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Interview: Mike Kiley

by Justin Sevakis,
The former front man for UCI bookstore's anime shop, "Alt.ant", Mike Kiley is hard at work opening up the new online venture "TokyoPop.com" in association with Mixx Entertainment. What will the new store be like? Will it be a viable replacement for UCI? Will Mixx's PR troubles be a stumbling block? In an interview conducted a few weeks before the grand opening, Kiley told us about his new activities and what we can expect from this new venture.

Anime News Network: So, how did you get involved with anime?
Mike Kiley: I got into it a bit later [than others my age]. When I was a kid in the late 60's, TV shows like Astro Boy, Gigantor, and Tobor the 8th Man were on, and I really got into those, especially Gigantor (although I really didn't get into Speed Racer much). Later, in high school, I really got into Japanese culture — just all aspects of it. The music, the movies, directors like Kurosawa and Ozu, as well as the novels of Kawabata and Mishima... I made it my lifelong passion.

I really didn't get into the anime aspect until years later, in the early 90's. I was working at UCI, and as you might know, that was the heyday of the alternative comics era, with companies like Image putting out hot sellers. I was dealing with the now-defunct Capital City comics distributor, and they were listing these weird little animated films from Japan, as well as comic books and a few other things. We were looking to carry some new things, so we tried it on a whim, really.

ANN:And it just built from that?
Kiley: Well, UCI is really predisposed to that sort of market, since over 50% of the place is Asian. Obviously, it really took off, and in 1992 we decided to put the bookstore on the internet. We were the first bookstore online, beating Amazon.com by over a year (after which, they proceeded to kick my ass). [laughs]

The internet, as you know, really changed everything. Our part on the internet started in '92 when we opened up a gopher site, and the response was tremendous. The anime demographic is one that is very internet-savvy, and we were lucky to catch the wave when we did.

ANN: In retrospect, what do you think of the industry?
Kiley: Well, anime is amazing. Like every pop culture genre, ninety percent of it is crap, but the best of it is really amazing, not just in its look, but in its content as well. I really don't consider myself a fan; after all, I don't know one tenth of what my customers do. For me, it's just been a natural way to combine computers and my love of Japan. The new store, TokyoPop.com, is an extension of that.

ANN: So you left UCI because it wouldn't let you do as much of that as you wanted?
Kiley: Right, I needed to take it to the next level. After all, it's a college bookstore. My vision there couldn't last forever... it just doesn't fit. It's not the kind of thing that can really happen long-term. Besides, I had too many other responsibilities. I was there for seventeen years...

ANN: How did you decide that Mixx Entertainment would be a good choice for a partner?
Kiley: That was a pretty easy conclusion. I was talking to investment and entrepreneurial people, getting a feel for what I was in for, and I decided that I would need a partner or group to provide a corporate infrastructure. Mixx was the logical choice, since their Japan bureau can instantly start feeding me vital daily topical information from Japan for the site. I could have done that myself, but it wouldn't have been financially viable.

I have to plead complete ignorance regarding their PR troubles. Customers know me from UCI, and they know what to expect from working with me. Working with them helps. I'm getting into information distribution here. In the end, UCI became just a weekly e-mail, and I want to be able to provide more than that. So, Mixx was just a natural fit. Maybe I was a bit naïve, but the only effects they have on my site are providing the information.

ANN: So, we won't be seeing Mixxzine/Smile crossovers into TokyoPop.com?
Kiley: No. Since all I get from them is information gathering, I deal almost exclusively with their Tokyo office, and they have absolutely no control over it. It's been clear from the start that this would be an entirely Mike Kiley operation. I wouldn't have done it otherwise.

Mixx is a young company. They've made some mistakes, but they're aggressively committed to this aspect of pop culture. Mixx Japan has been great: they've been taking screen shots of new releases before they arrive here, they have their roving cameras, sending information to me on a weekly basis. They're great.

ANN: So you have minimal contact with Mr. Levy?
Kiley: Pretty much. I've known him for quite a while. He has a lot on his plate, what, with two magazines. I can't tell yet what the nature of our working relationship will be like, but if he comes in the warehouse, I won't be letting him touch anything. [laughs]

ANN: What is your response to the many people on the web/newsgroups/mailing lists that have said that they absolutely will not order from TokyoPop.com because of its connection to Mixx?
Kiley: Boy, I'm not really sure what to make of this, to be honest. All I've had time to concentrate on is the fact that we open in 8 days now, and virtually 100% of the existing UCI customer base have confirmed their preorders with Tokyo Pop...and we're even hearing from quite a few folks who never ordered from me before. I am certainly disappointed that there may well be people who don't give Tokyo Pop a whirl—but, ultimately, all I can focus my energies on is delivering the best products at the best prices around—which is what I've pledged to do for my customers.

ANN: Moving on, how is the new store coming along?
Kiley: Can you hop on a plane and come help me? [laughs] Well, I can use a power drill, order equipment, and put it all together, but I'm not GREAT at any of those things! I've had a few hassles, like for example, I just found out that my new HP Laserjet is not network compatible, so I have to return that... Pacific Bell was glorifying their DSL service, but that isn't available in my area yet, so I had to go with a different type of ISP service for the warehouse operation... etc... None of this will effect consumer performance, but it's just one more thing to deal with.

Putting this store together has been a mixture of exhilaration and absolute terror. Here I go from a government employee at the height of job stability to putting together things like this, but you know, this is really my life's work. And everyone has been so supportive. I can't tell you just how many well-wishers have sent supportive e-mails. I really value my relationships with such people and groups, and their initial response is very important. They've had great suggestions for the site, like a currency converter and gift registration. I feel so excited and privileged to be a part of it. The real rush will come when I visit conventions.

ANN: What kind of road blocks do you see in the future?
Kiley: Hmm... That's a tough question. Right now, the stuff I'm worried about is like, "will this desk fit in this corner? Will these shelves hold up under the weight of laserdiscs?" [laughs] There's been the issue of having a reliable internet connection... You know, the short-term logistical problems. Long term, I know that customers that know me should be holding me to a very high standard. They should be expecting me to do a damn good job doing my homework.

But in terms of competition... well, I really don't think like that. My way of thinking is, if I deliver and do an excellent job of it, people will respond. It's as simple as that. If I continue to listen to my clients, things should go OK. I wouldn't call these road blocks per se, but they will be challenges.

ANN: What kind of prices will you be offering?
Kiley: I'll be offering about the same competitive prices as people have come to expect at UCI, possibly a bit lower. I've made my name for diversity in my products and competitive pricing, and I wouldn't be opening if I wasn't adhering to those. In the end, people will vote with their pocketbooks.

Our prices, of course, will be subject to fluctuations in the international currencies (contrary to what some may believe, we do not control this!), but we'll be very competitive. Some people have expressed concern because right now we don't have any dollar prices on the page, it's all in yen. Pre-orders will always be listed like that, because we don't actually set prices until we have them. Everything we have in stock will be priced in dollars.

There are certain things that can be done to make the products more accessible to new fans in terms of information. For instance, anime fans are used to paying $25 for a CD, but to someone new to anime, that's a lot more money than, say, the new Marilyn Manson disc at Tower Records. If we communicate to new fans why prices are like that, and give them some info about what's actually on the disc (vocals, BGM, drama, etc...), we can help them to make responsible choices. And when we do that, they are thankful that we took the time to tell them. We hope to create a new audience that way.

ANN: What do you expect to be hot sellers?
Kiley: We've been hearing good things about the new show Cyber Team Akihabara, and I've seen an extreme amount of interest in the new show Cowboy Bebop. Also Serial Experiments Lain should be pretty hot. We just got our calendars in, and we're also currently negotiating for special pricing on goods, and maybe even some exclusives, like actually getting Eva crystals to be affordable! CD's and LD's are pretty easy for us to find, so we'll be concentrating on harder stuff like character goods and printed material like manga. We're busy establishing reliable contacts in Japan, so we're hopeful for what these new contacts can bring.

Over the years, we've seen J-Pop get pretty popular, but probably the biggest potential for growth is anything related to video games. Die-hard video game soundtrack collectors are snapping these things up, so that market looks to be promising as many of Japan's top content creators are now doing work in the field, and the quality of the games and the music gets better. We're also looking into carrying some software product, which is a very exciting field. And, of course, I am stocking LOTS of FUZZY DOLLS!!

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