Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Tokyopop folks have long been innovators in the manga world, and their Rising Stars of Manga competition was an important path to publication for talented amateurs such as Lindsay Cibos and Jared Hodges (Peach Fuzz), M. Alice LeGrow (Bizenghast), and Felipe Smith (MBQ), who is currently drawing a manga for the Japanese magazine Morning Two.
Tokyopop’s Manga Pilot program was a natural outgrowth of the Rising Stars. Jeremy Ross, Tokyopop’s director of new products, was the one who first put chapters of Tokyopop’s print manga online, and he says that helped people get used to the idea of global manga. “I had old-fashioned letters to the editor, not a forum, and I was impressed with the young girls who were saying ‘I never would have read Bizenghast, but since you put it up for free I found out that I really liked it.’”
The Manga Pilot program was intended to showcase the work of new creators without the investment that print requires. “It used to be that everything we signed, we published,” Ross said. “Now we are in a situation where we can’t do that. Right now the pilot program functions more as a way of vetting ideas, as a selection process.”
And there was another obstacle: Tokyopop’s website, which had de-evolved from a simple publisher’s site to a social networking site to something that was nearly unusable by late 2007. Not only was the site impossible to navigate, it simply couldn’t accommodate the types of things Ross had in mind for the pilots.
“When we first conceived of the pilot program, we had plans for the website to be upgraded to version 2.5,” said Ross. (Full disclosure: I was one of a number of bloggers that Tokyopop asked to give feedback about the planned upgrade, back in December 2007.) “That kept slipping, and by the time we had the pilots cued up and ready to launch, we had no vehicle for doing it. We kept ‘knowing’ the new website would be just around the corner, and it wasn’t, so we decided in frustration that we would use the old website, bad as it was, as a workaround to get the pilots up. One of the bugs of this site was that it wasn’t able to display the creators’ names.” This omission did not go unnoticed by Tokyopop’s critics and became one of the points of contention in the contract controversy, but Ross was as unhappy about it as anyone.
The revamped site went online on September 4 of this year. Where the previous site used vague terms like “life” and “most popped” that were meaningless to the first-time user and most others as well, the new site has clearly labeled drop-down menus and puts an online manga page front and center. While the previous site had no mention at all of the manga pilots on the front page, the new site has a direct link from the “Manga + Comics” menu. The new manga pilot pages have a layout that is strongly reminiscent of Zuda, with a small version of the comic embedded in the page, ratings and comments immediately underneath it, and space on the right for creator bios, synopsis, and other story information. It’s not rocket science, but most of this was missing from the last version of the site.
The latest version of Tokyopop’s manga viewer has a “full screen” option that is also similar to Zuda’s, but the comic itself does not take up the whole screen; it pops up in a larger view with a big black border to block out the distraction of the desktop. “The quality could be better, but it would take longer to load,” Ross said. “In a few years you will have such a fast computer that we could probably show this at 300 dpi, but more people wanted fast than sharp.”
Tokyopop’s comics viewer widget does break new ground, Ross said: “You can embed one of these on your blog and it will appear on your page, and people will be able to read it without having to leave your page,” he said. “Every creator can put it on their LJ. There is a subtle psychological difference between giving someone a link and giving them the experience where you can put it on [your website].
“Widgets have been toys, but we think there is a more functional end to it where it becomes like a digital window. This viewer, although it is proprietary, is available to anybody who uploads their material to our site.” Including the competition: Yaoi Press, for example, uses it to promote their manga on the Tokyopop site.
The widget uses Tokyopop’s proprietary manga player and does not download the comic to the site. That’s about as much copy protection as Ross feels is necessary; his takes is the best way to fight piracy is not to issue cease and desist orders but to provide an experience the user will prefer. “It’s always possible to screenshot anything,” he said. “There is software that will do that, but our approach is let’s make it so convenient that it’s not worth your while to sit there taking screenshots and reformatting them. Just embed the widgets.”
Ross is optimistic about the future of manga in digital media. “We were the first manga on the Sony E Ink reader, and although it’s a small business it has done well because Sony discovered that in addition to the expected early adopter market, the small business traveler, the next market down is the specialty reader, the sci-fi fantasy reader, and also, interestingly, Harlequin readers.
“More and more, we are finding that it is easier to find people who love electronic reading and gadgets and turn them on to manga than to take a manga reader and turn them on to digital media. The only way manga can become more than it is now, which is a niche of a niche, is to get it into the hands of people who don’t know what it is but might like it if they give it a try.”
Tokypop is also experimenting with manga for cell phones and other handheld devices, as well as pursuing movie rights through its relationship with the William Morris agency. “We feel that there is an essence to manga that isn’t so much the exact look but the storytelling that could be revitalizing to Hollywood,” Ross said. “Once they have the first successful manga movie, there may be the gold rush that all the traders are predicting. It would be a real home run for somebody if they were to make a pilot and it would be the property they could make their careers on and even make residuals on for the rest of their career.”
Ross admits that’s a long shot, but the point of the Manga Pilots program is to give creators a way to show off their work and hopefully attract fans and attention. “In some ways it’s self serving, because we would like to be able to find out which of the ideas people bring to us have enough currency for us to invest in them in a time when we have to be more selective about that,” he said. “But we don’t mind if a creator is picked up by someone else. We would be happy if someone lands a good career, even if it is not with us.”