Can feral cats and the iPhone save Tokyopop?

Last week, Tokyopop CEO Stu Levy took some criticism from a number of comics sites, including this one, after the manga publisher laid off two senior editors, Lillian Diaz-Pryzybl and Troy Lewter, and one brilliant new hire, former CMX editor Asako Suzuki. This week, Levy told Publishers Weekly's Calvin Reid that the Borders bankruptcy left Tokyopop cash poor:

"They owe us a significant amount of money. We're not a big company and with less cash than we planned, we had to regroup to survive." The layoffs, he added, were "the hardest part, because these were my friends and collaborators."

In addition to the Borders bankruptcy, Tokyopop took another hit this year: Its agreement with Warcraft developer Blizzard Entertainment came to an end in January. Apparently, Blizzard was happy with the sales and the quality of the manga, but didn't want to put in the time required to work on them.

But it's not all grim: Tokyopop ended its distribution deal with HarperCollins earlier this year, but a Tokyopop representative told me they will continue to co-publish the Warriors manga (based on the middle-grade prose novels by Erin Hunter), which are among their bestsellers. According to the BookScan charts that Brian Hibbs posts every year for his "Tilting at Windmills" column, Tokyopop sold about 120,000 Warriors manga, divided over four volumes, in 2008, and 60,000 in 2009. In 2010, Tokyopop's bestselling book was Warriors: Ravenpaw's Path #2, which sold 22,715 copies, according to BookScan. The Warcraft manga didn't come close in any of these years. This is just in the bookstore channel — that's what BookScan measures — but for Tokyopop, that's a significant chunk of its business, probably the lion's share, so keeping Warriors is huge.

In addition, it seems that over the past year, Tokyopop has been doing a better job with its original product, licensed manga from Japan. The publisher has had some decent titles, and the covers and production values are better than in the recent past. Hetalia: Axis Powers and Alice in the Country of Hearts both sold pretty well in 2010. The challenge will be to keep up the quality of these and their licensed books with a skeleton crew of in-house editors supplemented by (rumor has it) low-paid freelancers.

Levy also told Reid he is eager to get into the digital space and that plans are in the works for iPad and iPhone apps:

"It's our responsibility to make titles available digitally for a fair price," he said. "Japanese publishers don't always want to move on this."

So far, Tokyopop has two manga available as stand-alone apps, Hetalia and Priest.

The logical next step, of course, would be a Warriors iPad app, but life probably isn't going to be that good. (Warriors is a corporate property and "Erin Hunter" is at least four people, so it's unlikely that the rights are available for any affordable price.) Instead, it looks like Tokyopop's future will include a mix of products. Levy's Greatest American Otaku reality show has earned plenty of derision from bloggers, but it does seem to appeal to a certain earnest sector of young people; the Priest movie (now in 3D!) may amount to something; and then there's those darn cats, who fly under the radar for us grownups but may help subsidize some of their more adult titles.

Batman: Jorge Jiménez Joins James Tynion IV as Artist on DC Series

More in Comics