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.