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The Return of the Curious Case of the TokyoPop Contract

Further to my last post about the TokyoPop pilot program, I’ve swapped a couple of interesting e-mails with “industry insiders” (who I have not asked for permission to quote, so I shan’t name).

It seems like alot of the ire coming up in this specific case can be traced back to the fact that some folks feel TokyoPop has a very bad track record for exploiting new talent.

And the facts would seem to support this. I did a little bit of research into a fair page-rate for an artist a couple of years ago when I wanted to consider commissioning a comic adaptation of a script. I talked with a number of artist guilds in Canada and the U.S, and seemed to get suggestions ranging from $50-80 for pencils for a beginning artist, and double that for someone with a few years of experience under their belt.

This thread would suggest that (as of a couple of years ago, at any rate) TokyoPop had a page rate closer to $20-35 per finished page (pencils, inks, lettering). That’s 30% of the suggested minimums, for more work.

[Edit – Fixed Link]

[Edit2 – I’ve since had a number of e-mails from people who have actually signed (or have access to) TokyoPop contracts which would suggest that the numbers quoted in the above thread are low. There’s certainly been OPA contracts in the $75 per finished page range… which is much more acceptable (although falling below the Graphic Artists Guild suggested beginner minimum of $120 per finished (non colour) page).

However even the older TokyoPop creators would allow that rates for some contracts are decreasing

I can’t for a second (given the grave state of the Comics industry in North America generally) believe that the market for Original English Manga is less than a third of the larger market (if anything, it should be one of the only markets that are growing – given that it has some limited (although possibly decreasing) access to mainstream retail).

[Edit – And yet I’d be wrong… check out the comments thread below for my education on how soft the OEL Manga market is right now.]

Assuming the situation hasn’t changed though (and have I made it abundantly clear that as a film guy who can’t draw – I’m not claiming to be “the industry”) I’m still not convinced their pilot program is a bad idea.

Let’s assume you create your 6-24 page pilot, for which you’ll get a few hundred dollars. If you simply walk away – you’re up a couple of hundred dollars, will get back the rights to your pilot, and have had some kind of access to TokyoPop’s audience.

In the same way that I advocate film students do as much free work as possible, or that beginning musicians and film makers make use of Creative Commons Licenses, the true value of creative work, especially for developing talent, is in generating a “portable audience” that will follow you to your next work(s).

If there’s value in your pilot you can sell it to TokyoPop, or take it to another publisher, or self-publish it, or start serializing it on the web… if there’s not, you can go do something else – but either way if you’re smart you can end your participation in the pilot with a base audience larger than you would have had otherwise. How is that a loss for a creator?

It does mean that creators have to be willing to walk away from deals… and I know firsthand how hard that can be. But there is still value there, and ways for creators to work this particular program to their advantage.

It’s equally possible that the best way to help improve the *real* situation (the fact that TokyoPop’s regular writers and artists need to eat and pay rent) is for them to have a slew of their most talented prospects start walking away from bad acquisition deals (or deciding that they’d like to have agents or lawyers represent them in contract negotiations) – that’s going to have a much larger effect for them in the long run than some people not applying to the program in the first place.

I think it’s vitally important that creators understand their rights, and the landscape of the business that they operate. Everyone in any facet of “the entertainment business” should be banding together to protect creator rights, because generally – “the entertainment business” is real hard way to make a living. But a big part of this fight is knowing *what* windmills to tilt at, and *which* battles to fight to see the most improvement.

[Edit – Given the “state of the industry” I’ve discovered that may read as more skewed against TokyoPop than I’d like… let’s just agree that the best outcome is the discovery of lots more fresh talent to re-engergize the field, and get more great comics out there so that everyone wins, yes?]

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  • BellosTheMighty

    I know nothing about publishing or business, but I suspect that the market for OEL manga is indeed a lot smaller then the market for Graphic novels, manga, or comics in general, for a very simple reason: the creators get no respect. Not from TokyoPop, although they may or may not also treat the creators badly, but from the fans that they’re being marketed to.

    Anime fans have a longstanding disrespect for companies that release anime and manga in the USA. The perception is that they’re profiteering off the work of Japanese creators and don’t give a damn about storytelling or artistic integrity. If you think this viewpoint seems unreasonable and needlessly antagonistic, then rest assured, you’re not the only one. But the fans as a collective have believed it for so long that trying to get them to believe otherwise can get very exasperating.

    What this means is that anyone who wasn’t born in Japan and tries to write a manga-like story is at an inherent disadvantage. The people who are their potential audience consider them poseurs, ripoff artists, or shameless cash-ins, and their work is orders of magnitude more likely to be derided then embraced, regardless of it’s quality. This gets especially annoying when they heap scorn on something they’ve never read, but that is a rant for another time.

    You might ask why TokyoPop would bother selling anything to people who don’t want anything to do with it. I can’t claim to speak for them, by I suspect it’s because they realize that they don’t have a choice. In the last few years manga has been becoming increasingly globalized, and the creators and publishers in Japan are starting to realize that there’s a huge market to be tapped in America. When you think about it, you really only need two things to release a manga in the states- translators and people to do marketing and distribution. It’s only a matter of time before the Japanese publishers realize that they could just hire their own translators, form a marketing wing that specializes in the states, and essentially cut US publishers out of the picture. When that happens, TokyoPop essentially has no business, unless they diversify and reduce their reliance on the Japanese publishers.

    Whether or not any of this justifies paying creators one-third the going rate, I don’t know. My gut says no, but I know next to nothing about the publishing industry. What I do know is that the creators will probably be a lot better off just calling their work “Graphic Novels” and to hell with all that “It’s Not Real Manga” bull.

  • Brad

    Thanks for the comment Bellos. I’ve heard this argument about OEL manga for a long time. There’s clearly some truth to it (I can’t access bookscan numbers, but Brian Hibbs excellent Bookscan year end reviews would clearly suggest that OEL manga sells less than traditional manga (although it’s a very small percentage of the number of titles carried).

    If we’re to trust Brian’s 2007 numbers, TokyoPop’s median sales for a title is 10,795 units. Now Bookscan only counts retail, but let’s assume that’s a worst-case scenario.

    At an educated guess, TokyoPop’s wholesale is probably $10 a book – so their median volume would gross ~$108,000k. Yes many books will come in under that, (89 Tokyopop titles sold less than 5k volumes), but even at half that amount ($54,000k) a publisher should be able to pay a respectable page rate and still turn a profit thanks to their top sellers.

    Publishing (like film, music, or television) is an ’80/20′ industry (20% of your output needs to be a big success to offset the 80% that will likely lose money). At 216 pages per volume, there’s no reason why you can’t pay $120-150 per page (25,600-32,000 per volume) and still make money. Note that this is a far cry from a comfortable income for the creators – but at least one could live on it.

    Now I also don’t know what (if any) profit sharing TokyoPop does, or whether their fees are advances or outright payments… all of which would affect the bottom line.

    You’re absolutely right though that we should all just be able to celebrate great comics, regardless of the nationality of the creator.

  • Peter Ahlstrom

    The link you give for “this thread would suggest” points to your other blog post instead of whatever you meant it to point to. But I can say that $20-35 per finished page is a gross underestimate for any book (contracted for 160 pages) that has been put out since the beginning of TOKYOPOP’s original manga program. Also, the retail price of the books is $9.99, and the wholesale price is less than half that. And the median original global manga book has sold far less than the median licensed manga.

    Using round numbers, even if TOKYOPOP were to make $54,000 wholesale per volume, paying (say) $26,000 per volume would be a 25% (of retail) royalty rate, and I’ve never heard of a royalty that high in any publishing sector. Not that I’m saying every book must earn out its advance in order to turn any kind of profit, but if more global manga were breaking even, you’d be seeing a lot of global manga getting additional volumes, and that’s not happening—it’s widely available information that the only series which has had its run extended is Bizenghast.

    In any case, TOKYOPOP is going to work on a new, more extensive FAQ on the website that addresses more of the types of concerns that people have brought up in the past couple days.

  • Brad

    Hi Peter,

    I fixed the link – sorry about that.

    You’re absolutely right that I was basing my “napkin” calculations on my own purchases without adjusting for the notoriously broken Canadian pricing on comics (I paid $16.99 per volume for DramaCon, so I was just knocking ~40% off that as a ballpark).

    I absolutely don’t argue that the market for OEL Manga is grim at the moment. In the Bookscan top 750 TokyoPop had over 80 titles sell less than 5k units.

    I’ve also since edited the main post to reflect a number of e-mails I’ve got from current and past TokyoPop folk clarifying that my numbers are quite low.

    For what it’s worth Peter the only reason I got sucked into this discussion is that I actually think the Pilot program is exceedingly fair, was surprised at how creator-friendly it was, and (still believe) that the community really isn’t giving it a fair shake when similar programs (Zudacomics, Platinum Studios Discovery) are far worse.

  • Peter Ahlstrom

    I also think your perspective on this has been fair and levelheaded, and do appreciate what you’ve brought to the discussion. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t personally prefer various aspects of the contract to be otherwise, but I did want to clear up a couple misconceptions.

  • This is in response to the comment by Bellos the Mighty:

    When you think about it, you really only need two things to release a manga in the states- translators and people to do marketing and distribution. It’s only a matter of time before the Japanese publishers realize that they could just hire their own translators, form a marketing wing that specializes in the states, and essentially cut US publishers out of the picture.

    This is pretty much what appears to have happened. Viz was once independent, but is now a branch of Shueisha and Shogakukan. Del Rey’s parent company, Random House, is in bed business-wise with Kodansha, which powers most of their licenses. TokyoPop is still largely independent–they have distribution and cooperative agreements with Harper Collins, but this doesn’t result in Japanese property licenses.

    Between 2001 and 2006, the manga business went through a rapid degree of expansion that might suggest that either manga publishers felt like they saw their business as a short-term fad, or were trying to strike while the business was as lucrative as possible, without consideration for the long term. All the major players promoted work with an easy large-market popularity at the expense of work that was more difficult or complex–Viz originally cancelled Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix after volume 5, and TokyoPop only briefly lent promotional support to its licenses of Cyborg 009 and Lupin III. TokyoPop built up a high-powered creative roster with creators like CLAMP and Ken Akamatsu, who fans were for the most part unfamiliar with before TokyoPop published them.

    I think it’s true in all the major publishers’ cases, but most specifically in TokyoPop’s, that their drive to license and publish work with a heavy market interest in an artificially quick way had the result that there aren’t many unlicensed properties left that have potential massive fan interest. I think TokyoPop tried to mitigate this by drawing on domestic talent and on the Korean manhwa community, but for the reasons Bellos mentions this isn’t working out as it’s anticipated.

    I work in a bookstore and I’ve seen most of these things first-hand, including the attitude that manga readers have regarding non-Japanese creative work. Everyone I’ve gotten to read Bryan Lee O’Malley’s work adores it, but that’s among the regrettably few who will even pick it up.

    A lot of the manga fans I see appear to have no perspective whatsoever on manga as a general trend or creative industry. Most of them think the “flipped” quality of right-to-left manga is an insider gimmick of sorts for manga readers, and completely miss the point that it’s a cheap adaptation process based on the overall Japanese book publishing format–I’ve had manga fans tell me specifically that they “can’t read” American comics because they’re “backwards.” Moreover, too many manga and anime fans will download scanlations and fansubs to the detriment of the overall industry, and too many of them are so used to the fact of books coming out on a one-to-two month basis that four months, which is the amount of time most books need for solicitation, or even a year (which is how long the wait is on most OEL titles), is too long for most manga fans.

    I don’t know what the solution is. I’m convinced that the manga market is going to contract, and probably lose a good portion of the casual readership. Manga will still be around because it’s so culturally entrenched, but I think it’ll be a tighter and more artistically focused market that will hopefully be more accepting to OEL.

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