Tokyopop’s OEL initiative

During the recent on-line flap over Tokyopop’s contracts for Original English Language creators, some people expressed concern over the shared ownership of copyright between the publisher and the budding manga-ka. Some of the OEL creators countered that sacrificing full ownership at this stage of their careers is a fair trade for the substantial marketing and distribution support Tokyopop could provide for their work.

Obviously, that costs-benefits equation is going to vary for every creator, but a quick glance at Tokyopop’s marketing efforts thus far indicates that the publisher is really putting its shoulder to the wheel.

First and foremost is their loss leader, the promo book formerly known as Takuhai (which translates as “home delivery). The revamped MANGA is available free through on-line registration and/or a print edition. It includes sample pages from upcoming and recently released titles, interviews with creators and editors, news and features. Editor Marco Pavia explained the shift thusly: “Everyone was clamoring for the greatest and freest manga magazine on planet Pokopen… And since bookstores and newsstands wanted to stock our magazine, we couldn’t exactly call it ‘home delivery’ anymore, could we? Hence,Manga was born.”

I suspect the name change was partly designed to reinforce one of the major messages of Tokyopop’s OEL push, which I’ll call “Don’t Fence Me In.” With some segments of fandom resisting OEL on the grounds of its authenticity as manga, Tokyopop seems to have decided to go on the offensive on that point.

In a couple of recent interviews in Publishers Weekly (both the print edition and the free, on-line PW Comics Week),Tokyopop editorial director Jeremy Ross frames the resistance rather bluntly:

“[Tokyopop founder Stuart Levy] said let’s just set our sights on creating original graphic novels, because he believed that manga should not be thought of in racist, culturist ways. It’s a world phenomena.” (“More from Tokyopop’s Jeremy Ross on OEL Manga and Contracts,”PW Comics Week, Oct. 18.)

“‘We use the term manga for all our books in order to reach the widest possible audience,’ (Ross) explains. ‘[Manga] is not just stories that come from Japan. A broader audience is beginning to accept that.’” (“Manga in English: Born in the USA; American-style manga challenges the purists,” Publishers Weekly, Oct. 12.)

The title of the latter article indicates that the position is gaining traction. The OEL initiative isn’t hitching itself to a lucrative market with the manga label: it’s challenging purists. (This reminds me of a recent quote from Greg Rucka in the New York Times, where the DC writer suggested that fans weren’t so much irritated with the editorial direction of the publisher’s line-wide Infinite Crisis event as they were “scared” for their favorite characters.)

A clubbier presentation of the idea can be found in Pavia’s Letter from the Editor in the inaugural issue ofManga:

“Manga is about attitude, it’s about lifestyle, and it’s bolder and better than before. If you have to ask whatManga means (or don’t even know how to pronounce it), your finger’s just not on the pulse. Come on, we don’t have to tell you that manga is really a state of mind.”

To paraphrase, nay-sayers are experiencing a failure of comprehension and a shortage of cultural currency. But you get it, because you’re hip and smart and in. You don’t make artificial distinctions.

Another prong of the OEL assault is “They’re the Manga-ka… Who Could Be You!” It’s a bit trickier to pull off, as it necessitates a balance between portraying OEL creators as being both ready-to-publish and young fans with a dream.

As Ross notes, “The key to the success is that (OEL creators) are [the audience’s] peers. It becomes, ‘Hey, that’s Billy drawing Ameri-manga. He’s my friend, I know him. I’m cool now, I can be him.’ The ultimate marketing credibility for today’s cynical teenage society is when it’s not a corporate message and comes from their peers.” (“More from Tokyopop’s Jeremy Ross on OEL Manga and Contracts,” PW Comics Week, Oct. 18.)

Some creator profiles on Tokyopop’s web site emphasize creators’ fan origins. Manga has prominent links toTokyopop’s submission guidelines. Articles referenceTokyopop’s Rising Stars of Manga contest, a showcase for budding creators, many of whom have gone on to sign contracts with Tokyopop or to work for other publishers.

Creators are doing some of the heavy lifting themselves. Some have launched columns or been profiled on high-traffic comics web sites like NEWSARAMA, THE PULSE andCOMIC BOOK RESOURCES. They’re working with local media outlets, participating in store signings and special events, and setting up shop at conventions. While Tokyopopfocuses on the big picture, creators work at the grassroots level.

Beyond messaging, there’s good old-fashioned advertising at work, too. Click through popular comics websites, and you’ll see banner and sidebar ads for titles like Dramacon and Steady Beat. Walk into a bookstore, and you’ll see a stand-alone display featuring I Luv Halloween. Flip through volumes of Tokyopop’s licensed titles, and you’ll find a two-page ad for Bizenghast inFruits Basket or a spotlight profile of Mark of the Succubusin Kindaichi Case Files.

General-interest comics news stories are integrating OEL into the graphic novel landscape as well. In a recent piece on the third anniversary of Diamond Book Distributors, DBD sales and marketing veep Kuo-yu Lang noted OEL as a growth market. (“Diamond Book Distribution Marks Third Birthday,” PW Comics Week, Oct. 25.) A look at graphic novel sales in the Direct Market noted the relative success of Sokora Refugees among OEL offerings. (“Graphic Novel Sales Remain Strong,” PW Comics Week, Oct. 4.) Bizenghast was featured in an overview of the Gothic Lolita aesthetic. (“Sweet and Sour in a Frilly Dress: Gothic Lolita Hits the U.S.,” PW Comics Week, Sept. 27.)

Reports vary on whether these efforts have yielded sales. According to Ross, “(Tokyopop) just did a study in-house looking at the numbers, and on the average our OEL is selling as well or better than our average Japanese titles, when you factor out the Fruits Basketsand big hits.” (“More from Tokyopop’s Jeremy Ross on OEL Manga and Contracts,” PW Comics Week, Oct. 18.) But, “James Killen, graphic novels buyer at Barnes & Noble, points out that the Japanese licenses sell far better than OEL manga.” (“Manga in English: Born in the USA; American-style manga challenges the purists,”Publishers Weekly, Oct. 12.)

Still, it’s relatively early in the lifespan of OEL. Tokyopop is rolling out new titles all the time and constantly looking for new creators. And the publisher has committed some serious resources to the initiative. As Heidi MacDonald noted, “this is without question one of the most significant attempts ever to launch a line of original graphic novels in America.” (“More from Tokyopop’s Jeremy Ross on OEL Manga and Contracts,” PW Comics Week, Oct. 18.)

Obviously, only creators can decide if it’s a fair trade between full-ownership and marketing muscle. And consumers will make their own choices about the relative quality of the actual product, campaign or no campaign. But you have to admire the thoroughness of it all.