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TokyoPop Insider Pt. 1: Stu Levy Talks Manga Scanlations

By December 11, 2009

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Stu LevyThe most recent TokyoPop Insider webcast was broadcast live from Japan with special guest, TokyoPop founder, publisher, filmmaker and CEO Stu Levy.

The webchat was hosted by TokyoPop Senior Editor Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl, and broadcast live from Levy's Tokyo apartment via webcam. The format of the chat was left open-ended, so fans were invited to tune in live and ask questions. For those of us who tuned in, what we got was a free-wheeling discussion about filmmaking, fandom, Japanese manga, Korean manhwa, and TokyoPop's forays into publishing original manga.

TokyoPop InsiderBut perhaps the topic that got most people buzzing was when Levy floated out a question: Can unauthorized manga scanlation groups and publishers work together?

The hour-long discussion is now available online via YouTube -- but for those of you who would like to just "get to the good stuff," here's my sum-up of some of the choice quotes and topics covered that afternoon, broken down into three parts.

  • Part 1 dives right to the hot topic du jour: TokyoPop's manga and manhwa in limbo, print on demand and scanlation.
  • Part 2 delves into the various TokyoPop film projects in the works, including Priest, Van Von Hunter and Lament of the Lamb.
  • Part 3 finds Levy talking about TokyoPop's prior ventures into creating original manga, mistakes that were made, plans for Princess Ai, and why you won't see a TokyoPop manga magazine at your local newsstand anytime soon. Also, Levy and Diaz-Pryzbyl drop hints about tantalizing things to come from TokyoPop in 2010.

First up, Levy and Diaz-Pryzbyl talk about TokyoPop titles on hiatus, print on demand and scanlations:


Stu Levy and Lillian Diaz-PryzbylOne recurring issue that comes up again and again with manga readers of is that there are several TokyoPop Japanese manga, Korean manhwa and original comics series that have gone on indefinite hiatus for one reason or another. From the readers' point of view, it's very disappointing to pick up a new series, get into the story, and then wait months, sometimes years to pick up the next volume.

D.N. Angel Vol. 12But from a publishers' point of view, putting a series on hiatus is a decision that's not made lightly. Sometimes, a series is put on hold because the creator has stopped putting out new volumes (as in the case of the recently revived D.N. Angel).

In other cases, a series is put on hold for a very simple reason: not enough people bought the earlier volumes and it just costs too much to print and distribute a book that likely won't sell enough to break even. This is especially the case nowadays, as current economic conditions have resulted in book stores cutting back on orders and readers have been cutting back on their book-buying.

Many industry watchers have suggested that one reason why readers have been cutting back on buying manga is due to the proliferation of scanlation websites that allow readers to read fan-produced, unauthorized translations of Japanese manga for free online, often within days of a story being published in Japan.

So the bottom line is, U.S. publishers like TokyoPop are left looking for financially viable solutions to this ongoing problem. Print-on-demand publishing is one option that's being explored. With print-on-demand, readers can order single copies of a manga, and the publisher only has to pay to print what is actually ordered, instead of printing thousands of copies of books that may or may not sell.

Earthlight Vol. 3Other options being explored in the industry include online rental, such as Digital Manga Publishing's eManga website, and online magazines like VIZ Media's SigIkki.com and ShonenSunday.com. TokyoPop is also publishing online-only versions of some of their previously unfinished original manga series like Earthlight and Boys of Summer.

So with these things in mind, I asked about TokyoPop's stance on Korean manhwa, since it was mentioned at an earlier TokyoPop Insider that manhwa titles were more likely to stay on indefinite hiatus, for now.


Priest: PurgatoryQ: A lot of (TokyoPop's) Korean manhwa titles are now on semi-permanent hiatus. What's the status of that? And will the Priest movie moving forward help push things forward on that front? Or can fan requests help bring back any series that are on hold?

Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: There are a couple of things that might be changing. I don't want to say too much yet, but the next six months will be interesting in this regard. Obviously, we're doing a lot of stuff involving Priest right now. We're re-releasing the series in bind-ups and we're doing original stories.

Stu Levy: Yes, we're doing an original story called Priest: Purgatory.

Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: We haven't shown an awful lot of that yet, but keep an eye on the newsletter, because we'll be showing more soon.

The Korean government has always been enthusiastic about promoting manhwa overseas. They've been doing some very interesting stuff right now with giving some funding for production and marketing, so depending on what happens with that, you might see some of those Korean titles coming back a lot sooner than we were expecting.

Stu Levy, Lillian Diaz-PryzbylNot to say too much, but we are also getting closer to print-on-demand right now, so I think if that happens, that'll be a really great step for manhwa, or basically any series that right now where we know the demand is out there, but it'll be very hard to get it into bookstores at this point.

That's actually the big problem with print-on-demand at this point. It's not that we don't want to publish these books. It's just that we know that if we print 3,000 copies, and only 10 would end up in Barnes and Noble or Borders, because the way the market is now with retail.

So even if we create these books, actually getting them to you guys is just a huge challenge right now. So we're definitely looking into ways to fix that though, so don't give up on those manhwa titles -- just be patient with us for a little bit longer.


Q: One question that comes up often with fans is "When is the next volume of (insert manga here) going to come out?"

Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: Well, look to our RoboBlast newsletter -- that's where a lot of those announcements will come out.

Q: Have you considered being more transparent about the current status of series that are on hiatus?

Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: I think we're about as transparent as we can be! I'm baffled by that. We schedule things six months out. You can figure out from Amazon.com and other sources what we'll be publishing at least through late spring 2010. We have most of the rest of 2010 planned out internally, but we're waiting for licenses to be finalized, approvals...

Stu Levy, Lillian Diaz-PrzybylStu Levy: Most of it is not entirely in our control, but if we announce our entire 2010 - 2011 schedule now...

Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: ... it's going to shift around a little.

Stu Levy: There's going to be a 95% chance that things will change. It's just going to be misleading.

(looks at chat window at comments)

Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: Ah, I see. People just want a list on our website of titles that have been postponed. That's something that we might consider doing. Again, if you look at our site at current series, you'll see that we have listed up through current volumes.

Stu Levy: I guess the question is, are we cancelling a certain series, or are we thinking about it and we don't know what we're going to do, or are we definitely going to publish it again but we just haven't clarified when. Do you mean something like that?

Q: Yes, exactly.

Stu Levy: Y'know, I don't have a problem with doing that. I don't know if there's a legal reason why we haven't done that, but I'll have to ask our Legal department about that.

Suppli vol. 4Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: It could have something to do with licensor relations? But we have brought a lot of stuff back in the last six months, following the Insider broadcasts. We brought back a lot of the stuff from MAG Garden, we brought back Suppli, although it's taking a while for it to come back out... (NOTE: Suppli Volume 4 is scheduled for a Summer 2010 release)

Stu Levy: Honestly, it has a lot to do with money. When the market fell out last year, at retail, all of the companies, not just us, even VIZ, we all scrambled! Most of the titles that were selling a certain amount just dropped down to nothing. We got a lot of returns, so we had to figure out what is viable financially or not.

I personally think that print on demand will help things a lot, because if there's 500 people or 2,000 people who love a certain series, and they can't find it at a bookstore... Bookstore distribution is so inefficient -- that book can end up at an Alaska Barnes and Noble, and the person who wants to buy it lives in Nebraska...that's a very inefficient system.

So we believe that over the next couple of years, even if a series is postponed right now, it may return later. Will fans wait that long? I don't know. But the reality of the day to day at retail is that it's out of our control. They have shelf space, and they have to determine what to put there, what to buy or not to buy.

But in general, I don't think it's a bad idea to say "Hey, this is one that we're not sure about," or that it's been postponed and we'd love to bring it back, and we're doing everything we can, or this one, here's when the next volume will come or we don't know yet, but we're definitely going to publish it. That kind of information, if we haven't announced it yet, it's probably because our poor team is so busy, they just haven't gotten to it. But it's not like they're purposely holding it back.

Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: I think that we're always trying to be as transparent as we can possibly be. That's something we've always tried to do.

Whether we're dealing with the Japanese or with the Americans, again, going around to these licensor meetings what people appreciate from us is that we were pretty straightforward about financial condition a year and a half ago. We said, 'this is the reality of things, this is how we're going to deal with it.' We laid out our plans; that really reassured people.

Anytime you guys have a question, the Insider webcasts is the format where you can just come out and ask it.

Stu Levy, Lillian Diaz-PryzbylStu Levy: This kind of recommendation or suggestion, I think we should take it back to Marco (Pavia, TokyoPop's Associate Publisher) and maybe we can implement it.

Q: When you do go to print-on-demand, will your company return to publishing a more diverse catalog?

Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: I certainly hope so. Just as we said earlier, that we always try to fulfill our contractual obligations with our American creators, we also try to do that with our Japanese creators as much as we can.

So when we say that a series is on hiatus, it really is on hiatus. There are very few things that you will never see the end of. Print-on-demand would be a great way to do that.


Stu Levy: One of the challenges is, if there's a very limited readership for a particular title, the economics of the publishing business right now make it such that the expenses of preparing the book, and the costs to get it to a limited readership don't work out financially.

TokyoPopBut the technology is improving to the point where it's getting more and more efficient, and so, really what we're hoping is that we'll be able to deliver titles to a very narrow, limited readership, and frankly be able to do it without losing a lot of money.

We're getting close to that. But one of the main costs of publishing manga and manhwa is translation costs. But in the meantime, there's a very robust and active scanlation community. There's actually a lot of great fan translators out there.

We both have a tremendous amount of respect for professional translators, but from our point of view, it's not about doing anything that's unfair, but if we're not in a position to really make the costs work... If there's a fan who wants to translate (a manga series), and we could provide that manga as a print-on-demand title, and if, because of that, we can achieve a certain amount of managed cost that would allow us to put these titles out, would fan translators be interested in doing that? Is that something fans would want to read? Would professional translators be angry about that? I'm just curious as to what everyone's view would be on this.

Stu Levy, Lillian Diaz-PryzbylThere's one online scanlation oriented group -- not a scanlation group, but a (web)site related to scanlation that I've been talking to. So we've been wondering if we should try some kind of experiment where we can find a way to work together. I can't say who it is, because we're just in talks right now, but I feel like, if there's a way we can all team up and work together, maybe that's part of the future of publishing.

Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: Yes, Crunchyroll is a really good example of that. They started out as a site that hosted just pirated stuff, then they went legit. I don't know how their translation process works, and how they're getting them (translated), but I'd be curious to learn more about that.

I honestly didn't think they'd succeed at that when I heard that they got all that venture capital money. I thought, "You've got to be kidding me." But I've been pretty impressed with what they've been doing in the last year and half. It'll be interesting to see where they go from here.

Stu Levy: Well, it's something we've been interested in, and we're looking for feedback on it. It's something that I'm starting to explore, and I'm sure we'll be hearing more about it.


When word got out that TokyoPop was considering using fan-translations for some of their manga, fan reaction on Twitter and on various online forums were fast, furious and largely skeptical:

  • Shelly, a manga fan, via Twitter @Shelly_LR, via Twitter: "If I want scanlation quality translations, I'll DL (download) and read them. Half aren't worth paying for. My $= professional standards. I commend them for trying to finish the series but it just seems that their priorities got messed up and we readers are paying."
  • Johanna Draper Carlson, editor of Comics Worth Reading, via Twitter: @johannadc): "If TokyoPop used fan translation they found online, they'd be justifiably attacked. So 'cut costs' just means "fans are cheaper than pros"? That's not really changing my fear here."
  • Akira Kazami, Japanese comics blogger via Twitter @kazami_akira): "It is, in one word, 'nonsense,' for a boss of a company to come up with such an idea. In two words, 'absolute nonsense.'"
  • Koiyuki, a blogger/writer via Twitter @Koiyuki: "I don't know who's the bigger fool in the equation: Tokyopop for giving these people more legitimacy, or the scanlators"

A few fans were more open to the idea of using fan translations in published manga.

  • Niko, an anime and comics blogger, via Twitter @nikoscream: "In principle, no fan translators, but in reality, whatever gets me more Mobile Suit Gundam: Ecole du Ciel"
  • Samuel P., via the Anime News Network forums: "I think that if it is arranged in an open and honest way, and people are rewarded for their work in some way, it might attract some people. But the issue is in quality control. You have to set up some sort of self-policing or internal QC (quality control) or you'll end up putting complete crap out there."
  • Abs, a "Japanese/English translator," via Twitter @absDCTPforum: "I don't care since it's TokyoPop and not VIZ, but you got to realize that some fan translators are the real deal & not shite."
  • AT, via Twitter @ATborderless: "It's about quality. If a wannabe can translate more proficiently than any pros, I'd prefer the former."


After a few of these comments flew by, Levy joined in the conversation, and added these bits of clarification via Twitter:

Stu LevyStu Levy: Everyone I hope you don't mind if I get in here, but let's *please* not take our discussion out of context.

I have the utmost respect for translators (remember, I'm bilingual and have translated many times as well). Translation is such an art. I love it when I meet talented ones. It really makes the difference in the reading experience.

We specifically asked what everyone thought for titles that DO NOT SELL enough to continue publishing - is it worth considering? If everyone's answer is "no" then so be it. No problem - just soliciting opinions in an open forum.

NEXT: TokyoPop Insider with Stu Levy Part 2 - Focus on TokyoPop's film projects.

Image credits: © TOKYOPOP, © Yukiru Sugisaki, © Stuart Moore and Chris Schons, © Mari Okazaki, © Min-woo Hyung


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