Unbound: Tokyopop goes online

Last year, when Tokyopop underwent a major restructuring, it suspended most of its original manga series, leaving a number of incomplete stories in limbo. That state of suspended animation ended last week, when Tokyopop Director of Marketing Marco Pavia announced that Tokyopop will complete most of the series, including Earthlight, Afterlife, and Gyakushu, online. Each volume will be posted for free, one chapter per week.

For Tony Salvaggio, the creator of Psy*Comm, the news came as a relief. Psy*Comm is the first series in the new program; Salvaggio and co-writer Jason Henderson had finished the book, and it was being lettered when publication was called off last year. “We missed the window by about a month,” he said.

Now that the book is coming out, Salvaggio has put together a Facebook page to promote it. The series is being published in other countries, including the UK, Turkey, and Croatia, and the first volume was named to the 2007 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. Salvaggio hopes that being online will get his story in front of more readers. “We don’t sell gangbusters, but people who have read the book have really enjoyed it,” he said. “At A-Kon, everybody who came by and bought book one came back the next day and bought book two.

We talked to Pavia about Tokyopop’s plans for the online manga program and where they hope it will go from here.

Brigid Alverson: Why did you decide to go this route? Why does it make sense from a marketing perspective?

Marco Pavia: About a year ago, when we restructured the company due to the economy, we told the artists and writers for these series that we wanted to publish their continuing volumes online to get them in front of hundreds of thousands of manga fans. The book retail market was having its challenges— at the time, booksellers and publishers were describing it as the worst retailing environment in memory—and in most cases, bookstores were taking in very few copies or skipping the next volume of a series entirely...and they were also returning books in droves. Last month at Comic-Con, we invited our creators to a summit, at which we let them know we'd begin to serialize these series on TOKYOPOP.com, which has become a destination to enjoy comics, from our published series to user-generated content. We want to continue to give fans access to these talented creators and storytellers.

Brigid: Which comics will go online?

Marco: Continuing volumes of Psy*Comm and Boys of Summer will start the online serialization, and we'll continue with Earthlight in early 2010. Other series on the schedule include—in no particular order—Afterlife, Grand Theft Galaxy, Dark Moon Diary, Pantheon High, Project DOA, We Shadows, Undertown, Gyakushu. There will be others, too—I'm sure I'm leaving some out—and we'll update the schedule in the coming months.

Brigid: Will you put earlier volumes of those series online as well?

Marco: Yes, we will always have at least one chapter of these series online, and from time to time we will release the entire volume(s) online for a limited time.

Brigid: If not, how will readers find the earlier volumes? Are they still in print?

Marco: We are exploring a print-on-demand model, about which we told our creators at the Comic-Con summit, and I expect this to be implemented in the relatively near future; I'm not giving you an actual launch date because integrating the technology is extremely complicated, as everyone knows. We told our creators that it is a priority for us, and I hope to have news very soon.

Brigid: Will there be iPhone, Kindle, or Android versions of any of these?

Marco: We are in the middle of developing our strategy for the iPhone, et al, and will make this public when it's finalized.

Brigid: Will you charge to view these, or will they all be free?

Marco: They are all free.

Brigid: If they are free, how will you make money from them?

Marco: Good question—in some cases, we've not made money from the physical books. However, these series and other great content bring readers to our site to enjoy the overall manga experience. I expect our traffic will continue to grow, and once we implement a "buy" option for the online-only manga, we can generate revenue. I won't bore you with our manga stimulus plan jokes that get bandied around the office.

Brigid: A lot of people argue e-books should be free because the publisher doesn't have to bear the cost of printing them. What other costs are associated with these books, and how much work do you need to do on them before publication?

Marco: I've not heard the "free" argument—making a book is more than just printing, obviously. We pay our artists and writers, of course, and there are costs associated with our staff related to editing, design, layout, marketing, sales, accounting. Once a book is printed, there are costs for distribution, too. And we have to pay for retail placement or the book will be shelved with its spine facing you in a sea of spines. Publishers pay to put books on that table in the front of your favorite book store. And after we do all that, a bookstore can still return it to us after a few months or a few years, even if it's damaged and we can't re-sell it.

Brigid: Is there a possibility you will release any of these in print form if they prove popular on the web?

Marco: Yes; however, they also have to prove popular with our retail partners. As I said earlier, buyers often base their buying on how the previous volumes sell. Once we have our print-on-demand plans in place, you will be able to buy any of these books in print form.

Brigid: Do you have any plans to expand the size of the book in your full-screen format? At the moment it appears to be smaller than a print volume.

Marco: We have been looking at an alternative to our current manga player, but I don't have any details yet.

Brigid: Will you be starting any new series in this format?

Marco: We don't have plans to do so right now. Apropos launching a series online, we've all seen that the definition of comics/manga publishing is rapidly evolving, and I'm sure publisher's roles will evolve, too—a publisher may start with something in digital then move to print or not even have a print edition.

Brigid: Will you be putting any of your Japanese or Korean series online?

Marco: We do put them on line—in most cases, we're not serializing entire volumes. We try to always have at least one chapter online to view. In the past we've run promotions for an entire volume of Fruits Basket, and a year or so ago we put the entire series of Loveless online for free. Of course, the scores of scanlation sites have most of our licensed series online for free.

Brigid: What happened to the Manga Pilot program? Is it still going on?

Marco: We were asked this question at last week's TOKYOPOP Insider webcast, too. Shortly after its launch, the economy began to go south, and we were forced to make some difficult decisions, including restructuring the company and laying off a number of extremely talented people. We just didn't have the resources to keep it a priority as we tried to navigate through a challenging retail climate, in which every business everywhere was impacted. That said, we're always interested in fostering new talent, and are looking at ways of doing this in a way that is mutually beneficial for everyone involved.

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