Tokyopop's Failure to (Re)Launch

As I write this, much of the manga-reading side of Twitter is blowing up over a a recent article by Vice magazine concerning the return of Tokyopop to the world of publishing.  You'd think that would be something that would thrill manga fans, yet this article is being met mostly with anger and derision from former staff, creators, and the fans themselves.  Both the article and the reaction to it begs the question: is there a place in the post-manga boom world for a reborn Tokyopop?  I think that the answer is obvious: no, there isn't.  Tokyopop had their place in time and did make an impact, but they were for the most part the architects of their own demise, and their attempts at coming back will never work because they refuse to learn from their mistakes.

The article glosses over much of their history, which is doing the reader a disservice.  After all, their history is a big part of why they were successful and why they failed.  Back in the late 1990s (when they were merely Mixx Entertainment), they managed to tap into the then vastly underserved audience for shoujo.  After a few rebrandings, Tokyopop managed to ride the shoujo wave well into the 2000s, to the point where they briefly held the majority share in the North American manga market.  They were also some of the first to dabble with BL with the success of Gravitation and FAKE, and their later release of Junjo Romantica was the first BL work to reach #1 on the New York Times manga bestseller list  Their library of titles was vast and littered with big hits that are still remembered even today.  So how could one of the major publishers fall so hard in only the matter of a decade?  The article cites the same reason the company itself cited back in the day: the rise of scanlations, the fall of Borders, and the general downturn of the economy in the late 2000s.  Those certainly contributed to Tokyopop's fall, but they are far from the only reason.

The real reason, though, was Tokyopop founder and CEO Stu Levy.  He's often cited as a man of many ideas and willingness to embrace new methods and technologies, but many former Tokyopop staff and supporters viewed him then and now as an egomaniac with all the focus of a toddler on a sugar high.  For much of Tokyopop's run, he tried to make the company just as much about him and his own perceived awesomeness as it was about the books they published.  As the years wore on, it was his pet projects that took priority over anything else.  It didn't matter if, say, the josei line was floundering or the website was buggy or if staff layoffs were imminent.  No, what was really important was the success of Stu's (excuse me, DJ Milky's ) half-baked fantasy manga Princess Ai his many movie projects or his notorious reality series America's Greatest Otaku.  Even then, they were all about celebrating Stu and his ideas, which wouldn't necessarily be terrible if not for the fact that the man has a long and storied history of talking and writing like a Brundlefly-like combination of a marketer and a stereotypical teenager.  His lack of focus grew and mutated over the years into a disdain for the very manga market that made his company what it was, culminating in this now notorious tweet made shortly before Tokyopop's shutdown.  That disdain bled into the very company he ran, and it presented itself in many ways.

It presented itself in the quality of the books.  While they were the first to standardize publishing unflipped manga (although not the first; that honor goes to Viz) and making them affordable for teens, that meant they had to cut costs by skimping on paper and bindings.  They also skimped on the translation, as they tended to hire mostly inexperienced translators who were barely out of college and paid them a relative pittance.  For much of the early 2000s, Tokyopop books were synonymous with overly loose and liberal translations that were prone to adding bad jokes, dated slang, and occasionally even changing names or adding accents for no good reason.  It presented itself in their choice of titles, especially in the later half of the 2000s.  Behind the scenes, they had lost the rights to most of their big-name titles when Kodansha took back those licenses.  To fill the gaps left by those works, they were picking up every title they could regardless of quality.  Sadly, for every Fruits Basket they found, there were easily a dozen other manga that had no business being published here and that continue to litter bargain bins everywhere.  Those in charge didn't care; to them, they were merely serving dumb kids who would consume anything that had 'manga' slapped on it. That brings to the place where Stu's disdain presented itself most vividly, the very place which has ironically become one of Tokyopop's most lasting legacies: their OEL manga intiatives.

Original English Language manga was originally meant to fill those aforementioned licensing gaps.  After all, what could be more efficient than making their own works instead of paying expensive licensing fees and the staff needed to translate them?  Plus, there were plenty of eager young artists yearning for cash prizes and a chance at professional publishing at a time when most American comic companies had no taste for manga-influenced art and webcomics were still in their infancy.  Their dreams of success were soon shattered, though.  While a handful of titles are still remembered and loved, most of the OEL works were middling at best and quickly faded from public consciousness in a hurry.  The truth came out quickly after Tokyopop's demise.  The artists were given
contracts that were written in casual language that came out as patronizing.  That faux-casual writing style hid some rather sketchy details, such as the fact that legal disputes would have to be settled at a private firm in LA instead of in court or that in signing said contract Tokyopop effectively gained half-ownership of the entire work.  The artists were poorly compensated, earning only $20-25 per page with no promise of royalites.  Most of the artists received little guidance from their editors and practically nothing by the way of marketing.  Many found their series cut short by the end of the initiative, if not the end of the company itself.  As a finishing blow, Tokyopop still retains the rights to these works, even today.  Since they shut down instead of going bankrupt, they were able to retain the rights to all of these IPs and continue to use them as they see fit without input from or compensation to their creators.  To say that it was (and continues to be) a raw deal would be a cruel understatement.

This is all in the past, though.  It's been over four years since Tokyopop's main office shut their doors and the manga market has largely moved on for the better since then.  The publishers have learned to prioritize the quality of their licenses over the quantity of them, or to at least pay more attention to current trends and hot shows.  They learned to reach out, to listen to, and to engage their audiences through social media.  They mostly stuck to the Japanese works that the kids really wanted, although Seven Seas spent their early years cultivating their own collection of OEL works and continue to make it successful for them.  They didn't try to become media franchises - they stuck with what they knew best: books.  The end result of that is a manga market that is stronger and more focused than it has ever been.  It seems as if they all learned from Tokyopop's mistakes.  Too bad then that Tokyopop itself is the only one who didn't.

The article neglects to mention that this is second time that Stu Levy has tried to bring Tokyopop back from the grave, as his efforts in 2013 were met mostly with utter indifference.  The only thing to come out of it was a print-on-demand deal with RightStuf that never really expanded beyond Hetalia.  Then he popped up again around San Diego Comic Con this year, offering all sorts of empty promises.  They were going to make a new site! They would make some apps!  Kickstarters! Oh, and did I mention that Levy was offering to do portfolio reviews?  Again, this was almost forgotten until this article came up, and I suspect that as before, it will amount to nothing.  It's not just that Levy has a long history of offering up empty promises, thought that's certainly part of it.  No, it's more that Levy hasn't learned a damn thing in these last four years.  A smarter, more self-reflective person might have recognized the error of their ways and tried to learn from that experience.  Not Stu Levy, though!  Nope, he's determined to just keep repeating the very same mistakes over and over and just hopes that no one will notice!  He clearly thinks that manga readers are still nothing but dumb kids who will be easily dazzled by a bunch of slang and tech.  Thankfully, manga fans have long enough memories to know what he did and are not willing to forgive him.  That goes double for independent comic artists, as many made blog posts and Twitter rants warning others away from him and Tokyopop.  It even seems that Tokyopop (or at least their social media people) are responding not so well to this criticism.  Would it work if someone other than Levy was in charge of the comeback?  Maybe.  It would depend a lot on the people in charge and it would take a lot of personality and good business sense to overcome the brand name's stigma.  As it stands, though, it appears that nothing has changed.  Levy will still keep making more promises than he can keep and the whole thing will likely fall apart in less than a year after he gets distracted by something else.  That's probably for the best, as we're in a world that frankly doesn't need Tokyopop anymore to get along.  Tokyopop is dead; long may it rest.


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