What Does that Mean for Mainstream Publishers?
Tokyopop, one of America’s largest comic publishers and the company credited with popularizing manga outside Japan, will officially close its doors in North America on Tuesday May 31st. The announcement, made April 15th, didn’t surprise many followers of the comic book industry; rounds of layoffs had reduced the company to a six-person staff months earlier, and a collapse seemed inevitable even as early as March, 2011.
But how did the company reach the point of collapse when, just eight years before, Steve Kleckner reported it had been growing by at least 200% for three years and wasn’t even slowing? And
, more importantly for publishers of more mainstream products, what is there to be learned from it?
“Right up to the bitter end, Tokyopop was releasing books the fans wanted, the critics enjoyed, and which were selling,” said bookseller Matt Blind in a recent blog post. Indeed, the company enjoyed massive approval of fans. The publisher led the “manga revolution” of the early 21st century, popularizing translated Japanese works and North America’s first Original English Language manga. With its Rising Stars of Manga competition, introduced in 2002, Tokyopop created both the fan base and serious artistic interest necessary to nurture and launch a whole new generation of manga writers and illustrators.
In its heyday, the company moved fast and took more risks than much of the mainstream industry, pioneering new formats and connecting with its audience on a personal level. Brigid Alverson of MangaBlog notes that Tokyopop was “ahead of the curve on digital manga”; as early as the 1990s, Tokyopop was rolling out digital comics to be read on cell phones in Japan, and as the digital era progressed the company began posting chapters of manga periodically on its website for free consumption.
Perhaps because of these bold moves, the company captivated a younger, more diverse audience than American comic publishers had previous known. In particular, teenage girls flocked to hits like Sailor Moon and Fruits Basket, some of the first manga ever to be shelved in mainstream bookstores. And
, by adopting a ratings system which helped identify appropriate content for younger readers, the company nurtured a teenage readership. Their website became a social networking hub for teenagers and adults alike.
The comics industry as a whole seemed to really get its fans in a way that mainstream publishers did not. Readers flocked to comic book conventions like Otakon in Baltimore and Comic Con in San Diego, dressed as their favorite characters. comics industry as a whole profited not just from sales of merchandise and comics, butfrom face time with their fans chance to gauge their interests and predict trends. In an August 2005 article, a Comic Con correspondent for Publishing Trends (who preferred not to be named) called the comic industry’s model a step up from the mainstream model:
“Frankly I think that mainstream publishing may be so out of touch with the fans that I am not sure that the passion exists for these books, and maybe that’s the problem with publishing. We all talk to each other, to buyers, to marketing and we may even have some research to let us know who is reading our books. But these are numbers, not interactions with real people. This attention to the fan is what I believe has kept comics and will keep graphic novels alive, even in hard times.”
Maybe the industry didn’t expect, back in 2005, the extreme struggles publishers would face in light of the economic recession. Nonetheless, Tokyopop could well have harnessed its many strengths for success. The company’s approach to its readership was just a few steps off from what social media marketing guru Seth Godinaccording to his interview with Litopia in which publishers exist to connect readers to media, rather than to select and print it. The company boasted an enviable list of bestselling series, several strong licensed properties, and above all a devoted and growing fan base ready and willing to be connected to a variety of media.
So if the company was doing everything right, how could it have gone under?
Founder Stuart Levy blamed the collapse of Borders for Tokyopop’s last rounds of layoffs and, finally, its dissolution. But some argue that Levy had plenty of warning and could have at least lessened the effects of unpaid debt from the bankrupt company by scaling back sales to Borders earlier.
Becky Cloonan, a comic creator whose first solo graphic novel was released by Tokyopop in 2006, posed a different explanation in her article on April 16th. She, like many of Tokyopop’s authors and fans, points out that the company seemed more excited by attention from video game and film companies than from book award committees. Brigid Alverson agrees:
“[Tokyopop] seems to put more value on a direct-to-Hulu reality series than on their core product, a solid line of manga that really did change the graphic novel market and the reading habits of millions of readers—myself included.”
Levy’s projects, from a mockumentary about cons to a new reality show, America’s Greatest Otaku, left the company “teeter[ing] on the edge of irrelevancy,” says Alverson, and its primary products, books, suffered.
And Levy hardly hid his growing disinterest in publishing; just before the company’s final round of layoffs in March 2011, he Tweeted “Why have I been stuck in such an old-school, out-of-touch industry for so long?! (yes I mean books!).” It shouldn’t surprise many, then, that while American publishing operations close, Tokyopop’s film and television projects will remain unaffected.
It seems, to me, that the company did everything right as far as building a loyal fan-base, but made a critical mistake by choosing to ignore those fans’ needs. In moving forward with his own whims instead of catering to the market he was so instrumental in creating, it seems Levy may have left his fans feeling betrayed.
As profit margins grow slimmer and the publishing market becomes more challenging, it’s likely that mainstream publishers are feeling that same temptation to seek out new projects with the potential for a large payoff. Certainly, publishers should push themselves to find new markets and to reach out to new audiences. However, growing companies would be wise to learn from Tokyopop’s final chapter, and to remember above all that their first responsibility is to their fans. Success will follow, so long as we stay true to our readers in providing them with the products they want and the books they love.
Next week: The end of Tokyopop doesn’t spell the end of American Otaku, or avid manga fans. In the second half of this series, I’ll discuss how Tokyopop’s comic-book empire intersected with the mainstream publishing world, and how we might see its effects on the industry for years to come.