Since shutting down most of its North American publishing operations in 2011, North American manga publisher Tokyopop has largely been out of the spotlight, but that doesn't mean that they're out of the picture. Tokyopop is gearing up to publish comics again in 2016 and laying plans to launch a digital self-publishing platform called POP Comics.
Once one of the largest U.S. manga publishers, Tokyopop was credited with driving “The Manga Revolution” of the early 2000s with a vast catalog of licensed manga and original comics. At its peak, it published as many as 500 titles a year, but since a combination of forces—the great recession, the Border’s bankruptcy, massive digital piracy and the failure of Japanese licensors to quickly offer legal digital access—forced Tokyopop North America to shut down, the publisher has been mostly dormant, releasing perhaps a handful of books in print, like Hetalia: Axis Powers, and in digital via Comixology, as well as several newsletters.
Tokyopop has had "a rough five years," said Tokyopop CEO and Founder Stu Levy, but the house is "not easily destroyed. We're survivors."
The Return of Tokyopop North America?
"We've been watching as the [manga] publishing business has stabilized, and it seems like it's at a point where we can try again," Levy said. "We don't have things quite finalized, but we're in talks now and are close to announcing new titles."
Levy said that Tokyopop's options to license new content from Japan are limited. To publish manga from Japan again, "We have to talk with licensors, asking them to give us another chance," Levy said. “Some are open-minded, and some are skeptical. Our role is to find people that want to work with us to make it work, and make it sustainable financially.”
But rather than to pick up uncompleted series that Tokyopop previously licensed, the company is looking for "hidden gems" and getting titles from "smaller companies that are publishing more underground stuff," Levy said. He advised fans to watch for announcements on these new titles on Tokyopop's Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Levy also said TokyoPop is in talks with TV, movie, and video game companies about doing original manga, much like Tokyopop comics based on CSI, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica.
"We've had some pretty exciting conversations where the licensors and creators will let us play in their sandbox and tell original stories, and push it as far as we can. This will be a key part of what we'll be doing."
In the meantime, Levy is leveraging some of Tokyopop's existing intellectual property to develop film projects—such as the Riding Shotgun animated short and concept video for Knockouts that are featured on Tokyopop's YouTube channel—in addition to offering its back catalog of comics titles on Comixology and publishing a new boxed set edition of Bizenghast by M. Alice LeGrow for Holiday 2015.
Pop Comics: A New Publishing Platform
Levy is also working on POP Comics, an entirely new digital comics business venture. POP Comics is a mobile app for iOS and Android that allows creators to upload and promote their original comics to a worldwide readership. It's currently in a closed beta, but interested creators can sign up to try it out at http://popcomics.com.
The comics on POP Comics will be free to read, and supported by online ads. Creators will get 70-75% of the ad revenue, with 30% going to Tokyopop.
Levy cited similar online platforms like LINE's Webtoons as the inspiration for POP Comics. "This kind of thing is a trend in Korea and Japan. LINE has 10 million users, reading manga on their apps that's not seen in any magazine."
Given Tokyopop’s past contentious experiences over contracts—Tokyopop signed scores of young manga-influenced western artists for a line of original English language manga that were left in limbo when the company shut down—the house is approaching POP Comics differently. Levy emphasized that content published on POP Comics would be 100% owned and controlled by the creators.
"We don't own it, we don't have right of first refusal, no fine print, no carve-outs, no options,” he said. "You can take the content you publish on POP Comics anywhere," he said. "This is not about us owning something. It's about creating a platform."
Levy said that POP Comics Limited will be “a separate spin-off entity” from Tokyopop.
"POP isn't technically a Tokyopop project. So that decision-making is entirely independent of Tokyopop's goals and agenda.” He also emphasized that POP Comics will not serve as a distribution outlet for Tokyopop titles.
So is Tokyopop back? Yes. Will things be like they were before? No. Levy is approaching things more slowly and deliberately this time around.
"The publishing re-launch is our big challenge and our big goal," he said. Our plans are to dip our toes back into publishing. We like to try to do things, but we make mistakes and try to learn from them."