SDCC: Tokyopop CEO Talks Comeback, Hints at Disney Properties

Tokyopop founder and CEO Stu Levy continued his slow-motion reveal of the company's return to the publishing business at the Tokyopop panel Saturday at Comic-Con International in San Diego, with a strong hint that the company would be publishing graphic novels based on Disney licenses -- specifically, "Star Wars" and "Frozen." While the details are not finalized and the contracts have not been signed, what appeared to be silhouettes of the logos of both properties were shown at the panel.

Tokyopop was once the largest manga publisher in the United States, with a line of licensed Japanese manga, original graphic novels in manga format (original English language, often abbreviated to OEL, manga), and graphic novels based on franchises such as Star Trek, Warcraft, and Ghostbusters as well as "cine-manga," comics that use screenshots from movies as the art.

Tokyopop shut down its U.S. publishing operations in 2011, shortly after the bankruptcy of Borders, one of its primary outlets, but the company has slowly been flickering back to life since then, publishing one Japanese series, "Hetalia," in digital and print-on-demand format and marketing its existing OEL manga properties the same way. In June, Levy announced that the company was coming back, calling it an "evolution" in counterpoint to early Tokyopop marketing material that referred to the "manga revolution."

Tokyopop Returns -- But Don't Call It A Comeback

In an interview with CBR News, Levy said his plans for Tokyopop are threefold: Licensed Japanese manga, graphic novels based on brands, and new products based on Tokyopop's existing global manga properties. In addition, Levy is launching an app, Pop Comics, that will create a platform for users to upload their own comics.

With regard to Japanese licenses, Levy made it clear his options are slim. "The big, big, big, titles are taken by the big guys like Kodansha and the Viz parent companies -- Shueisha, Shogakukan," he said. With those properties out of reach, he will be looking for interesting manga from smaller publishers -- and listening to fans' recommendations as well.

What Tokyopop will not be doing, most likely, is finishing up series it had published in the past. Many of the series are no longer available, and many were not profitable to begin with. "Bringing back a title that is not profitable is not going to make anybody happy," Levy explained. "We love our fans, but we absolutely want our fans to understand that we have to keep the business sustainable if we are going bring out new product."

The second category, what Levy calls "brand licenses," will be similar to what Tokyopop did in the past, creating original graphic novels based on licensed content. While the specific licenses were only hinted at at the panel, Levy spoke in general terms about what his plans are. "We will be working with amazing artists who will most likely be trained in the school of manga," he said. "I don't think ethnicity or nationality is a requirement, but the chances are pretty good that means they were probably trained in Asia and most likely Japan -- but you never know, there may be exceptions. And then writer-wise, we are going to find the best writers for the project who really know the subject matter and are passionate and are really open minded about storytelling... I think that crossing cultures is certainly what I have always been interested in, and I believe that our world today is more than ever accepting of that." The first books will be released in 2016, although how early or late in the year depends on how long it takes to get the creative teams together and approve the stories.

The third category is original products. The first one will be a limited edition boxed set of M. Alice LeGrow's "Bizenghast," and it will be released in two formats: All eight volumes in a special box, or just the box alone (for those who already own the books). The full set will be priced at cost, below the cover price of all eight books. "We are doing that basically for the fans to say 'We are back,'" said Levy.

At least initially, these products will be based on Tokyopop's existing OEL manga properties. "We may do new global manga in the future, but in the very, very beginning, we are going to have our hands full, especially assuming our first big licensor deal closes as planned," Levy said.

Levy is also launching a separate project, Pop Comics, which will be a mobile platform where creators can self-publish their comics. "This app is actually not to publish the digital versions of the books [Tokyopop is] publishing," he said. "This is a separate company that's affiliated with us but not the same entity." Creators can upload their comics to the app but will not give up any rights. "It is 100% creator-owned," Levy said. "No right of first refusal, no option, nothing from our side that's required. It's a platform entirely for creators and fans." The app will have a selection of featured comics that will be curated. "That will be basically either stories we think are really fresh, creators we want to feature, promotions, [and] contests, because we want to do contests too, like Rising Stars of Manga. We are going to do that on this platform to look for undiscovered talent," said Levy.

The comics are viewed page-by-page, and full-page ads will be integrated into the comics. Creators will get 70% of the ad revenue, and the founding creators, who are on the app at launch, will get 75%. Later on, Levy envisions adding a point system so users can earn bonus points and use them to purchase things, similar to the way points work in video games. He also plans to invite some of the creators to put their work in printed anthologies, but participation will be optional. "There's nothing obligatory at all," he said. "If Viz or Marvel or anybody else finds a creator on Pop Comics, and they do a publishing contract with them, awesome. We would love that."

The return of Tokyopop has brought with it a revival of criticism of the company's contracts and their treatment of creators. Tokyopop paid the creators of its global manga program advances, but it also took a portion of the copyright. Since the company stopped publishing new books, some of the creators have expressed frustration about the fact that Tokyopop has retained its portion of the rights, which restricts what they can do with their work.

Levy addressed this question head-on, saying that in most cases, authors never earned back their advances, and that he could not give away intellectual property rights that could continue to earn money for the company. "Back in the day, our mentality was 'Let's [do a] creative partnership together,'" he said. "That partnership was in essence a marriage. We are bringing editorial, we are bringing marketing, we are bringing distribution. We are also going to pay you an advance, a guaranteed advance, because we know that, frankly, drawing is not something that you can just click your fingers and do. So we want you to be able to pay your bills. Nobody is going to get rich from that, but the hope was that together we build a marketplace where fans will increase, products will sell, and you will not only have received your advance but ideally royalties that are based on overages. That was the model that we wanted to build, and obviously creators were hoping for that too. We were dreaming the same dream."

That's not how it worked, however. In fact, Levy said, very few of the books sold enough copies to recoup their advances and allow him to pay royalties to the creators. The reason, he said, was threefold. "Part of it was bringing too much product to market. It was too much product too quickly, and that was an issue," said Levy. "I get excited about things and I wanted to embrace a lot of creators and encouraged it, and it was just too much. It wasn't sustainable. So that was a mistake.

"Another mistake was some creators were I think ready to be published and others were maybe not quite ready. They perhaps needed a little bit more experience, a little bit more grooming, and I think that did show in the range of books.

"The third thing, which I don't think was within our control, was that the audience overall still had a bit of a purist attitude, and when we said manga could be global and you could be from America or from Europe or from South America or Australia and create a manga, I think the people that believed that, the audience and fans that believed that, there were fewer of them than we had hoped."

As for the shared copyright, Levy spoke to that as well. "In general, the deal was if we are combining our strengths, then let's share the copyright together," he said. "From day one, let's be in this together and let's make these books together. And that's what we explained to the creators, that's what our legal department explained when they went through the contract. The creators typically would take home their contract, they figured out everything, and they would make a decision. We didn't force anybody to do anything. It was a two-way street, a two-way agreement, and when they decided to sign and be part of the process, we embraced them and we believed we did everything we could to provide success to those books, but many of them did not succeed the way that we all hoped."

Levy said he is willing to negotiate with creators. "I have said in the past a number of times that I am very, very amenable and always my door is open to having any kind of conversation, and some creators have taken me up on that and have come to me. For instance, 'Orange Crows' has a volume 2. It was entirely created by the original creator, and he asked me permission to do a crowdfund on it, and we worked it out, and I think he feels we were very supportive of that, we promoted it."

He doesn't feel he can simply give the rights back to the creator, though. "I also fiscally have a responsibility to the company to protect our investments and our assets, which means I can't just hand away something that might be providing a return in the future," he said. "I can't just hand it away for free. I would get fired for doing that. The board of directors would not be happy with a CEO that just gave stuff away willy nilly."

At any rate, the future doesn't seem to hold any similar deals for Levy or Tokyopop. The licensed titles will be work for hire contracts, he said, with the rights dictated by the licensor. Creators who upload their work to the Pop Comics app will retain all rights, with no obligation to Tokyopop. If those creators are invited to participate in an anthology, "we will work that out, but our plan for the anthologies will never be to acquire the IP itself."

"I think that we have made mistakes in the past," Levy said. "There's no question about that. In that particular time, we did what I believe was our best for what we thought was the fairest way to go with things. Some creators ultimately were happier than others. That's the reality. I never wished that. I wish every single creator that we ever worked with could have had the best experience they ever had... I will always do everything I can for it to be a fair relationship, and I want to learn from the mistakes of the past. That's why the very beginning of the next publishing cycle will not be about brand new original creations: Because I need to learn about that, I need to learn what is fair for everyone and what makes sense. And I don't want to do another deal like that unless both sides are completely convinced that it's the right thing."

Stay tuned to CBR News for more on the future of Tokyopop.

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