Tokyopop Licenses: Send In The Rescue Squad!

By Brigid Alverson

The news is all over the blogs that Tokyopop posted on their Facebook about the fate of their manga licenses, but we really didn’t need to hear from the publisher to know what will happen: In Japan, for the most part, creators retain the rights to their work. When Tokyopop closes its doors for good, at the end of this month, the rights will revert to the creators.

Tokyopop has no say in what will happen to unfinished series, but in the past, creators have chosen to strike deals with other publishers. In fact, Tokyopop “rescued” several series, including Aria, Peace Maker, and Tactics, when ADV Manga lost the licenses.

There are two reasons why a publisher would pick up a license: To make a heap of money and to burnish its reputation as a publisher of quality manga.

Let’s start with money. According to BookScan, Tokyopop’s biggest selling Japanese manga was Alice in the Country of Hearts. Hetalia: Axis Powers also did well, especially considering that the first volume was released fairly late in the year, in September, but Alice in the Country of Hearts did outstandingly well, with over 18,000 copies sold of volume 1. The tricky thing about Alice, though, is that it’s a six-volume series and Tokyopop released five—there is only one volume left. Publishers who rescue a license usually re-release the previously published volumes with new translations and their own trade dress; doing that for Alice would require a leap of faith that the audience wasn’t already saturated. I don’t know if Japanese licensors will even issue a license for a single book like that; if they do, it might be worth it. One possibility would be to release it digitally, possibly as an exclusive with a publisher’s app.

Hetalia, on the other hand, is a no-brainer. It sold quite well, in part because there is already an established fandom based on the anime and—never ignore this where manga is concerned—it offers a lot of opportunities for cosplay. I would be very surprised if publishers weren’t already jockeying for this one. Incidentally, Hetalia continues to be available digitally on the comiXology app.

The dropoff is pretty steep after these two series; no other Japanese series published by Tokyopop sold more than 10,000 copies of any one volume in the stores surveyed by BookScan in 2010. The ICv2 chart, which covers all channels (comics shops, bookstores, and online sales) lists only three Tokyopop titles among the top 25 manga properties of 2010: Fruits Basket, Alice in the Country of Hearts, and Hetalia. And Alice and Hetalia were the only series to make the New York Times manga best-seller list in 2011. If that’s an accurate snapshot of Tokyopop’s business, the reason for their demise is clear. (Their top seller was the Warriors series, which are global manga, not Japanese, but three strong series are not enough to carry dozens of weaker sellers.)

So, that’s the hard-headed numbers part of it. What about what the fans want? A number of series pop up again and again in the comments string at About.com: V.B. Rose, Maid-Sama, Gakuen Alice, Junjo Romantica, Future Diary, Aria, and Suppli were the ones that caught my eye.

V.B. Rose is much loved by fans, and you hear a lot of people talking about it online, but that love doesn’t seem to be reflected in the sales figures. Tokyopop’s physical volumes were really nice, too, at least the ones I saw. I would love to see someone pick it up. Like Alice, it is close to the end—Tokyopop published 12 volumes out of 14—so it carries the same risk, but perhaps if the earlier volumes were combined in nice omnibus editions and actually marketed to the target audience, it could sell.

I’ll confess I haven’t read Maid-Sama, but it does seem to have a following (as well as cosplay opportunities), so it’s a possibility. The Japanese publisher, Hakusensha, has a business relationship with the parent company of Viz, and the story—a feisty girl who is student body president at her school but works at a maid café on the side—seems like a good fit with their Shojo Beat line.

Gakuen Alice was supposed to be The Next Fruits Basket for Tokyopop, and they actually promoted it a bit before getting distracted and moving on to something else. The story, which mixes school, magic powers, and a drizzle of yuri, is a bit odd for American readers, and my guess would be that it is more popular with adults than teens. Another Hakusensha manga, Gakuen Alice is a tougher sell than Maid-Sama and I doubt it will be rescued.

Junjo Romantica is yaoi, and if Digital isn’t already looking at it, they should be; they were already selling it online when they carried Blu manga on their eManga site, so they should know exactly how popular it is.

Future Diary is straight-up seinen manga that I once described as “the Twitter version of Battle Royale”: A group of people have cell phones that record what they are doing in the immediate future; they must use these, and their wits, to avoid being eliminated in a cruel game. There are 11 volumes in Japan (but it’s not clear to me that the series has ended) and Tokyopop has published 10, but the good news is that there is an anime on the way. This series would be a natural for someone like Dark Horse; published on decent paper and promoted in comics shops, it could find a whole new audience. And there’s an anime on the way this fall as well.

Everyone says they love Aria, but nobody seems to buy it. It was originally published by ADV Manga and then “rescued” by Tokyopop, to the delight of fans everywhere, so there are already two editions of the first three volumes floating around out there. Given that nothing really happens in this story—it’s lovely and atmospheric but devoid of any action—I don’t know that there is a huge demand for more than the six volumes that are currently out. Reading Aria is like relaxing in a warm bath; it’s very pleasant but does get boring after a while. I doubt there will be a third act for this series.

Suppli is some lucky publisher’s shot at a prestige manga, one that has literary quality and just might sell as well. A smart, funny workplace romance about the difficulties of being 27 and single, it has a lot of potential crossover appeal to adult females who read the occasional graphic novel. For that reason, I absolutely would flip it if I were to publish it; with that in mind, it could be a good candidate for an indy house like Fanta or Drawn & Quarterly or possibly Viz’s Signature line. With seven volumes out in Japan, it’s a bit long for American readers, but it’s good enough that it would be worth the gamble.

Finally, a quick look at the new stuff. I was impressed with the quality of some of Tokyopop’s most recent releases. This may reflect the influence of Asaku Suzuki, the former director of manga at CMX, who revived that line and filled it with series that fans loved. Regardless of who was responsible, series like The Secret Notes of Lady Kanoko and Skyblue Shore, and even the weird but wonderful Pavane for a Dead Girl, are worthy of a second chance in the hands of a company that could market them properly and see the series through.

On May 24, Digital Manga Tweeted “We’ve gotten lots of emails & msgs to rescue Tokyopop’s titles- Our licensing team is looking into them!” While they focus heavily on yaoi manga, Digital does publish a handful of shoujo and shonen titles, and they are pretty savvy on the digital publishing front, which may be where some of the more marginal titles end up. Licensing is a complicated business, with a lot of internal politics on the back end that none of us eve see, but it is likely that at least some of Tokyopop’s series will again see the light of day.

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