It comes to no real surprise to anyone in the industry that Tokyopop has closed its Los Angeles office and North American publishing division. The company has been on shaky ground since Borders declared bankruptcy and companies cut ties with them—-Blizzard and HarperCollins. Last February, the company laid off several staff members, including its Senior Editors, the few people left in the company actually interested in publishing manga.
And that seems to have been what really lead to the shutdown; a manga publisher not focusing on publishing manga anymore. Granted, the fact that Borders owed them money when they went bankrupt was a big blow, but under the management of company founder Stu Levy Tokyopop began to invest more in his side projects like America’s Greatest Otaku—-a reality series filmed cross country. Levy has state flat-out that he has lost interest in books:
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!)
Over at The Manga Critic, Katherine Dacey points out, “Levy’s interest in new media is well-documented, but coming on the heels of the editorial layoffs, his comments suggested a lack of awareness about how consumers viewed TOKYOPOP: as a manga publisher.”
I met Stu while I was a guest at Otakuthon in Montreal; a group of us hung out in old Montreal and he struck me as a very talented and quite nice guy. But if you’re not interested in publishing manga, then don’t run a manga publisher. It’s fine to want to do the Hollywood thing and film documentaries and reality series, but obviously its not going to help business if you’re a manga publisher.
Manga fans want to read manga. They don’t quite care about reality show road trips about otaku across America, they aren’t interested in behind-the-scenes documentaries at conventions (ask Jeff Nimoy, who canned the “Adventures in Anime” web series before it ever really even got started).
Tokyopop’s contributions to the North American manga industry are significant. They released unflipped manga, and took the plunged into publishing original content with their “OEL” line (a label I’ve never liked). But that endeavour shouldn’t take any of the blame whatsoever for the company’s downfall. Their OEL titles and creators never really got the support and attention they deserved. The company’s American-style business model for contracts with these creators gave Tokyopop ownership of the titles, leaving creators with little options when the company ceased publishing of them, even before the closure.
That’s one of my biggest gripes with the company—-their American publishing model. In the Japanese manga industry, ownership of a series lies with the creator, the mangaka. Publishing companies simply have the rights to publish the series. This is not the case in the American comic book industry, where a series like Spider-man is owned by the company, Marvel. This difference has an effect on storytelling—-namely, mangaka have more freedom and control over the creative process. At one time, Viz looked as if they were interested in producing original content using the manga model, but as far as I can tell, never developed anything.
Who knows what will happen to the titles of the OEL creators under contract with Tokyopop, now that the LA office will close. I imagine they are at the mercy of Levy’s ADD whims. The right thing for him to do with be to step out of the way and let what’s good for manga happen—-getting good manga titles into the hands of manga readers.