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Anime Expo 2012

by Carlo Santos,

Panelists: Stu Levy, Alison Roberts (Right Stuf), Daniela Orihuela-Gruber (Tokyopop editor & blogger), Dan Casey (Nerdist)

It's been over a year since Tokyopop shuttered their manga publishing operation after continued business struggles. However, a full-capacity audience at this panel proved that there is still interest in the brand.

Tokyopop founder Stu Levy began the panel with an outline of the company's history. Levy described his personal background in depth, discovering Japanese pop culture as a young twentysomething and eventually starting Tokyopop (then Mixx) as a manga licensor in 1997.

After Mixx's entry into manga with titles like Sailor Moon and Parasyte, they also diversified into other short-lived entertainment ventures such as Japanese wrestling videos and Final Fantasy soundtracks. An early, turn-of-the-century version of Tokyopop's website also showed their forward thinking in online ventures.

In 2002, Tokyopop hit it big with the "manga explosion": they began printing manga in the original right-to-left format (an idea that Levy from got European publishers), then made an an aggressive push with high-volume print runs, "Authentic Manga" branding, and bookstore displays. Even the standardized page size played a role in their success—bookstores found it more convenient for shelving. This boom era ushered in well-known titles like Love Hina, Chobits and Fruits Basket.

After several other companies jumped in and the pool of manga licenses started to shrink, Tokyopop expanded into new ventures: overseas expansion into UK and Germany, Cine-Manga, anime DVDs, and Gothic & Lolita Bible magazine.

Tokyopop also led the OEL manga push, hoping to cultivate local artists inspired by the Japanese manga. Levy admitted that they had been too aggressive, releasing over 300 books and taking on huge costs because of that. However, he noted that the blossoming of artist alleys at conventions—and fans who by from them—proves that the strategy of cultivating "local manga artists" has worked in the long term.

In recent years, the company also expanded into films and merchandise like Priest, Van Von Hunter and the America's Greatest Otaku series, as well as figurines and t-shirts relating to original Tokyopop series.

The company's eventual downfall, according to Levy, came due to a number of factors: increased competition (mainly Japanese publishers taking over operations themselves), an over-supply of books, hitting the "fan base ceiling" of potential manga readers, unsuccessful attempts at diversification, and costly new initiatives. Then came the big elephants in the room: online piracy, the recent economic crash, and the closing of Borders, who was a major buyer of Tokyopop inventory.

Today, Tokyopop maintains an online presence as "Tokyopop Powered by Nerdist," a daily newsletter of Asian pop culture and other fan interests. The company's current manga operations consist of print-on-demand books, e-books, and possible Kickstarter projects. The most highly anticipated new printing is the release of Hetalia Volume 3. In addition, new volumes of original series like Bizenghast and Psy-Comm will come out as part of the print-on-demand initiative. Levy also announced, much to fans' excitement, that Hetalia Volumes 4 and 5 have gotten the okay from Gentosha for publication in the U.S. (but with no firm plans yet).

As far as future plans, licenses for many of Tokyopop's cancelled series have expired, and their comeback will depend on whether Japanese publishers will work with the company again or have gone with another licensor. OEL series still remain in Tokyopop's hands though, and Levy said that he intends on going forward with new volumes of incomplete series. New titles are a possibility as well, and Kickstarter could be a key to gaining the funding needed.

Other multimedia projects are also in development, including potential TV and film projects based on existing Tokyopop properties, web video series, and accessories like T-shirts.

At this point the panel had already run over time and there was no Q&A session.

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