Last one left at Tokyopop, turn off the lights.
The news that Tokyopop has laid off senior editor Lillian Diaz-Pryzybl, editor Troy Lewter and manga line editor Asako Suzuki means that the beleaguered company, which has already risen from a near-death state once, is eating its seed corn. Diaz-Pryzybl was in large part responsible for the company's most recent comeback (as was marketing director Marco Pavia, who was laid off in an earlier wave), and Suzuki's hand could already be seen in an unusually strong March lineup of new manga.
Meanwhile, just yesterday Tokyopop Stu Levy blithely Tweeted:
Wow #GDC2011 [Game Developers Conference] is blowing my mind. Why have I been stuck in such an old-school, out-of-touch industry for so long?! (yes I mean books!)
To which one is tempted to reply, "I dunno, Stu. Why don't you just leave?"
Not only does his tweet show an appalling lack of tact, but Levy's ADD has always been the biggest obstacle to Tokyopop's success. To give him his due, he comes up with great ideas — Tokyopop was way ahead of the curve on many things, from unflipped manga to the iPhone — but he seldom sticks with them long enough to bring them to fruition. It's been obvious for years that he is bored with books; I remember watching him at NYAF a few years ago, dashing around with a film crew, making a mockumentary about cons. Remember that movie? No? Me either. This past summer, he sunk what must have been a boatload of cash into a bus that he (or someone) drove around the country with a bunch of college interns, promoting his America's Greatest Otaku "reality show" (currently running on Hulu). Then he lays off one of his most experienced editors. The short-sightedness of this is mind-boggling. To make money, you have to sell something people want to buy. Tokyopop has teetered on the edge of irrelevancy for a long time, but good editors and marketers keep pulling it back. And then they lay off the editors and marketers.
Books may be old school, but once upon a time, Tokyopop did them quite well. I remember those days. My daughters were 10 and 11 when Tokyopop was pumping out volume after volume of Fruits Basket, Tokyo Mew Mew, Marmalade Boy and Kodocha, and they bought them all. That was back when manga was the fastest-growing segment of the comics industry, and Tokyopop was one of the top two players, bringing a whole new cohort of readers (teenage girls) to comics for the first time in decades.
Then someone came up with the idea of making their own manga, an idea that was roundly mocked at the time but has actually turned out pretty well. Tokyopop signed up a slew of young creators, gave them three-book contracts, and then ... the creators who worked with Lillian got very good guidance and editing, but some of the others got no guidance or, even worse, bad advice. Aside from a handful of titles, the books didn't get much support, either. Some were terrible, some were quite good, some would have been good if they had been edited properly. And then, as part of one of the periodic purges, Tokyopop dropped most of their global manga series, leaving a number unfinished — and thereby rendering the early volumes unsellable. (But also holding onto the rights to a lot of the books, so the creators couldn't repurpose or continue them on their own.) A year or so later, Tokyopop announced, with great fanfare, that they were going to finish those series on the web. They did put some of them up, and you can find them if you know to search on the titles, but there wasn't much promotion and after a volume or two, they quietly stopped posting. And Marco Pavia, the director of marketing, whom I interviewed in that linked article? Laid off.
Tokyopop was ahead of the curve on digital manga, but they blew it. In the beginning, they had a simple, easy-to-use site, and they posted a chapter a month of three or four different global manga there. Then they pulled that down and came up with the worst website in comics, a horrible mishmash of unedited social media that completely submerged their books in a welter of plagiarized fanart and idiotic conversations. The best thing about the site was that they hired some knowledgeable fans to write regular columns, and they briefly had a requirement that their staff write a blog post a week, which resulted in some interesting content, but that all faded away, too. Meanwhile, they were developing cell phone manga and even iManga, motion comics formatted for the iPhone, which were so far ahead of their time that no one even knew what they were. Again, these initiatives withered on the vine for lack of attention. You could read the first chapter of Dramacon on your cell phone, your iPod Touch, or your computer, and you could hear it dramatized as a podcast, but if you can't get the second chapter, what's the point?
Former Tokyopop editor Rob Tokar, who was a lot closer to the whole thing than I am, commented at The Beat:
If only Stu and Kiley would have left long ago the company would be a great success.
Stu’s ego destroyed TP and Kiley was clue-less.
Someone chided him later in the thread for being mean, but it's hard to feel warm and fuzzy toward the Tokyopop leadership any more. [UPDATE: Tokar contacted us to say that he did not post that comment; someone else was using his name.]
I have been covering Tokyopop for almost six years now, since I first started writing MangaBlog in 2005. Over the years I have talked to a lot of Tokyopop people, both editors and creators, on and off the record. The amount of talent that has been laid off by Tokyopop is staggering. Some of these people were heavily invested in the company. When Tokyopop attracted mass derision (some of it unjust) for its Pilot Program global-manga contest a couple of years ago, two editors, Paul Morrissey and Hope Donovan, went out and defended the program against a sea of angry internets.
And then Stu laid them off.
After the last Tokyopop restructuring, they suspended a lot of series, including some that had avid fan followings, which of course pissed off a lot of people. Lillian put together a series of webinars in which she interviewed editors and creators, took input from fans, and, eventually, announced that some of the series would resume. Lillian wooed back a whole sector of disgruntled fans.
And now, Stu has laid her off, too.
Along with Asako Suzuki, who turned CMX Manga around after they almost self-destructed, and apparently, the marketing person.
What's left, according to the talk on Twitter, is a handful of executives and a stable of freelancers, some of whom are former employees. Now, this is not a rap on freelancers—I'm a freelancer myself, after all—but you can't run on freelancers alone. Someone has to guide them. And firing people then rehiring them at a fraction of their pay and no benefits may be the modern way of doing business, but it's a terrible way to reward your employees for their loyalty.
The best thing I can say about Tokyopop is that it turned out a whole generation of talent, from creators like Svetlana Chmakova, Eric Wight, and Amy Reeder to editors like Lillian, Paul Morrissey, and Tim Beedle. The graphic novel scene today is filled with Tokyopop alumni, and maybe it's better in the long run that they moved on. It's just sad to see people who took their work seriously being treated so badly by a company that 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.