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The Unfortunate Downfall of the Biggest Publisher in America

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Highlights

  • Tokyopop was a pioneering force in introducing manga to Western audiences, revolutionizing the industry in America.
  • The company’s “100% Authentic Manga” strategy helped establish a broad readership and expand the global reach of manga.
  • However, Tokyopop’s downfall came with increased competition, financial struggles, and the loss of publishing rights to many popular titles.



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Though there are many pioneers in the anime industry in America, there is arguably one main pioneer in the American manga market. That company is Tokyopop, and they did more than any other company to bring manga to America. Not only did they revolutionize manga, they made it more mainstream than any other company ever has. Yet if you are a new fan to the anime and manga scene, you may not recognize their name.


While the company does exist in some form, it fell on hard times that resulted in it going dormant for many years. How did the company that practically created the manga market in America topple so spectacularly? Read on and find out.

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What is Tokyopop?

Tokypop

Tokyopop, originally known as Mixx, emerged as a pioneering force in introducing manga to Western audiences. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the company played a pivotal role in making Japanese manga accessible to English-speaking readers. Their translated versions of popular manga series helped establish a foundation for the manga boom in North America. At first, they were publishing manga anthologies like Mixxzine, Tokyopop, and Smile. However, after the success of titles such as Sailor Moon took off, Tokyopop decided to tackle the manga market head-on.


Soon, their core business centered on manga publishing. They released various manga titles spanning different genres, catering to a broad readership. They realized that if they didn’t flip the artwork (or translate the sound effects), they could produce manga faster and cheaper than the competition. To explain to average readers (and as a way of creating a cool slogan), they coined the strategy as “100% Authentic Manga,” and sold their books as a “pure and true” way to read Japanese comics.

How Successful Were They?

one piece money


The “100% Authentic Manga” gimmick worked, and soon other manga companies were releasing their manga in the same format as Tokyopop. The company then expanded its market with the creation of original English-language manga. They provided opportunities for aspiring artists and writers to produce their own manga-style narratives, contributing to the growth of the manga-inspired art form in Western markets. Though The Rising Stars of Manga program would see many artists get their start in the industry, one-sided contracts and low pay would make the program controversial (and it still provides headaches to people whose works were published to this day).

Not content with simply being a manga publisher in America, the company established international branches and entered into licensing agreements in various countries, contributing to the global reach of manga and manga-inspired content. Under the “Pop Fiction” label, Tokyopop expanded its horizons to include a broader spectrum of media-related content. This encompasses novels, video games, and other entertainment media, including anime and films.


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Come the early 2000s, Tokyopop was undeniably one of the most prominent and influential manga publishers in North America. Thanks to their vast and diverse catalog of manga titles covering a wide range of genres, their books usually overshadowed other companies that tried to enter the manga market in America. Their books were some of the first manga titles to appear on retail store shelves, like Target and Wal-Mart, since those companies stopped stocking comics in the mid-90s. For many years, Tokyopop seemed to be on top of the publishing world. The good times, as they say, were not to last though.

Other Successful Manga Publishers at the Time

In the mid-2000s, besides Tokyopop, several other manga publishers found success in the American market. Some notable publishers during that time include:

  1. VIZ Media
  2. Dark Horse Manga
  3. ADV Manga – Defunct
  4. Del Rey Manga – Defunct
  5. CMX Manga – Defunct
  6. Yen Press

While some of these publishers are no longer with us, a few have continued to thrive and grow over the years.

What Happened to them?

Borders Books


Tokyopop’s downfall in the mid to late 2000s and its eventual decline as a major manga publisher can be attributed to several factors. The first is that while Tokyopop enjoyed a relative monopoly when it came to the manga market, they wouldn’t stay this way for long. Viz (who has since been re-named Viz Media) had always dabbled in manga, but the success of Tokyopop’s manga prompted them to invest more in the market. Thanks to titles like Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z, they soon had their grip on the market (they would eventually claim Tokyopop’s position thanks to their Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat magazines).

When labels such as ADV Manga, CPM Published, and Del Rey came onto the scene, Tokyopop now had real competitors to deal with and their market share shrunk. What’s more, with more publishers out there meant that there was more demand for translators. When it was just Tokyopop, translators had to take what they were offered. With other studios out there, translators became more expensive (though still underpaid by many industry standards). As a result, quality control started to suffer.


Rather than budget more realistically, Tokyopop revved up licensing and publishing, and was even the first (and to date only) company to make TV commercials advertising manga. These efforts did not result in more sales or reclaim some of the lost marketshare. There were, however, two major events that finally sunk the company. First, Borders Books went out of business, which resulted in many orders for books simply not being paid for (a situation that financially strained many anime companies into bankruptcy).

While this was a huge blow, Tokyopop would probably have survived it…If a few years later they didn’t suffer a second blow. Japanese publisher Kodansha decided that they wanted to publish their titles on their own. As the rights holders to many of the works by CLAMP (Cardcaptor Sakura, Magic Knight Rayearth), Ken Akamatsu (Love Hina, Negima), and many more, Kodansha felt that they had a strong enough library to be competitive in the American manga on their own.


Sadly, for Tokyopop, they had a point: virtually all of Tokyopop’s bestsellers were Kodansha titles, and with their deal coming to an end, so too did their rights to most of their evergreen titles. Throw in one final blow with a shifting market towards digital, and Tokyopop officially shuttered in 2011. In 2016 the company was resurrected by original founder Stu Levy. Though the company does still produce manga, they mostly survive with a partnership they have with The Walt Disney Company that gives them publishing rights to their manga titles in America. Though the business works, it is a far cry from its heyday when they were the number-one manga publisher in America.

What Caused Borders’ Downfall?

The fall of Borders Books is a story that is worthy of its own article. We don’t have time for that right now, but we do want to mention some of the factors that resulted in Borders filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy (some of these issues also hurt Tokyopop;


  1. Shift to E-Books: The rapid growth of e-books and digital reading platforms, such as Amazon’s Kindle, significantly impacted traditional book retailers. Borders was slow to adapt to the digital shift, and the increasing popularity of e-books contributed to declining sales of physical books.
  2. Financial Struggles: Borders faced financial difficulties, including high levels of debt and liquidity challenges. The company had invested heavily in its online presence and digital initiatives at some point but struggled to compete effectively with e-commerce giants like Amazon.
  3. Ineffective Business Strategies: Borders entered into a partnership with Amazon in the early 2000s to handle its online sales. However, Borders later ended this partnership and attempted to develop its online platform. The transition was not successful, and the company faced challenges in establishing a robust online presence.
  4. Failure to Adapt to Changing Market Conditions: Borders faced difficulties in adapting to changing consumer preferences and the shift towards online retail. The company’s large physical footprint, with extensive retail space, became a burden as consumer shopping habits changed.


In the face of these challenges (and a few more), Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in an attempt to reorganize its operations and address its financial issues. However, the bankruptcy ultimately led to the liquidation of the company, and Borders closed its remaining stores. The demise of Borders marked a significant moment in the transformation of the retail and publishing industries in the digital age, and was one of the major contributing factors to Tokyopop’s downfall as America’s biggest manga publisher.

Sources: Publishers Weekly, Vice.com, NPR

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