Tokyopop Stops Publishing: And Then There Were …?

Tokyopop logo

News broke yesterday that was simultaneously shocking and unsurprising. Tokyopop is closing as of May 31, although they plan to continue their film division (split off in a 2008 reorganization), an area where company head Stu Levy’s attention has been more focused lately and the reported holder of the intellectual property rights. Sales of those rights will continue out of Germany, where a licensing office will remain open, as well as the European publishing program. (This news might also explain why the final episode of America’s Greatest Otaku, Stu’s reality show, hasn’t been posted yet, although it was due up Thursday.)

Tokyopop cut significant numbers of staff a couple of months ago, blaming the Borders bankruptcy and the resulting losses to the publisher. At the time, Levy was seen publicly referring to publishing as an “old-school, out-of-touch industry”, which caused some consternation over his tone-deafness and timing. Now, his personal message in response to the company closing is perhaps inappropriately self-congratulatory. Included was this militaristic comment:

Tokyopop logo

I’m laying down my guns. Together, our community has fought the good fight, and, as a result, the Manga Revolution has been won.

He had previously mentioned online (link no longer available) his plans to spend the next year in Japan “making a documentary about the [earthquake] tragedy and how the Japanese people are overcoming it and rebuilding their lives.”

Tokyopop was always an experimental company. They’re the ones who, back in 1997, brought Sailor Moon to the US, breaking open the shojo market. In 2001, they created the idea of unflipped, right-to-left manga being “authentic”, a marketing strategy that allowed $10 black-and-white manga paperbacks to become a publishing success story (and cut adaptation costs, since all that art didn’t have to be processed). Although rumors of their demise were circulating as early as 2008, and they went through a difficult patch in early 2009, cancelling many planned books and losing Kodansha titles they’d licensed to Del Rey and Dark Horse, 2010 appeared to be something of a recovery for them, with a new slate of well-reviewed titles. (Shades of CMX!)

They were always trying new things — digital releases, print-on-demand, price experimentation, comics adapting sci-fi TV shows. On the one hand, that kept them limber and flexible, able to experiment; on the other, that gave the company of having the business equivalent of attention-deficit disorder, unable to focus, commit to product lines, or follow through in substantial fashion.

Perhaps their best-remembered experiment will be OEL manga, original graphic novels published in manga format by young creators. Running in 2005-2006, rumors of poor treatment were coming out in 2007, as some artists realized that they no longer owned their work and began to regret the deals and control Tokyopop exercised. Several promising titles ended early, or not at all.

They attempted to revamp the program in 2008 with Manga Pilots, which caused a lot of outrage (and leading to my list of Tokyopop’s biggest mistakes). At Robot6, Brigid Alverson surveys the current rights situation. She takes a balanced perspective, but I suspect that Tokyopop will hang onto that property as long as they can. There’s no downside to them doing so.

When it comes to the company’s titles, I’m disappointed to see no more Stellar Six, no more Suppli, and especially no more Lady Kanoko, which would have been complete with the next book, or Aria, rescued from ADV Manga. Michelle Smith has compiled a list of books scheduled to be released this month and next from Tokyopop, while Sean Gaffney lists the many series unfinished. Publishers Weekly reports an unnamed spokesperson as saying “Tokyopop will announce the future of specific titles and other releases in the coming weeks.”

So of the major American manga publishers, who’s left? Viz, obviously. Vertical and Yen Press, although they don’t have as much customer awareness or as extensive lines. Mostly yaoi Digital Manga (who’s trying new things in using their Guild for free labor) and boutique Euro-influenced Fanfare/Ponent Mon. Dark Horse has the most active manga line of the comic pubs who also release some manga (such as Fantagraphics and Dark Horse), but I wouldn’t call them a manga publisher, since so much of their focus is elsewhere — and they’ve recently had layoffs, including the editor, Tim Ervin, who handled most of their manga. It looks like Kodansha has plenty of opportunity and market space, when their promised titles start coming out.

Update: Jason Thompson (link no longer available) has some great analysis on Tokyopop’s OEL Manga and licensing plans.

The collapse of Tokyopop is mostly due to the Borders crash, manga piracy and the general bad economic situation, on top of Kodansha taking their licenses back from Tokyopop, leaving them with no must-have titles…. However, the collapse of Tokyopop is also informative because it shows how futile it is to run a comics company to try to sell movie licenses…. 14 years after Levy first blogged about trying to develop a Parasyte movie, what did Tokyopop manage to make? One TV show (which I haven’t seen) which isn’t directly based on any of their properties. One direct-to-DVD movie, Van Von Hunter. And the Priest movie, which is so different from the original source material it may as well have a different title. …

[T]hey had more than 10 years to sell that one runaway hit property, to develop that one megahit property, and they failed. Once they stopped doing original content and started focusing on their licenses — Ghostbusters, Star Trek, whatever — I knew their ambitious plan was dead and they had to resort to doing spinoffs of other companies’ stuff rather than developing something new that could be a crossover hit.

Comic shop owner James Sime at Isotope also has some good points about trying to sell manga during the bookstore boom.

With the launch of Tokyopop’s daring “Authentic Manga” (backwards reading) format suddenly interest in manga in San Francisco exploded… And that’s when our sales went dead. Whether it was that we hadn’t inspired enough loyalty in that particular customer base, couldn’t keep up with the stocking that multi-million dollar bookstore chains were doing, or just couldn’t compete when people were picking up their manga everywhere in the city, it’s tough to say. But it was pretty clear that for whatever reason we’d lost the audience, and we just weren’t the destination for those books anymore….

Tokyopop reinvented what comics were and who read them. They made the infusion of the culture of comics with fashion, music, and lifestyle effortless and fun. … [T]hey brought in a generation of comic readers and they made comics cool. So despite them pretty much being single-handedly responsible for mucking up the category’s sales at the Isotope, we will forever be in their debt.