Year in Review: Tokyopop tackles digital

Part three in my Year In Review on the LA comics scene. [Part 1, Part 2]

At this point, it’s hard to argue against the notion that digital comics are inevitable. They’re the future. The near future. For many, they are already the present thanks to various legally dubious means. Just as the music industry had a difficult transition accepting the reality, so too are comics publishers. Over the last year, North American comics publishers have been taking a casual to slow walk toward maybe actually embracing the way it is now. And even with tepid experimentation, there has been tremendous growth during a tough year for the print side. Manga publishers from both the East and West have been criticized for being even more reluctant, and plenty argue that shrinking sales are due to readers heading to pirating sites that translate and upload manga years ahead of official North American releases.

Fortunately over the last half year, the feet dragging is coming to an end for Los Angeles manga publisher Tokyopop.

First came the legal action. In early June, Tokyopop joined the Japanese Digital Comics Association with over 30 other manga publishers, both in America and in Japan, to fight digital piracy. This bold move was initially met with frustration among readers who read illegally translated and distributed manga, due to a lack of legitimate digital alternatives. But what has followed since has been a strong move to create just that.

It started with Tokyopop’s partnership with Zinio, an online and mobile reading application for magazines and books, launching with digital releases of over 50 volumes of previously released manga priced at $5.99 each. Titles included The Tarot Café by Sang-Sun Park, Princess Ai by Misaho Kujiradou and D.J. Milky, and Earthlight by Stuart Moore and Christopher Schons.

At last summer’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, Tokyopop announced the released of iTunes apps for the iPhone and iPad to read digital manga (well, manhwa or Korean comics, really) of Priest by Min-Woo Hyung.

Then late in the summer came the big news: The digital release of the highly anticipated Hetalia: Axis Powers by Hidekaz Himaruya in advance of the print release by about a month. This bold move leapt over the conventional strategy of releasing digital versions of comics months or more after the print street date. Hetalia joined Tokyopop’s other titles on Zinio. Additionally, through Zinio’s OverDrive program, people with a library card can read for free.

Hetalia was then released on Comixology on the same day and date the print edition dropped in September, also synchronizing with the release of the anime on DVD. Despite the prior release on Zinio, it was touted as the first simultaneous print and digital release for a major manga title in North America. For Comixology, it was their first, and currently remains their only, manga release. The first issue (or chapter) of the first volume is available for free, with subsequent chapters priced at $0.99 each. Each chapter of the second volume has been released weekly, in advance of the print edition. Despite the limited selection on Comixology, it’s a relationship that should expand soon. In November, Tokyopop was among the publishers selected by Comixology for their new Guided View Authoring Tools early adopters program. This will allow Tokyopop to prepare their own files to release comics digitally through Comixology’s web store, iTunes app and other outlets.

Tokyopop then partnered with Gardena-based Digital Manga Publishing to digitally release material from their BLU Manga imprint, specializing in female-targeted manga about gay love and romance. Each volume is available on Digital Manga’s eManga for $5.99 (versus $14.99 for the print version).

Just last week, Tokyopop expanded their digital distribution to Sony’s Digital Comics Playstation Store, which puts Hetalia: Axis Powers on the PSP game system, breaking up manga editions into 6-8 chapters each with a $0.99 price point. Hetalia is joined on the PSP with original English-language manga Ghostbusters: The MangaLegends of the Dark CrystalStar Trek: The MangaThe Dreaming and I Luv Halloween.

Tokyopop is also looking beyond simple digital conversion. With a library of over 3000 books, it can be difficult for a publisher to keep everything in-print. Fortunately, Tokyopop again looked toward innovations from the digital age, and has just last week launched a Beta version of the Tokyopop Shop which will include print-on-demand for various out-of-print volumes of Fruits Basket, Arm of Kannon, Georgeous CaratLiling-Po, .hack//Cell and others priced $15.99-$17.99. With a 30% sale going on, and free shipping for orders over $25, it’s a pretty tempting initiative. Included in the print-on-demand selection is the third volume of Gyakushu! by Dan Hipp, which has also been turned into a motion manga comic on Hulu.

While they’re still just getting started, Tokyopop has proven that they’re ready to tackle the piracy problem at last. The next year should show just how committed they are to exploring digital options and finding new readers for their diverse library.

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