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Interview with Tokyopop's Mike Kiley, Part 2

The Manga Surge, Japanese Market, and Digital Delivery

Published: 09/07/2007 12:00am

We recently caught up with Tokyopop Publisher Mike Kiley for one of our periodic interviews on the state of the manga market and Tokyopop's place in it.  In Part 2, we talk about the surge of manga releases coming up this fall, the market in Japan, and digital delivery.  And in Part 3, we talk about Tokyopop's fiction program, the differences between Japanese light fiction and the U.S. market, and what's next after Fruits Basket.  In Part 1, we talked about the over-all manga market and its breakdown by country of origin. 

 

You talked earlier about the pressure on shelf space that the number of titles is making.  For this fall, we counted 87 new series or titles launching in the fall quarter, 32 of which are going to be yaoi.  Focusing on the number of titles that we're going to see on that period and the second half of the year, what do you think that will do to the overall market--are these increased choices growing the number of consumers, or might it scare some people off?

I don't see it scaring people off.  Clearly one of the more interesting evolutions over the next couple of years is how retail responds to the maturation of the manga category.  Will there be more established new release sections, will there be alternate modes of shelving that are considered, either by author or by genre.  In other words, will different kinds of gateways to the material be established that are maybe a bit more user-friendly than the current practice of simply having one big pool of titles shelved alphabetically by title.  It'll be interesting to see how that shakes out.

 

I don't think from a consumer point of view there's yet, or likely to be in the near future, too much material.  It's almost an embarrassment of riches from the consumer point of view.  There will be books that are overlooked, both by retail buyers and by end consumers.  That's definitely going to happen; it's already begun to happen.  But that happens in every sector of publishing.  Over time, I think the manga publishers that are in the business for the long haul will begin to respond to that and understand what the right mix is, what the right number of focus properties, and what the proper number of back-list and mid-list is.  Those are all things that in a very new category are still being worked out by all the players.

 

In the short turn from the consumer perspective, I think it's going to be an extremely exciting last four to six months of the year.

 

Turning to the elephant in the room, what do you think the impact of the number of Naruto volumes that are going to be released in the last four months of this year is going to be on the overall market for other titles?

I honestly have no idea.  I think they're going to sell a hell of a lot of Naruto--that's very clear.  I think as a result there'll be a lot of additional ambient traffic to the manga category.  I don't know that  that level of proliferation of a series has been tried before in the same way, so I don't know that any one really knows what its impact will be, and I'm not going to pretend that I know.  What I can tell you anecdotally is that what we seem to be hearing from retail is that it's going to make for an extremely vibrant category for the last four months of the year.  We've seen buy-in already for most of those months that's really exciting for us as a company.  We'll see how consumers behave, and whether there's a glut perception, how much mindshare does the Naruto promotion gobble up at the expense of other things.  We'll see how that all plays out.  From my perspective, I'm optimistic that it will lead to a rising tide lifts all boats situation. 

 

We've heard that manga sales were down in Japan in 2006 versus 2005.  Do you have any thoughts on the reasons for that and what it might mean for the US market down the road?

It's tough to explain that exactly.  First of all, bookselling in general, everywhere, is going through an extremely difficult time.  The fact that graphic novels in general and manga in particular continue to grow even in the North American market is very atypical right now.  There've been declines year over year in North American publishing for every month this year, and that trend is manifesting itself all over the world.

 

The physical book as a format, how many years does it have left?  Nobody knows the answer to that question, but I think it's clear it's not likely to be a format that is going to experience dramatic growth in the future.  Manga as a category in Japan is very established and it's not the new frontier the way it is here, it hasn't for a long time experienced that level of growth.  I believe it's probably subject to the same global trends that we're seeing in other categories all over the world.

 

There were some additional pressures, or opportunities depending on how you want to look at them, regarding manga in Japan, and those are mainly technological in origin.  Those have to do with the distribution of that material via cell phones and the fact that people are playing around with broadband and looking for new and interesting ways to make that material available to an audience that is frankly not as in love with the printed bound book as previous generations have been.

 

As an art form, I don't know that it means anything particularly dire.  Certainly there is no shortage of incredibly talented manga artists.  For me, it's just a case of being sensitive to the shifts in technology and the ways in which consumers want to experience material as technology changes.

 

That's a great lead-in to the next question.  About a year ago, Tokyopop began experimenting at a different level with digital delivery of manga.  You made some books Web only, and there were some changes in how you handled that.  Where are you at in terms of digitally delivering manga content today, and what have you learned over the past year that's helped you get to that point?

Obviously the Internet, the Web, broadband, cell phones are at the heart of everything we're doing.  The world is changing very, very rapidly, and we've made a commitment, we've planted our flag in the sand, that we're going to be market leaders and pioneers, and fortunately or unfortunately, we're going to be at the bleeding edge of this stuff, the way we've always been in other areas.  That spirit carries with it the possibility for making lots of mistakes, but it's also hopefully going to result in us being nimble and positioning ourselves as positively as we can for the future.

 

We're doing so many things in this arena, I guess the most obvious way to start is to talk about the kinds of things we're doing at a new part of our company called Tokyopop Digital, whose primary and most visible product to date has been something called iManga, which debuted a little over a month ago via a fairly high profile relationship with MySpace.  These are basically short snippets of animation based around our original manga properties.  That test with MySpace was an incredible success.  What we were able to determine is that people are very interested in experiencing manga-based content in that format.  Where we go from there in terms of rolling this out in a wider way, in terms of establishing a release calendar and a formal means of distribution, those things are all being worked out, but the iManga platform appears to be very promising at this point.

 

When you talk about digital delivery of manga content, you also have to talk about the ability to read manga in its more traditional incarnation, which is online manga.  We recently re-launched Tokyopop.com.  We had made a commitment a little over a year ago to establish a manga lifestyle portal at Tokyopop.com and to be as company-agnostic as we possibly could.  By that I mean turning our website into a free-for-all sandbox in which kids who were into cosplay and manga and anime, whether it came from Tokyopop, or Viz, or Dark Horse, or Del Rey would feel comfortable coming online, exchanging views, and posting their art and photos.  The latest development in that initiative was the launch of Tokyopop.com 2.0 right before Comic-Con.  We are experiencing a revolutionary amount of activity on that Website.  The amount of manga that is uploaded on a daily basis by our users is staggering. Admittedly, most of it is pretty amateurish, and some more inspired than others.

 

The reason it relates to your question about what we're doing in terms of online manga is we believe we've created a Web platform which is recognized as authoritative enough to function as an aid in our development effort, so we now have an audience of people on Tokyopop.com who are rabid and expert viewers of online manga--both the more user-generated, slightly amateurish kind and the over 100 properties of our own that we have online.  This community is giving us feedback every single minute they're online about what they like, what they don't like, what kinds of stories appeal to them, what kinds of stories they like, or 'We like the direction that Undertown is headed; what do you think about this; hey, have you ever checked out this user, we really like her, we think Tokyopop should publish consider publishing her.'

 

That's been a real sea change for us, because it's what we hoped would happen, and in fact, that's the way the Website is proving to play out, that it's just a very fertile breeding ground for an entire generation of new manga stars.

 

Click here for Part 3.
 
 
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