Some thoughts on Tokyopop and the comic business in general

alexdecampi:

Gather round. Tokyopop are doing portfolio reviews at this year’s SDCC and as a creator who managed to complete two series with them before they went bankrupt*  previously, I have some things to say about this. Should you, young aspiring creator, go and have your portfolio reviewed by them? Should you enter a Rising Stars of Manga contest, if they run them again? I can’t honestly tell you. That’s your decision to make, based on a whole bunch of factors specific to you that are none of my damn business.

*(EDIT: Tokyopop didn’t actually go into Chapter 11, thanks comixace​ for being my fact-checker!)

I did not have a terrible time at Tokyopop. I got paid. Both my series made it to completion (although with Kat & Mouse, I had to call a rights-reversion clause on them to get them to cough up book 4). My editors were fantastic. (The Tokyopop editors generally were – and don’t take my word for it, many of them went on to great things elsewere. Just off the top of my head, Mark Paniccia’s currently heading the X-Office at Marvel; Paul Morrissey runs Jet City at Amazon; Tim Beedle is at DC; and Erin Stein has her own YA/MG imprint at one of the big four prose publishers.)

The editors were never the issue. Stu Levy was. The contracts were abominable too, but I’ll get to those in a sec. First, Stu, aka DJ Milky, aka Tokyopop’s founder. Stu was a fabulous entrepreneur, but terrible at running a business. Tokyopop was full of great ideas and almost none of them were followed through with any rigor or consistency. Each was shuffled off incongruously to gather dust in a corner when the next big idea came through.

The first great idea was simple enough: bring over the best Japanese manga to the US. The market exploded! Suddenly, there were stories for girls, and all ages, and all the folks that even then (pre Hunger Games, kids. Hell, it was pre Twilight!) prose publishers were kinda ignoring… not even touching what mainstream comics had for girls, which was precisely fuck all. (Want a laugh? Image-google “Mark Millar Trouble”. That was Marvel’s reaction to the Manga boom.)

But then, the good manga started getting expensive. And along came Viz and Dark Horse and others, bidding up licence costs. Fantastic! Let’s develop original English manga and have manga contests and publish US writers and artists! And several well-known, star creators of today (Becky Cloonan, Sophie Campbell, Amy Reeder, Felipe Smith) had early work published by Tokyopop.

And that would have been great, if they had really focused on growing that line, and continuing to curate a great quality list of Japanese and Korean licenced books. But… no. Audio plays! Shorter, young-reader manga (like my Kat & Mouse, they launched four short middle grade manga then totally forgot about them. One was by JM DeMatteis, if I recall right, so at least I was in good company.) Manga chapter books – another line thrown at the wall and instantly forgotten. Movie deals in negotiation! A syndicated newspaper deal! MERCHANDISING!

At this point, Stu was a star! But the manga boom had begun to bust. Partially it was due to a creeping attitude at Tokyopop, in the managerial positions, of disdain towards their readers. Heck, those kids would read any old crap we can licence from Japan or Korea! Why bother with expensive licences? Let’s just shovel cheap stuff at them! Meanwhile, the OEL books were not selling, because they had zero marketing support and were tainted by association with the far lower quality of licenced books Tokyopop was importing at the time. Plus, otaku wanted Japanese. OEL was a big culture change in otakuland, and even many OEL creators weren’t buying or reading other OEL books. Plus, many of these creators were young and finding it much harder than they expected to draw an entire 180-page book at twenty five dollars a page (yep) and were blowing through deadlines, which also didn’t help. (We’re getting to contracts, I promise).

Thus, while Tokyopop was apparently at its most successful to the outside world, with manga sections in bookstores that were a dozen feet long, and Wired running a hilariously ill-timed Stu Levy cover, the company was actually in freefall. The company failed because 1) management, consciously or not, looked down on their teenage customers and did not respect them as intelligent, discerning readers; and 2) rather than doing one or two things really well, it did 25 things in half-assed, terrible ways. Those manga sections were 12 feet long because of the giant piles of crap being shoveled at audiences who were too damn smart to buy them any more.

Then (and partially due to that), the bookstore chain Borders hit the skids, everyone’s cash flow hit the floor for like six months and started to dig, and Tokyopop cancelled OEL books left right and centre, and also stopped paying creators. Oh, all our OEL books except Sophie’s are on Comixology but has anyone gotten a statement from Tokyopop about those digital sales? Anyone? Hello? Bueller?

Do we think Stu has learned anything in the intervening years? Is this a kinder, gentler, smarter Tokyopop? Has he paid any of the back money the company owes to creators, or given them their rights back? Remember, Stu is a wonderful ideas guy. I am quite sure New Tokyopop will be an automatic Buzzword Bingo win: creator-friendly; crowdfunded; multi-platform; digital-first, blah blah blah.

Also remember: Stu is a terrible implementations guy. Every new idea for him is The One, the green light, the concept that will take his company stratospheric, will re-make his name and fortune. It’s almost blessedly childlike, except for the way he discards the old ideas and old people, who failed him, who didn’t work, and whose fault all this clearly is.

And now a word about contracts and pay. I’m not going to discuss the specifics of the Tokyopop contracts, but I am gong to teach you the three R’s of freelance contracts: rights, royalties, and reversions. Note: I am not a lawyer, and none of this should be construed as legal advice.

REVERSIONS is the most common way creators get screwed out of their stuff. It’s where DC got Alan Moore, and it’s why many of us Tokyopop creators never got our books back even though Tokyopop went bankrupt. What’s reversion? It means when and under what circumstances does ownership of your book and/or the right to publish it or make films out of it go back to you, the person that created it. (But Alex! I only sign CREATOR-OWNED contracts – shush, child, and keep reading.)

The two most common reversion clauses in contracts say you will get the rights back when 1) the book goes out of print (ask Alan Moore how that worked out for him) and/or 2) if the rightsholder goes bankrupt. The out of print clause is actually the preferable one, but it has to be worded in a very specific way to keep companies from indulging in the sort of jiggery-pokery DC did with Watchmen, keeping it deliberately in print to retain rights, even at a loss. Also, “in print” is a meaningless statement in an increasingly digital era. How does anything go out of print? Instead, look to phrase the reversion clause so that if sales of the book drop below 1,000 units per year, the rights revert to you.. You can also use a dollar amount rather than a unit amount. Your lawyer will have an opinion on this.

You absolutely do NOT want the bankruptcy option bcause that’s how Tokyopop kept rights (and Platinum Studios, and everyone else in the Comics Dipshits Hall of Shame). Lemme ‘splain: your company is about to go bankrupt and creditors are circling. You have a bunch of stuff that’s not worth much money (office furniture, old computers) and then you have these comic book IPs that you spent a lot of money on, and you’re convinced you will get a movie deal with at any moment. So you call up a friend or relative and sell them all the ownership in all this IP for a fiver. Then, later on, you buy them back off him for $100. Totally legal! Dudes: by the time a creative company actually hits bankruptcy, all the IP assets are always already out the door. And the contract you have (the shitty, shitty contract) stays intact and transfers to the new owner.

Meanwhile, Stu wants creators to pay back the full amount of advances and editorial costs to get rights back (or at least that’s what he told me with Kat & Mouse) BUT my IP was not part of the Tokyopop bankruptcy (none of the OEL was, to my knowledge) which means he already wrote down all those costs when he shuffled the assets around in the traditional game of pre-bankruptcy monte.

That, folks, is why reversion-on-bankruptcy clauses are a surefire way of kissing your work goodbye for-fucking-ever. Also, more insight into Stu!

RIGHTS. There are all sorts of rights, and this is where I want to pat the head of children who talk to me about how they only do creator-owned and ask them who holds the foreign translation rights for their books, or TV/Film, or merchandising. Folks: if you got no money up front and the company took foreign rights (especially without royalty, see below), all of publishing in perpetuity (except for reversion on bankruptcy, oh yeah), and 50% or more of film, you do not have a very good creator-owned deal.

But, you kow, that can be okay. We all sign at least two bad deals in this business, and it’s often the first two. The people that will take you straight out of art school (or off tumblr) and give you pennies to draw your comic are the people who will screw you. In some ways you have to put out the book with folks like that so you can use it to get gigs at the companies that won’t screw you.

(But they still try it. LORD how they try it. I had a guy from an upstart publisher tell me cold last week that NO publisher EVER offered advances for creator owned work, and the best I could hope for was no advance and giving up half of film. He said it with such conviction that if I was a newbie, I’d be inclined to believe it. But I have four creator owned series on the go and they all have advances, so I know this guy was just trying to be an exploitative asshat.)

Whoops, went on a bit of a tangent there. The usual-ish indie ontract takes 50% of publishing profit, and they try to take foreign translation rights (eg the right to negotiate/sell them) – this is not such a big deal; unless you have an agent the publisher will probably do a better job than you… but make sure you also get a similar split of profits as you do for domestic publishing.

And now to film, the great white hope of the crappy publisher. Should you give up a % of film? Again, this comes down to personal preference and your own circumstances. I’m hardline, and will never give up any of film, so there are only certain publishers I’ll work for. And I still get advances.

The problem is, as a n00b, your book probably isn’t going to sell more than about 2,000 copies, which means that it hasn’t even reached the circa 4-4.5k breakeven of a book with no advance at all. So that’s why publishers do that “take 50% of film” thing. Nobody’s ever going to make any money on your book – not you, not them – but somebody might get rich if yours is the successful sprout at the IP farm. Like I said, the early deals are the bad deals, and your untested ability to sell books is partially why.

Try to negotiate. Be polite. Be aware that they may say “it’s my way or the highway”, and that self publishing is a lot less fun than some of its boosters make it out to be. (But then Greg Pak’s just had to create an entire pre-order system for his next creator-owned book, because comics distribution and marketing is THAT broken. So be aware that even if you’re published, you’re still self-publishing in a way.) And, as alisayangds mentioned in a reblog of this, MANY companies have the “idiot contract” they send out first, and then a nicer contract they send out immediately if you politely request to negotiate the terms of said idiot contract. Folks, they EXPECT you to say “erm, no” to your contract first time around.

Be very wary, last of all, of publishers with film production sister companies. Remember the whole “sell the IP to your buddy for a fiver” thing we discussed up in bankruptcy reversion? Yyyup. We all sorta cheer for our fellow creators when they get optioned, but the dirty truth is that can be a check for $1-5,000 on promises of a big tomorrow that will never come. I’m not saying all publisher/production companies are like this, but I would be DAMN sure to get an entertainment lawyer with a strong knowledge of current option ranges in to fight my corner if I was in that sort of situation.

Oh god, and never agree to a shopping agreement, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. In general, just remember anybody with a cellphone can call themselves a producer, and you don’t want some dipshit giving you $500 then clumsily using your name and your book as his greasy calling-card all over Tinseltown. They have to pay, friends. If they’re serious and they’re worthwhile, they can pay. They need you more than you need them.

ROYALTIES. At last. This is mainly a work-for-hire issue as if you are going creator-owned you are talking % ownership and profits… though some foreign rights deals are % royalty thing. Folks, let me be very clear here: when things are not going well for you, and no rain has fallen in your career for some time, it is the unexpected royalty check from new German hardback edition of your brief stint on CAPTAIN PATRIOT or MERCENARY VENGEANCE GUY that will pay your grocery bill. If you are doing work for hire (and there are many great reasons to do it – from a childhood love of the characters, to wanting to work with fun people, to boosting your fanbase for your creator-owned work) for the love of Chthulhu, GET ROYALTIES.

Yes Virginia, there are work for hire contracts out there where all you get is a check and a peck on the cheek. Dassit. And I’m talking major properties that kids are dyyyying to work on. The kind where young artists at cons tell me they’d draw a variant cover FOR FREE (Seriously, stop it with that. Get paid, for everything, or you’ll never make it in this industry.) Your story comes out in trade? No more money. It comes out in French? Still no more money. It becomes a beloved classic of the comics medium like Dark Knight? NO. MORE. MONEY. EVAR. They’ll send you these gorgeous hardback editions of your stuff, and you’ll look at it, and there will be no check. (Sometimes they don’t even send you the book.) And again, we all have rent to pay. We’ve all taken that one and done gig because $1500 now was really quite necessary. All I’m saying is, it isn’t a good idea to make your career out of that.

As you navigate the difficult path of being a comics pro, you will be faced with almost Faustian bargains on a regular basis throughout your time in the industry. As I say, we’ve all signed bad deals. We’ve all taken quick-hit gigs under not the best of terms for a rapid check. Just beware of getting into situations where you are paid almost nothing and much is taken from you. Be especially wary of companies with no, or with poor track records. Every few years, a company pops up that is going to be the next big thing, and then it explodes, usually messily, in a fury of unpaid invoices and missing art.

But we can be thankful that the world is a very different place than when Tokyopop was in its heyday – we all still read manga, but it’s only a small selection of good stuff that is brought over, rather than mountains of dreck. There are a lot more options for young creators with a variety of styles to get into comics now – such as the open submissions at small but well-respected houses like Oni. There are several genuinely good indie publishers out there, with honest management and fair contracts. And you have much more ability to simply do it by yourself without a publisher, from Kickstarter to Comixology Submit.

So, should you show your portfolio to Stu Levy at San Diego?

My answer is, why would you need to?

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EDIT:  If you enjoyed this post and/or the “Managing Toxic Environments As A Comics Pro” one, please consider buying one of my comic books (the Sensation/Wonder Woman issues I did and No Mercy 1 & 2 are both 99c right now on Comixology; and paper comics can be mail-ordered from TFAW in the US).

EDIT EDIT: Tho obviously not the Tokyopop ones because I won’t see a cent from that.

All four girls.  Left to right, Meg, Amy, Beth, and Jo.