I touched base with Chuck Austen a few weeks ago, when Tokyopop put a selection of its original English language (OEL) manga up for sale on its revamped website. At that point I checked in with a couple of former Tokyopop creators, and I ended up having a fascinating e-mail exchange with Austen in which he said he made more money on one of his prose novels simply by selling it on Kindle than he would have made from a movie option. That caught my attention, and I asked him if he would write a guest post for Robot 6. Here's what he had to say, and while all opinions are Chuck's own, I think at the heart of it is some good advice for everyone who has ever done something they regretted later.
My name is Chuck Austen. Many of you have probably heard of me, and very rarely in a good way. But that’s one of the reasons I’m here.
Brigid asked me to address my fellow Tokyopop alums — people who created OEMs for that ill-fated company and, like me, watched their properties mistreated, ignored and ultimately thrown into ownership limbo, properties for which we will never retrieve our rights, worlds we imagined into being that we’ll never be able to create additional stories for.
The reason my past history is important is because I am probably the most extreme example of someone who "lost everything" and so am uniquely qualified to tell you this:
Its not fair. Stu is a jerk. It is upsetting. It is heartbreaking. We have every right to be angry. We deserve to have our creation(s) back. But we never will, and none of these entirely justifiable feelings help us now.
Tokyopop will never let go. But we have to.
Tokyopop was a stupid, poorly run company that took our brilliance, and sincerity and passion and crapped on it. But they also gave us something important, something useful.
They gave us an opportunity to get our work out there, to develop fans. To display our creativity and professionalism. How many people can say they’ve created 200 pages of graphic novel? Or 400? Or eight? Not many. You should be damn proud of what you achieved. Don’t let Tokyopop’s stupidity take that accomplishment away from you the way they took your creation.
Instead use it. Use what you did, what you achieved, and build something for yourself. You’re not just a one-trick pony. You’re an amazing, energetic, imaginative creator who can do something even better. So get over it. Stop complaining and wishing for miracles, and let go. Take the good you got from the experience with the unctuous Stu Levy and make something else, something better, something fan-frickin-tastic for which you retain all rights, rights that Tokyopop, Marvel, DC, and every other corporate sphincter in the world will wish they could take from you, editorially digest into a flavorless pablum for the masses, and poop out to their audience.
Sell something incredible to your audience. The one you now have because Tokyopop — as much as they tried not to — gave you something valuable.
You don’t need The Pop anymore. Or any other publisher. You don’t need someone else to decide if they like what you did, or give you notes to "make it better," or make it "right for our audience." You just need you, and your amazing new idea.
Take those positive things you got from Tokyopop — name recognition, fans, experience, knowledge — and make them work for you. Kindle and Nook and Print On Demand (POD) and all the other new-age digital possibilities give you an avenue to reach your audience at no cost to you. Create your material, upload it to Amazon, or Createspace, or Barnes and Noble, or Smashwords, and then promote it as best you can to the people who already like what you did at TokyoPop. Trust me, I’ve done it. It works, and it can work for you too.
Back during the height of Tokyopop's success I sold them a series called Boys of Summer. It was a dream come true, and something I looked forward to with more enthusiasm than anything I’ve ever done in any medium — a true labor of love.
Three volumes were completed, but only one saw print in the United States, and you could only get that through Amazon. Why? Because the North American distributor didn’t like the cover. But rather than just create a new cover and get this book that they’d already paid for into stores, Tokyopop sat on it for almost three years. In the meantime the entire Boys of Summer series became a pretty big hit in some foreign markets — even with that questionable cover — and gave me hope that its success in those places would encourage Tokyopop to finally release it properly in this country. One day, to my complete surprise, they decided to do just that. For a few months I was thrilled. The whole story would finally see the light of day in my native language. But one week before the scheduled press time for a complete, three volume omnibus edition, the book was pulled from the printer and canceled.
Soon rumors that Tokyopop would fold were running rampant, but I’d lost all interest. I’d moved on. I became a director on shows like Cleveland and Robot and Monster, hired by people who had been fans of my comics and manga work, and was being paid a lot more money.
When Tokyopop did eventually fail I tried to get my rights back so I could release it POD and digital, but Stu wouldn’t give them up for any amount of money. The best he would offer was to sell a film option to a production company that I would have to bring to him, and even then he wanted an exorbitant fee, and consideration as director of the project.
Obviously that didn’t happen, so once again, I moved on.
This has happened to me three times, in three different fields of creativity; television, comics, and manga. No one out there has a sadder, darker, scarier, more painful, more losing, more difficult story than I have. No one. Tokyopop is just the tip of a very frosty iceberg, and one that hit me more personally than my difficulties with Marvel or DC, or Film Roman, or Sci-Fi channel. In the end I was glad to be done with all that, to let go and move on.
Because even while it was happening I knew that it wasn’t the end for me. I still believed in my talent, and my professionalism, and my ability to create.
I’m now a successful producer at Cartoon Network, and in my spare time I write a popular and solidly selling series of novels based on a TV series I created many years ago but never sold — all made possible because of positive response and respect for my comics and manga work. Fans from that world followed me to my novels, and those have earned me more money than I even made off of a television series I co-created and saw become a number one hit.
The initial option fee from Film Roman for Tripping the Rift was $2,500 (split between myself and my co-creator). When it sold and became successful I attempted to sell another idea to Film Roman, Nekkid Bottoms, a romantic comedy series set in a coastal nudist resort, for which the option fee would have been the same — except not split with another creator. The option fee for Tripping cost me my rights and my show, and it — like Boys of Summer — is something I soon had no control over, connection to, or financial participation in.
But Nekkid Bottoms, which I was once so disappointed at being unable to sell, sells constantly now as a series of novels. Even better than making money from the property, it’s something I still own and completely control, a world and a creation I continually contribute to and keep earning money from. Ironically, over time, I’ve made more off of Nekkid Bottoms than the simple $2,500 "option fee" I would have gotten from Film Roman. Much more. Just by making the books available on Amazon’s Kindle. No promotion. No sales junket, or shop signings, or advertising costs. It just sits there … and sells. And I still own it. It’s all mine. I keep adding to the concept with stories, additional books, comics and short stories, each of which brings in new readers looking for the older books which just earns me even more money and greater respect. A long as there is a digital e-reader out there I will only earn more. The success of those novels has given me the freedom and confidence to write other novels based on other ideas, or transforming old screenplays, all of which are also still mine, and under my control.
Tokyopop, and Marvel, and DC all unintentionally helped me to achieve all this self-publishing success by creating a fanbase for me with the comics work I did, especially with Boys of Summer. Those fans are too smart to get into pointless fights with trolls online. Instead they just quietly buy my books, and recommend them to others.
And I’m not the only one. Ask Joe Konrath. Ask Ann Voss Peterson. Ask Barry Eisler. All treated badly by their publishers — all making lots of money because of the fanbases those publishers helped to create. And for those of you with no fanbase, or books that never got out there — ask Amanda Hocking. Ask John Locke. Newbies to publishing can find a niche and make a killing. You have the experience and developed discipline of creating something even if no one saw it. Use that very valuable job skill to your benefit.
When I have time (which is rare) I continue to create comics/manga because I still love the medium, projects that I will someday release the same way I release my novels, both digitally and POD. They look incredible on iPads, Nook tablets and Kindle Fires, and people will buy them. And they will be mine.
Fortunately for me most of the people who appreciated my work are people who make decisions in other forms of creative media either by employing me or purchasing from me. One of my current bosses loved Boys of Summer. Many of the fans of my novels were readers who appreciated the heart, humor and romance I brought to my comics.
The point is: If you do what you do well, the loss of one project is not an end — it’s just a beginning. Take what positives you got from a negative experience and use them. Empower yourself. Stop looking at what you didn’t get. Instead recognize the value of what you did get to make new and better things happen for you. There’s never been a better, easier time for creators to do just that.
Kindles and Nooks and iPads are becoming ubiquitous devices for readers — and readers are what comics and manga fans really are. It costs nothing to upload and sell manga for these e-books — simply start an account with Amazon KDP, then put up your cover and your content and set your price. Amazon takes a piece of the cover price and sends you the rest. No printing fees. No distribution costs. No storage fees, no restrictions on shelf space. They just sell your books and send you a check once a month, or so. And a pretty big one, if enough people like what you do — especially if they already like what you do and were waiting for your next project because they liked what you did at Tokyopop.
Kindles, Nooks, and Print On Demand — it’s worth repeating. Kindles, Nooks, and Print On Demand. POD is similar in price point to your average graphic novel, so while not in the $7.99 to $9.99 price range that would be ideal for a manga paperback, they’re still affordable, and if you already have fans interested in your work, they’ll happily pay a dollar or two more for the privilege. This is what Tokyopop has given you — people who want more from you.
I lost all my rights twice, once to a number one hit television series, a second time to Boys of Summer, and I also lost a career in comics and manga — a career that I loved — and I used what I learned to bounce back.You can too. And I want to see it.