Catching Up with TOKYOPOP: New .hack// in USA, More

TOKYOPOP: New .hack// in USA, Much More

Manga is bigger than it’s ever been in the English-speaking world, but in recent years the rate of growth has slowed. From the bookstore returns that were years in the making, the deforestation of the manga stock in Japan and even something as broad as the economic downturn, manga’s growth hasn’t stopped – but it has slowed its pace. This maturation of manga publishing in America has given the publishers a forced chance to re-assess their publishing plans as the decade ends.

TOKYOPOP remains on the forefront of the manga explosion in America, helping innovate the now-standard publishing format of manga for English-speaking audience, as well as introducing many titles that would become key to the manga bookshelf in America. Founded in 1997, the publisher's success rode in tandem with American's audiences thriving appetite for manga which coalesced into success beginning in the early 2000s.

But this rising tide was not without its breaks – simmering signs of the economic downturn and costly bookstore returns led the publisher in June 2008 to a company-wide restructuring, which resulted in a layoff of 35% of its American workforce, and its publication output was cut from a prodigious 40 books per month to approximately 15. And in the summer of 2009, Japanese publisher Kodanasha – who had been a long-time source for the imported manga TOKYOPOP produced – withdrew its licenses with the company in advance of Kodanasha's own publishing efforts in America. The withdrawal, while shocking, was rumored for months and TOKYOPOP's earlier restructuring and diversification limited it from being a bigger blow to the company.

And now, 18 months after their restructuring, TOKYOPOP shows signs of upward movement with a healthy slate of titles and a leaner, more efficient marketing effort underway. In an effort to find out more about the company's situation and outlook on the future and its titles, talked with TOKYOPOP's Associate Publisher Marco Pavia to find out more.

Newsarama: Marco, it's good to finally talk to you.

Marco Pavia: Glad to be here, Chris.

We've got a lot to talk about – but let's start first to talk about the restructuring back in June 2008. Back then, TOKYOPOP restructured as two separate divisions – one for publishing and one for digital and “comics-to-film”. How has that restructuring, now over a year behind us, affected things?

Marco Pavia: On the publishing side, we were killed by returns during a tumultuous time in the economy, and we had to make some excruciatingly tough decisions, which led to us having to let go a number of talented people. We now publish fewer books per month than we did 16 months ago, and although there were some uncertain moments, we seem to have weathered the storm (despite receiving no bailout from the government). We’re lean, we’re focused, and we are definitely optimistic. A few of our editors are leaving for Japan next week to meet with our licensing partners to discuss our goals for 2010, new licenses, and future product development; a year ago, I might’ve wondered how realistic it would be to have a conversation such as this.

Nrama But you're here, and from the outside seemingly more stable than you've been in quite some time. Do you think the worst of the bookstore downturn is behind us?

Pavia: Possibly; it was about a year ago when the stock market took a dive off a cliff, and a number of retailers, particularly Borders, looked like they weren’t going to survive--but they pulled off an amazing recovery. Now the question they face is what all publishers face: How are we going to adapt to a digital future, and not suffer the fate of the music industry? I’m not saying books are going away tomorrow, but the digital avalanche is upon us, and we all have to figure out how to maintain our core business as publishers increase their investment on the digital side.

Nrama: During a TOKYOPOP webcast earlier this year, a TOKYOPOP representative called this year a year of “refocusing and reorganizing”. How would you describe the year in your own words?

Pavia: It was certainly a struggle, between the economic recession and the book retail situation, and we had to be extremely cautious while trying to keep up with the deluge of returns. “Refocusing” and “reorganizing” are good words to describe the year, and now that we’ve survived, I’d add “rejuvenation” to the mix.  

Nrama: If 2009 was a year of refocusing and reorganizing, what is 2010 shaping up to be?

Pavia: The publishing business worldwide is going through nothing less than a complete and utter metamorphosis at this moment, and our goal now is to adapt and thrive. We want to publish everywhere, and that means beyond the printed book. Timing is key.

Nrama: You recently announced a whole slate of books planned for 2010 --- Of your new books coming soon, what do you think is the biggest break-out title amongst them?

Pavia: Over the next month or two, Happy Café is a truly adorable shojo manga that has enormous potential. We just sent volume 1 off to the printer last week, and everyone who read it beforehand had the same, enthusiastic reaction. And right before I began this interview, I just sent volume 1 of the Starcraft: Ghost Academy trilogy to the printer. It’s a pretty fierce book and has stunning art. The previews have been generating a lot of hits -- it certainly ain’t no adorable little shojo title.

Nrama Drawing back to a big picture view, what you say are TOKYOPOP’s big pillars in their publishing line?

Pavia: Our manga line, comprising of shojo titles such as Maid Sama and VB Rose, and thrillers such as Future Diary and Deadman Wonderland, will continue to be a focus. We also will have a lot of support behind Princess AI and its multimedia program.

This coming summer (and beyond), Priest will be huge for us, as our program will see new and repackaged print and digital products that will tie into the feature film release. Our other upcoming movie tie-ins, including the Shutter Island graphic novel, have been receiving a lot of good feedback. Dennis Lehane was in our office recently, and I totally geeked out. He’s such a great guy.  

Nrama: Speaking of Priest, with the upcoming release of the movie adaptation, what is TOKYOPOP doing to capitalize on that?

Pavia: We have an expansive publishing program around the film’s release, which will consist of print and digital products, including a new graphic novel series and a re-releases of Min-Woo’s existing manhwa series, repackaged in multivolume bindups with new covers by the original cover artist. We’re teaming up with the movie studio on the marketing campaign, which will begin to roll out in the next few months. From what I’ve seen, the movie’s going to be pretty insane.

Nrama: Yes it does. Newsarama will be covering that more in-depth as the movie's release date draws near. Does TOKYOPOP have any other projects going into film development?

Pavia I’m not as involved on the film/TV side of the business; we do have a number of projects in various stages of development, and we just had a “friends and family” screening of Van Von Hunter, which is a feature-length “mockumentary” that celebrates anime/manga fandom. You may recall we shot some of the film at New York Comic-Con over a year ago, and now the film is complete. I think it will be received quite well with the Comic-Con crowd, and we’ll have an announcement soon about its distribution.

Nrama: Speaking of comics-to-film, let's go the other way and talk about the recently debuted series, CSI: Intern At Your Own Risk. How had the response been for that and do you have more planned?

Pavia: Critically, the manga has been received well – we also created a cool digital product, more like a movie trailer, that has been getting a ton of buzz, especially with our Japanese licensing partners. Sales have been slow, to be honest, but it just came out a few months ago. I know we want instant gratification, and I’m patient to see it find its audience before planning another volume.

Nrama Looking over your list of published books in the past 18 months, it seems one of your biggest ongoing series is the .Hack line. Can you tell us how that’s been doing, and what’s coming up soon for that?

Pavia: You’re absolutely right -- .Hack has been a huge brand for TOKYOPOP over the years, and it continues to be relevant and sell remarkably well. Among the manga and novels, .HACK has sold more than a million units. We’re releasing an omnibus edition of the .Hack//Legend of the Twilight trilogy this month, and have more books scheduled for next year, including  .Hack//Cell, a novel; .Hack//Link, a new manga series; and .Hack//4Koma, which is a yonkoma, a collection of four-panel comic strips. I’m probably most excited about this last format -- the strips are pretty clever. We’ll release online previews of everything a number of months in advance of their pub dates, so fans can get a taste of what’s to come. I’m not sure if we’ve announced all of these titles -- Link might not have been announced yet, so don’t tell my marketing manager it was I who spilled the beans.

Nrama: I got you on tape here, you're on your own. Since I have you on the hot seat, let's talk about the OEL/WorldManga titles. Some of TOKYOPOP’S OEL manga has seen new life, such as Brandon Graham’s King City now going through Image. Can you describe that relationship from TOKYOPOP’s point of view?

Pavia: The deal is basically a co-publishing venture between TOKYOPOP and Image. We all thought that King City was a perfect fit for the mainstream comic audience, with an art style that wasmore indie comic end than manga. Brandon was the initial driving force to make this happen, and we’re all grateful for his perseverance (and endurance!). The latest issue just arrived on my desk, and it looks great.

NramaWill Image be publishing any collected editions of King City, or is TOKYOPOP going to be reserving those rights?

Pavia: The deal is only for floppy comics, under the TOKYOPOP and Image co-publishing umbrella.

Nrama I read an interesting interview at Eye On Comics where you said that this arrangement is also the manga publisher’s way of dipping its proverbial toe to test the waters for a different kind of product. What have the results been so far?

Pavia: Oy, did I use that phrase? Sorry… Without divulging sales figures, they’ve been pretty solid, with a slight drop off between volumes 1 and 2, as expected, and then it’s been holding steady through volume 4’s orders, which is a good sign.

Nrama Could you forsee TOKYOPOP perhaps going into the single-issue publishing business?

Pavia: Not really -- we’ll continue to do so with the right brand, but I can’t see us being a single-issue print publisher. And although I’ll continue spend too much money on comics and sit in my comfy chair reading print editions, I’m more interested in how comics/manga publishing is rapidly evolving, and how that will impact publisher’s roles. We’ve certainly seen, of late, that a publisher may start with something in digital then move to print, or not even have a print edition at all. This is the way of the world now -- not just a TOKYOPOP perspective.

Nrama And will there be other TOKYOPOP OEL titles going a route similar to this?

Pavia: We don’t have any other planned, and nothing is on the horizon. I’d like to see how King City performs.

Nrama: Some of the OEL books have ended up online, through How has that been going?

Pavia: We’ve exposed these artists and series to a much greater audience than any print edition could, and the traffic and views has been extremely encouraging. We do understand that people want print editions, and we’re working to incorporate a print-on-demand option for all of these titles. We should have news very soon.

Nrama: Is TOKYOPOP pursuing any other alternative methods of putting our your titles?

Pavia: Indeed. We have plans for digital editions for many titles. As I mentioned earlier, the technological landscape is evolving faster than anyone can keep up with it. For TOKYOPOP -- and any media business, for that matter -- to navigate these waters between digital and print successfully, the timing and degree of digital product (iPhone app and products released digitally on other mobile and online platforms) penetration are essential.

Nrama: Can you tell us more about the latter?

Pavia: We’ve already released a number of manga on the iPhone; recently we offered a free download of DramaCon iPhone manga on iTunes, and we have scores of other series available. We have plans for a more significant rollout, and have partners with whom we’re in advanced discussion about those plans, and we’ll see something soon.

Nrama: There's been considerable talk about the "print-on-demand initiative" TOKYOPOP has announced is being worked on. Have you got anything concrete you can talk about yet?

Pavia: Yes, and we should have an announcement in the next two months. We’re testing the whole process to ensure that it’s seamless to the consumer.

Recently I’ve seen TOKYOPOP focus less on older, classic manga and more on newer books being created. What was the decision behind this?

Pavia: Some of our older series came to an end, including GTO and Battle Royale, while we’ve caught up to the Japanese release of other “classics,” such as Sgt. Frog and DNA Angel. And you’ve most likely seen the announcement that we were not allowed to complete older series such as Rave Master, Samurai Deeper Kyo, Kindaichi and others because Kodansha decided let the existing contracts with TOKYOPOP expire on all manga series that they had licensed to us. We had been prepared for this, and given the challenges of the book retail market, our decision to publish fewer, better series was well timed.     

Nrama Has TOKYOPOP’s relationship with Kodanasha completely wrapped up and gone kaput?

Pavia For manga, our relationship is over. We still publish The Twelve Kingdoms novels, which are performing quite well for us. I’m interested to see how Kodansha adapts to the U.S marketplace; I’m very fond of Suga-san, and hope to take her to the Lemon Ice King of Corona Queens, to welcome her to New York, once she’s settled into town.

Nrama: And before we go, speaking in general, how would you describe the relationship between TOKYOPOP and other manga publishers in America?

Pavia: I have friends at all of the houses, and I view our collective success with a rising-tide-raises-all-ships perspective. We’ve done some cross promotions with other publishers where it involves shared artists or brands, and we all see one another at comic con -- a few even buy me drinks.

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