Tokyopop was not the first manga publisher in North America, but it may have been the most important. Founded 25 years ago by Stu Levy at a time when manga was a niche within a niche, the indie house brought manga—licensed book-format Japanese comics in English translation—to the mass market, bringing the category into bookstores, establishing a new comics format, and publishing comics for a wide range of audiences, especially girls and young women.
Tokyopop introduced a generation of readers to comics and to Japanese comics for the first time. In the early 2000s the house initiated its Rising Stars of Manga competitions and Original Global Manga programs, which offered a pathway for emerging creators, influenced by manga-style storytelling, to have their work published and read. While these programs have been criticized over their terms, with some justification, over the years, they also helped effect structural change in the North American comics market as a whole, creating new opportunities for readers and creators alike..
The company has had its ups and downs; at one point, it was the largest manga publisher in the U.S., but it shut down its American publishing arm in 2011 in the wake of the recession and the Borders bankruptcy. All through this Tokyopop continued to publish in Germany and in Europe. When Tokyopop started back in the U.S. a few years later, it was smaller and more focused, and that is the path it continues on today. We asked Tokyopop CEO Stu Levy to look back on the events of the past quarter century—and what he thinks the future has in store.
Publishers Weekly: When you launched Tokyopop, other American publishers were trying to fit manga into the structures of American comics, i.e. releasing manga as serialized periodicals and reformatting English manga to read from left to right. What convinced you to go in a different direction with Tokyopop?
Stu Levy: At the time, frankly, there weren’t really other American publishers involved in manga in any significant way other than Viz. I remember visiting Seiji [Horibuchi, former chairman of Viz Media] before we launched, just to meet him and introduce myself. I sat in his office and he looked me in the eye and said “you’re wasting your time. Manga will never succeed in America.” I think he had pretty much given up on manga and was shifting his focus to anime. Ultimately, our activities kind of “poked the bear” and many meetings with the publisher Shogakukan in Japan probably influenced Viz’s direction in the end, towards following our approach. But in that very beginning period there really was almost nothing happening in manga.
What sort of reaction did you get from retailers, distributors, and readers when you introduced the “100% authentic manga” format—$9.99 price point, English translations in the original right to left Japanese format—in the early 2000s?
Not a single person believed it would work—and frankly many called us crazy. Even internally, most of my team was against it—or at least wanted to test it. My view was we either had conviction and went all-in or we didn’t. Testing wouldn’t work because retailers would always favor the left-to-right reading books if they had a choice—so there would never be a true test of its potential. So, I bet the company on it. That was probably the best decision I ever made in business—it would be nice to have a couple more of those!
When did you know that strategy was going to work?
Pretty soon after we received feedback from the shops that young people especially were buying it up like they’d never seen. Publishing of course takes quite a long time for the ecosystem to cycle through and really know if something is working (especially back then when there wasn’t online access to BookScan numbers and other data) but we had spent a lot of money for coop and other in-store promotional programs and were in touch with the retailers that supported us.
How did the increasing popularity of manga in America affect the industry in Japan, which is exponentially larger than the U.S. comics industry?
It took quite awhile for the success to become known in Japan, but when the media eventually covered it, they went a bit overboard. They made it seem like everyone in America was reading manga, which was far from the truth at the time. I think where the market is now is actually closer to what the Japanese media was portraying then. But of course the larger the market, the more the key Japanese publishers like Kodansha, Kadokawa and Viz’s parent companies Shogakukan and Shueisha wanted to be in the game as directly as possible. I think to a Japanese company in particular, the American market has special appeal. Succeeding in America represents an emotional victory, not just a financial or strategic one, mainly because of the history.
Your Rising Stars of Manga competitions and Original English Language (OEL) manga program created new pathways to publication for creators, but later some creators (and others) criticized your contracts and your business model. What is your response to that?
Focusing first on Rising Stars of Manga — this was a program that I am particularly proud of and fortunately I believe there were only positive responses to it. It was based on the shinjinsho (新人賞) rookie of the year awards in Japan that are used to discover new talent, and quite a few of the Rising Stars winners went on to succeed in the comics industry. The goal at the time was to build out our OGM (Original Global Manga) program so that we were less dependent on licenses, especially because Japanese publishers were moving into our market directly. A healthy manga market meant nurturing local creators, and in fact the success of a combination of Japanese manga licenses and investment in local talent in places like Korea and Taiwan eventually led to the Webtoon boom of today.
So, even now, I believe we were on the right path—but our execution was off. We spent too much on marketing too soon, and brought far too many projects to market when neither the fan base nor the creators were quite ready. In the end, the dream wasn’t realized–and creators were unable to receive regular income beyond the initial advance payment. As our business fell into rough times, we couldn’t sustain the program and the combination of disappointment from low book sales plus our inability to keep investing in new creators and building the program led to disillusionment in not only the program, but Tokyopop as a publisher.
And in that regard, the disappointed creators were right—we did too much, too fast. In the creative industry, there is never a guarantee of livable wages, let alone financial success — everyone is chasing their passion and dreams—but I believe we could have built a program that facilitated that opportunity for more creators if we had taken our time and really built it up solidly and gradually. Thankfully, many of those particular creators have continued onto career success, and other companies—including Patreon, Kickstarter, Naver Webtoon and others—have built out various programs which provide a platform for nurturing new creators. And this still remains a passion for us at Tokyopop; actually, one of our big projects for later this year is to launch a special Rising Stars of Manga competition to commemorate our 25th Year Anniversary. We’re super excited about it!
Which of your titles are the most popular?
Focusing on the English language market and not the German market, our most successful line is LOVE x LOVE, our inclusive romance line. Tokyopop has been publishing Japanese boys love / yaoi content for years (and I believe we were actually the first US publisher to do so, ultimately leading to our BLU Manga line back in the day), so investment in an even wider range of romance titles, especially LGBTQIA+ romance, made sense. Our editorial and marketing teams really know the genre inside and out, and I believe we’ve rapidly become the market leader in this segment. We also partner with big brands, currently with our Disney Manga line, Assassins Creed, Resident Evil, and more to come. The Nightmare Before Christmas in particular has been an incredible evergreen performer for us. And we are incredibly proud of both our core Tokyopop brand line and our International Women of Manga line, which feature solid titles from varied creators in a number of genres.
The manga market has evolved quite a bit over the last 25 years. What do you think were the most important changes?
Probably the most important “change” was actually its persistence. Back when we started it was brand new. The category needed to be built, which we did, and then others joined the fray and it became highly competitive. Readers were limited to either hardcore fans or teens, mainly. Now there are at least two generations of fans—those original fans and the generation that followed. Even when the print manga market had crashed in the U.S., digital piracy was growing in record numbers so manga was being read by more fans than ever before. This exposure plus the eventual ubiquity of anime via streaming platforms combined with the consistency of manga’s availability through Viz and others at retail has led to a much broader and deeper readership. That means interest in a wider range of content and enough demand to absorb a much higher supply of titles.
Do you think the market is stable, or will it continue to change? And what do you see as Tokyopop’s role going forward?
The market will continue to evolve, as most markets in today’s world do. I think digital will play more and more of a role going forward, and that newer manga-type product like Webtoons, manhua (Chinese comics), manga-influenced comics and global manga will also rise in popularity. It will be interesting to see which title from Korea or China becomes the first Naruto, My Hero Academia, or Demon Slayer level franchise hit. For 25 years we’ve debated what “manga” really means, and I think that debate can continue. However, one thing is clear; the larger field of comics (manga included) is more international than ever. Our goal at Tokyopop is to always innovate in surprising ways; to experiment with content, marketing and business approaches; and to curate the best creators and titles.