting developments.
I cannot wait to welcome each of you back to Kung Fu Tea to talk about these important issues soon.
If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Doing Research (3): It’s My Way or the Wu Wei – A Note of Advice for Novice Field Researchers