Tokyopop’s CEO On Piracy, Digital Distribution And Entering The Games Market

By Ishaan . August 28, 2010 . 5:03pm


Shortly after Tokyopop wrapped up their “America’s Greatest Otaku” tour, we had the chance to talk to Tokyopop CEO, Stuart Levy, about a number of manga and videogame-related topics, ranging from [manga] piracy to Tokyopop’s plans to enter the gaming space.


Let’s go over the book segment of the market first. There’s a ton of rampant piracy in the manga sector. What do you think the barrier to entry is? Is it price? Is it ease of accessing content digitally?


Tokyopop CEO, Stuart Levy: Just to clarify, do you mean the barrier to entry for a pirate? Or for someone to publish manga online legally?


I mean the barrier to entry for consumers in general.


We have to provide significant value. That could be in the overall experience — or it could be in some sort of incremental value that is only found in the legal version. Some people suggest that could be “better translations” but I’m not so sure. I think it has to be the overall experience — which is challenging because currently the online scanlation experiences are very nice.


However, they are so flagrant that most likely those sites will have a tough time surviving as-is. The pirates will need to go further underground — and fans may still prefer their versions. But if the legal versions are very easy to use and affordable then hopefully many fans will support the creators by going that route.


Obviously, [piracy] it can’t be stamped out entirely. How do you work around it?


Piracy is a major challenge to success in today’s entertainment and media business. This is true for manga as well. We have to do everything we can to provide value to fans so that they don’t feel compelled to bother with pirated content.


At the same time, we need to do everything we can to protect intellectual property rights, which provide income to the creators. To me, this means focusing on websites who provide pirated material and enforcing our rights against them.


How do you think switching to digital distribution platforms is going to help? You stated before that you feel part of the piracy problem is that the manga audience tends to be tech-savvy. Are you going for a different audience entirely by expanding to, say, the iPad?


Let’s put this in context first. It’s not a problem that the manga audience is tech-savvy — that’s a great thing. It simply means that the audience is also aware on how to access pirated content, compared to less tech-savvy audiences. The key is providing a legal experience that allows for monetization as well as a valuable consumer experience: a win-win.


Are you concerned about erecting a barrier to entry for younger kids who don’t own smart phones or Kindles by going digital? How do you make that content accessible to them?


There are many ways people can access content digitally, not only smart phones or Kindles but through computers as well. Most everyone in the world has access to a computer — either at home, school, or at libraries. And many people have access more and more to smart phones — it won’t be long before the smart phone replaces the older generation of mobile phones.


Something we see people say with regard to digital pricing is, “Well, X number of dollars is a little too much for a single volume.” I know you’re probably still figuring this out for yourselves, but at what price do you think it becomes an impulse buy?


I’m not sure. Pricing models will need to be tested, just like they have been in music. Free is the most affordable of all, so we have to keep in mind how we provide a better alternative to free — or a free option that is monetized through other means.


You recently formed an anti-scans coalition with Kodansha and a long list of other publishers. What were some of the challenges you faced while organizing that? How did it come about?


It took awhile for the Japanese publishers to understand how serious of a problem piracy of their manga has become, but they are finally beginning to realize it. We have been educating them for a while — showing them how easy it is to find free manga online and on mobile phones. It is now beginning to affect them in Japan as well, although not as much as overseas.


Doing nothing was not a valid option. Most music and video piracy is through torrent and other sites which take time and patience. Manga piracy is currently flagrant — you just go to a website and click away. That’s so disrespectful of the creators that, frankly, it’s rude. That’s why legal action needed to be taken.


Moving onto the subject of content expansion, you recently said Tokyopop aren’t just a publisher, but a lifestyle and media brand. Games are a big part of Japanese pop-culture, and you said you were looking for the right kind of partners in that area. What kind of traits are you looking for?


Working with game developers and publishers who truly understand what gamers enjoy and how Tokyopop content can appeal to gamers — that’s critical.


What kind of audience are you looking at, in the interactive space? Or rather, what audience do you think will be your supporting pillar as you first ease yourself into that market?


Most manga fans are also into games so initially we’d like to start with our core audience, but if we can provide an exciting experience in the interactive space, I believe word will get out and even people who aren’t into manga will come check it out.


There’s a lot of competition in the games space, no matter what platform you’re working with. Do you think there’s an advantage to being a non-game publisher entering the field for the first time?


Gaming is truly a ubiquitous medium, just like music, video and books. Our characters can naturally exist in the gaming space — it’s just finding the right way to bring them into gaming. I’m sure we’ll make many mistakes along the way. We do not intend to move into gaming alone, though. Partnering up is critical.


Are you looking at a “Japanese” publisher? I mean, you’d want someone that has their own fanbase and reach that could add to your audience, right? And someone like Square Enix are technically a manga competitor now so…


In terms of the game companies, we’re talking to US-based companies mainly because we’re focusing on social and casual gaming at this point — seems like the trend. However, we’d love to work with a Japanese game company — hopefully we can do that in the future!!


What kind of games do you play at home, if any?


Because I work so much, I favor casual gaming when I decide to play. I love movies so that’s probably my go-to form of escape but right now I’m addicted to Angry Birds on the iPhone. My iPhone has become my favorite gaming platform since I already have it with me — my poor DS stays at home nowadays. I just wish the battery would last longer!


What do you think the single biggest draw of Japanese pop-culture and media is? Do you feel there’s a specicic “hook” that is the key to expanding your reach?


To me, Japanese pop culture mixes together with Western pop culture because that’s my life. I love other cultures and have spent a lot of time throughout Asia, and of course the most time in Japan, where I have my second home. The excitement is how stimulating everything is — use of color, visuals, sound, beauty; Japan is truly a thrill for the senses.


And that’s reflected in the pop culture. I think as Western people are more exposed to that excitement, they embrace it. Look at the current trends in cosplay and kawaii culture. It’s irresistible!


But that doesn’t mean that the experience of Western storytelling and pop culture is irrelevant — there are always great characters and stories being invented in the West. To me, the world becoming smaller and smaller and creative people communicating and influencing each other is the greatest thrill to being alive in our generation.


Image sourced from the Associated Press via Msnbc.

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  • I hope they dont ever go all digital. Who would pay for manga but have to read it on a library on a computer or public place or something like that; or even read it on a cell phone or iPod. The amount of having to zoom in and such has got to be utterly annoying to read on the iPod Touch manga.

    Or at least do digital plus volumes, I need my volumes of seikon no qwaser/qwaser of stigmata to continue…

    Games are nice, should just translate the games that are released in Japan for their respective series…

  • Hours

    I much prefer physical copies, but I understand the need for a expanded digital catalogue, but the first thing Tokyopop needs to do is stop dropping series midway through.

    How can anyone have any faith in them to deliver a quality product when we can’t even be sure if we’ll get to read the whole story?When they release Volume 5 of Atelier Marie & Elie: Zarlburg Alchemist, (digitally and/or physically), then I’ll start supporting them again. The fact that they stopped right before the final volume of the series and left all the readers hanging is ridiculous. I’ve since found out that happened to other series as well and I find that quite vexing, as I’m sure others have also.

    • Exactly.

      After they abruptly dropped Aria, I swore them off forever.

      • Aria 6 is scheduled for this December. So it’s not dropped, just… on a slow release schedule. They’ve actually been adding back several of the previously “dropped” series lately—Gatcha Gacha is scheduled for November, Suppli’s being released as two-volume omnibus editions, etc. I’m sure Tokyopop wants to publish Aria faster, but they need people to buy it! Encourage your friends :D

        • I’ll believe it when I see it on a Barnes and Noble or Borders shelf. XD

      • supermarius

        that’s fine as long as “swearing off them forever” also includes not illegally downloading any manga they license. Otherwise you are using a single negative experience with the company as a false excuse to pirate.

  • raymk

    I prefer physical copies as well but if series weren’t so far behind in the U.S like bleach i’d be buying them as well.

    • Well at least in Viz’s case they give their lagging series much needed catch up periods, if the series is popular enough…hopefully we do get one for Bleach nevertheless.

      I dont see tokyopop with series that are that long lasting in serialization, I guess

  • WonderSteve

    The most important thing is to offer options. Of course that means more investment from companies, which is something any corporations hate these days.I think the online scanlation community proves that a lot of people will only read certain manga if it is “free.” This can be solve by by publishing the manga online for free with ad support avenue.Second venue is to offer paid digital copies, that would work seemlessly with devices like iPad, kindle and android. The cost of digital copies should be modeled after the music industry. Maybe a dollar or two for a weekly chapter? Third venue, make the printed versions with a little bit more of a deluxe flavor, sell it at higher cost, but significantly increase the quality of the paper and packaging. The printed version should include a code for obtaining a digital copy of the manga for free.The digital option would solve the issue of “speed,” which is something publisher should work on.

    • I agree with all of this. I’d love to buy my physical copy (when i can find it) and get a digital one free. Also, even though I had already made a point of collecting all of beauty pop, when I found a set of free stickers in one of the volumes, it encouraged me that much more to get the rest. Bookmarks, stickers, profile cards, even the smallest of freebies can make a difference.

      • Kibbitz

        Free? Nice. None of the stuff I bought ever came with free stuff. Mine generally came in more expensive Limited Edition versions, though I did consider them value for money for the goods I got.

        • Viz’ Chocomimi series comes with stickers too. I found a volume at Half Price Books for $3 and decided to give it a try, and was pleasantly surprised when I saw stickers still inside when I got it home. The series was so cute (and affordable) that it made me want to collect a few more volumes.

          Honestly, Tokyopop’s hurt me too many times (discontinuing/dropping series) that I wouldn’t give them the money, even if they did pick up a series I’m interested in. I’d just go to my local Japanese book store and pick up the original manga instead. Them dropping Aria was the last straw for me.

    • Joanna

      Well written. I agree 100%. I would love for them to include codes with the physical manga because I don’t always feel like shifting through manga on the shelf to get to one I want to re-read.

  • karasuKumo

    No matter what they do there will always be pirating, if it goes digital it will end up being another Crunchyroll/Horriblesubs situation. It just boils down to how many fans respect the authors enough to buy the manga.

    What they need to do though is shorten the time it takes to release the English versions. I’ll admit I read it online first then usually buy it when it’s released that way I get to be up to date, and the authors get money. ^_^

  • …………..IT’S NOT ABOUT THE COST OF MANGA FOR FUCKS SAKE!!!! How long will it take companies to realise the one reason people pirate manga!!! Because you take so god damn long to release a volume in America or the UK!!!

    • The problem doesn’t just lie with the Western-side companies, though; even after all these years, many manga companies in Japan drag their heels on licensing product and ask for exorbitant initial licensing fees that must be negotiated down.

      While the core problem is, yes, a scanlation of the most recent issue of Shonen Jump can come out within 24 hours of it hitting the newsstands in Japan, a lot of Japanese companies either don’t understand or simply don’t care about the problem. You can only lay so much of the blame at the feet of the existing companies in the West.

  • puchinri

    I agree with most other comments. I prefer physical copies, but I hate when a series is so far behind and worse, when they drop a series.

    Someone called out one specific point for me, and that’s them dropping Aria.
    I stopped liking Tokyopop a very long time ago however (for numerous reasons), so I hate that they publish some of the manga I enjoy and want.

  • JC

    Kudos to Tokyopop’s CEO for this great interview and for understanding that the real problem the manga industry faces is the *flagrant* piracy. Real pirates know how and where to get their content – close one avenue for them and they WILL find another. No sense batting your head up against a wall (something the RIAA still hasn’t learned). However, when a site like OneManga makes it so easy for anyone and everyone to steal content… That’s when real damage is done.

    Believe it or not, real pirates do have an unspoken code of sorts: Take whatever you like – but if you like what you’ve taken and respect the content provider, pay for it. Lose the pirating community’s respect… and lose their money. It’s a fine line to tread.

    With classy interviews like this, however… I’ll still open my wallet for Tokyopop’s products.

  • hmm he mentions the need to add significant value? Seriously? From the company that adds no value whatsoever to their titles. Slow or non-existent releases, shoddy translations, and absolute crap printing, and he wonders why nobody buys his stuff?

    Before adding “significant value”, I think we can begin by simply adding “value”.

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