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The wisdom of Stu

by  in Comic News Comment
The wisdom of Stu

ICv2 has lengthy three-part interview with Tokyopop CEO Stu Levy today, and as JK correctly predicted, I do have some things to say. Let’s run through a few topics, shall we?

The manga market: Stu: “I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s robust because I don’t think that there’s growth per se, but I do think there’s been stabilization.” One thing he touched but didn’t say explicitly is that the market seems to be splitting into winners and losers, with a few titles selling very well and the rest of them struggling to find an audience. While some of Tokyopop’s books have been popular with bloggers, they had only two titles (Fruits Basket and Chibi Vampire) on ICv2’s list of the 25 top manga properties of 2009. In terms of their current list, Tokyopo pared way back but then brought back books for which there was an obvious demand, so they played to the market that way. Meanwhile, they have been repackaging some tried-and-true series and bringing out new twists on popular niche series like the .hack and World of Warcraft books.

Bookstores vs. the direct market: Stu: “We as a publisher are, moreso than in the past, adapting our content so that it fits clearly into one of those two channels. In the next year or two you’ll see a lot more proactive efforts on our part to work with comic book retailers to develop and release content in the formats that work for that specific channel.” Tokyopop books typically do better in bookstores than comics shops, so it’s interesting he is developing properties for the direct market.

Special demographic aside: Stu also commented that guys tend to build long-term relationships with comics stores whereas women tend to have a strict relationship of convenience with bookstores. Maybe that makes it worth the trouble.

Tokyopop: Tokyopop was one of the first manga publishers to be hit by the economic crisis, and Stu says their quick reaction (including abruptly cutting their releases and laying off almost a third of their staff) is what saved them. “We have less staff; we work in an environment where we’re more streamlined; we put out less product, we really try to focus on product that we think the audience will react positively to. Not that we didn’t before, but when you have less titles that makes it a bit easier to do.” Now that the company is on firmer ground, he says, watch for more experimentation and creativity.

Most hilarious understatement: “We tried social media very early before Facebook. We were doing quite well then we re-launched our site and unfortunately the company we used for the technology, we had problems and the site never ended up being what we aspired.” No kidding. I still have to work to find a basic cover image on the Tokyopop site. The best thing they could do is reset it to where it was in 2006. Or just copy the design and functionality of the elegant, easy-to-use site they designed for Blu, their yaoi imprint.

Digital media: JK already hit the high points here, but I just wanted to point out that Tokyopop was so far ahead of the curve on this that most people, myself included, had no idea what they were doing. Unfortunately, they lacked focus—they tried too many things, so quality suffered and many projects never reached their potential.

Other initiatives: Stu has always seemed to be more interested in film than comics anyway. The Priest movie is running late, but at least it’s running, and they plan a big splash at SDCC. They also have been working on that Van Von Hunter movie since forever; I remember standing in the Javits Center two years ago watching a tuxedo-clad Stu charging around with a film crew in tow. Charmingly, that is being released on DVD on April 1.

Then there’s Neko Ramen, a “multimedia franchise” out of Japan about a cat who runs a ramen shop. The comic is four-panel strips, which usually don’t do well in the U.S., but I could see this catching on if they market it well.

Conclusions and lessons learned: Tokyopop has always struck me as suffering from institutional ADD. They would get a great idea—putting manga online, say, or reaching out to fans with a sampler magazine, or reformatting their manga for cell phones or even the iPhone, before people really got what that was about. But they never stuck with the ideas long enough, or pushed them hard enough, to make them work.

The 2008 shakeout was hard, and a lot of really good people lost their jobs. Many of them had been hustling to make things work under difficult and constantly changing circumstances. The folks who were left had to take up a lot of slack, but one thing that I think helped was that the company split into two divisions, one focusing on media projects like the movies and the other concentrating on publishing books. Stu doesn’t really talk about this in the interview, but the publishing side has certainly improved over the past year, perhaps because people were finally allowed to concentrate on what they do best: acquiring and editing manga. Another thing Stu doesn’t mention, although it seems Stu-ish, is their popular webinars, in which editors talk directly to fans, breaking news, answering questions, and gathering feedback.

Here’s the bottom line: Every month, I get a package containing most of Tokyopop’s upcoming releases. After the big cuts, there were only a handful of books, and they all looked pretty sad. Now the envelopes are fuller and the books are a lot more attractive. While they may never find another Fruits Basket, Tokyopop has some pretty strong series: Deadman Wonderland, Future Diary, Karakuri Odette, even the all-ages Animal Academy. So my empirical view is that in terms of licenses and quality, they have bounced back and are putting out a pretty solid line. Whether that is because of Stu Levy or despite him… I can’t say, as the walls in their offices are as opaque as anywhere else, but perhaps giving him the multimedia piece to work with has allowed the book people the peace they need to do their jobs.

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