Remember when Tokyopop announced that it was closing its North American manga division? CEO Stu Levy made a statement, they sold off all their books and office equipment, and their website dwindled down to a Facebook page.
Well, psyche! They’re back! Fans packed the panel room at Anime Expo, and Levy had announced that they will publish the third volume of Psy-Comm, an OEL (original English language) manga. In addition, he said that the Japanese publisher Gentosha has confirmed that vols. 4 and 5 of Hetalia: Axis Powers will be published in North America. By Tokyopop? “We are talking to Gentosha,” Levy said, but there are no more details yet. Tokyopop published the first two volumes of Hetalia before it closed down, and it is publishing the third (and bringing back the first two) in a print-on-demand partnership with the retail site RightStuf.
Levy opened the panel with a description of Tokyopop’s beginnings and evolution. “When I was 21 I went to Japan, and that changed my life,” he said*, describing how he got hooked on Dragon Ball Z and started several different enterprises to bring Japanese culture to the U.S. “One of the things I was most proud of is we put out the Christmas card printing software that does stuff for Macross and Sailor Moon,” he said, “and that led into me somehow convincing a company called Kodansha to publishing Sailor Moon in the States.” There wasn’t much manga being published in the U.S. at the time—Dark Horse pretty much owned the market—and conventional wisdom was that girls don’t read comics, but as Levy said, with remarkable understatement, “it kinda worked.” From the beginning, Levy was interested in a whole lifestyle, not just manga, and he showed some early efforts in that regard; currently, Tokyopop publishes a newsletter through Nerdist. However, it was the manga piece that really took off. Tokyopop was one of the first companies to publish unflipped manga, and Levy talked about how they did it, launching nine titles at once. They had a string of hits, including Love Hina, Chobits, and their biggest seller, Fruits Basket, but then, as he said, “things started to go south.” As the manga publishing business in the U.S. expanded, competition for licenses grew. Levy’s response was to create homegrown manga, first cine-manga (assembled from screenshots of Pixar and Disney movies) and then OEL manga. “One of the most important things was for me to encourage and facilitate local artists,” he said, but the company was overly aggressive, launching hundreds of books and sinking a lot of money into the venture. There was also an anime line, which was an expensive flop. On the other hand, Tokyopop’s film and video projects—Priest, Van Von Hunter, and America’s Greatest Otaku—were mostly funded by outsiders and didn’t cost the company much money.
Levy identified several factors for Tokyopop’s eventual downfall, including piracy and the entry of Japanese publishers into the U.S. market. (Some of Tokyopop’s biggest sellers were from Kodansha, the largest publisher in Japan, but when Kodansha started planning its own U.S. branch, it pulled its licenses from Tokyopop.) Levy also mentioned Borders, which represented a third of their sales. “And suddenly, boom, they were gone,” he said.
So what now? Tokyopop has re-entered the market in a cautious way, doing print-on-demand in partnership with the website RightStuf. That has worked with Hetalia because Tokyopop maintained a good relationship with the Japanese licensor, Gentosha, and Levy held out the possibility that Tokyopop could license other Gentosha series as well. (Blogger Deb Aoki pointed out that Tokyopop licensed Chibisan Date, by the creator of Hetalia, but never published it, so that’s a possibility.) Its other Japanese licenses have expired, however. Levy told fans to communicate via Facebook or e-mail to let him know what licenses they want. He is going to try to launch some new series, perhaps via Kickstarter, he said. In addition, Tokyopop will publish more OEL manga via RightStuf. (When the OEL manga program was cancelled, a number of volumes were complete or close to completion.) And they will be publishing e-books via iTunes, Nook, Kindle, and Graphicly, he said.
The panel started late, so there was no time for questions and answers at the end, but Levy had an informal chat with fans afterwards.
*Quotes are adapted from a live transcript of the panel.