The TokyoPop Effect

Just thinking out loud here.

Back in the early 1930s, newspaper comic strips were hot. They were what sold newspapers. They were more firmly established than either film or radio. Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Lil’ Abner, Bringing Up Father…. There was something for everyone, and fierce competition kept quality high. Successful artists were well paid, and were even celebrities. It’s only natural that some people tried to turn that popularity to profit.

The comic book–that colorful, stapled pamphlet that evokes images of “greasy kids’ stuff”–was born from the desire to cash in on the popularity of comic strips. The first comic books were in fact collections of newspaper strips. The problem with that was those pesky royalties. Soon enough, it occurred to someone that it would be cheaper to use original content by unknowns than to pay royalties to established artists. The funnies were so popular, were such a vital part of mainstream American culture, that there were hundreds if not thousands of young artists just dying to break into the field. Pimple-faced kids like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. But landing a gig as a newspaper cartoonist was not easy. These kids would do anything to get published, and ethically-challenged entrepreneurs like Max Gaines were happy to take advantage of them. Comic book creators were horribly paid and had no rights over their work.

Even after comic books like Superman and Captain Marvel starting selling like hotcakes, working conditions for creators remained wretched. With circulations high, publishers could have improved pay and maybe even offered royalties to creators, but it was not in their DNA. Comic books, although they sold well in the 1940s and early 1950s, never achieved the social stature of newspaper strips. The greed and shortsightedness of the men on top guaranteed that comic books would remain greasy kids’ stuff for decades.

Some sixty years after the birth of the bastard child that was the comic book, Stuart Levy founded Mixx (later TokyoPop) in 1997 with one miraculous asset: the rights to publish Naoko Takeuchi’s manga Sailor Moon in English. It was the equivalent of the work-for-hire agreement Seigel and Shuster signed with National (later D.C.): an asset that would have seemed worthless to most people at the time, but which was in fact the goose that laid the golden eggs. I have no idea how Levy got the rights to Sailor Moon, but at the time, those rights would indeed have seemed worthless to most people in the entertainment media industry of the day. (I would have thought differently, but I wasn’t famous for my business acumen.)

Here’s an anecdote to give you a feel for what things were like in the day. Back in 1996, I spent a few days working as interpreter/consultant for Shogakukan Productions while they were in New York for some business meetings. Prior to one meeting with some smallish media company (I don’t remember the name), the ShoPro people mentioned their animation, Mizuiro Jidai, a reasonably successful girls’ anime which they had a dim hope of selling in the U.S.. I had a bit of a brainstorm. It occurred to me that the show could be framed as the content of letters from a Japanese girl to her American pen-pal. Each episode would start with a live-action sequence of the American girl finding a letter from Yuko in her mailbox (yeah, this was long before texting) and starting to read. The end of each episode would be another live-action sequence of the American girl sitting down to write a response to Yuko. I thought it was kind of clever, and, to my surprise, the ShoPro people thought so also. They agreed to let me pitch the idea. But they were sure it wouldn’t sell. I spent the better part of the night writing up the proposal, and the next day I pitched it to this media company whose name I can’t recall. There were some nibbles. They asked a lot of questions, and even offered suggestions. But then the V.P.–a woman, no less!–simply said, “But girls don’t watch cartoons.” End of pitch, end of discussion; on to more pressing matters. The ShoPro people shrugged it off. They were used to that sort of reaction in the U.S..

That was the American situation prior to Mixx and Sailor Moon. “Girls don’t watch cartoons.”

So you have to hand it to Stu Levy for seeing the potential in Sailor Moon. While the animation was starting to gain traction in Canada, American broadcasters hadn’t even tried. In 1995, they put it in some laughable crack-of-dawn slot, and let it die. Because, after all, “girls don’t watch cartoons,” right? Cartoon Network picked up the rights to the animation in 1998, ultimately resulting in success, but it was in that crucial time frame following the failure of the first run that Levy acquired the rights to the manga, and actually did something with them.

Insert due praise for Levy’s savvy in making Sailor Moon one of North America’s first mainstream hit manga, along with Viz’s Pokémon, here.

Now that due praise it out of the way, the bitching.

Levy was able to bring the price of trade paperbacks down below the critical ten-dollar threshold, and within the grasp of children, by cutting corners on everything.

Regardless of where you stand on flipping the artwork in translated manga, have no illusions. Mixx/TokyoPop had no interest in “authenticity” when they decided to leave artwork unflipped. They did so to save money and time. Period.

There is a fundamental rule in the peddling of goods and services that many consumers seem unaware of: the lower the number of unit sales, the higher the price-per-unit must be in order to justify the investment. I occasionally hear fans wonder why American manga publishers can’t just sell 200-page paperbacks for four bucks (or 400-page anthology magazines for three bucks), “the way they do in Japan.” The reason is that while a given manga paperback in Japan can have sales in the seven, eight or even nine digits, American publishers counts their sales in the thousands, or, if they’re lucky, the tens of thousands. Japanese publishers can make a healthy profit despite the low price per unit, because they move a hell of a lot of units. American publishers can’t do that.

It’s a cycle that can seem vicious if you’re on the bottom, but lucrative if you’re on the top. Your prices are high because sales are low, and your high prices help to keep your sales low. Conversely, when your sales are high, you can lower your prices, which helps to increase sales.

Levy knew that he could sell more books to kids if he could bring the price down, and he did everything conceivable to do so. All corners were cut. One area where he made cuts was in the page rates of translators.

In 1990, I started do literal translations for Viz (which were then re-written by professional comic writers, such as Gerard Jones) for $6 a page. That quickly went up to $7. Then Viz started trusting me to do complete translations, without a re-writer, for (if I recall correctly) $12 per page. Manga sales in the U.S. grew slowly but steadily throughout the 1990s, and my page rate grew accordingly. For my last few years at Viz, I was making $16 per page, and at one point–before the TokyoPop Effect shook the industry–I was actually making $17 per page. (To the best of my knowledge, this is the highest page rate ever paid for manga in the U.S., though there may have been some one-shot deals out there that paid better.)

The point being, there were standards, and even a rookie was guaranteed a decent rate. There was also a screening process. When I first contacted Viz, fresh from finishing my M.A. at Urbana-Champaign, I sent them samples of pieces I had translated for academic purposes, was interviewed over the phone by Satoru Fujii (the Editor in Chief at the time), and was given a shot. Satoru offered constructive criticism, and, building on what I had learned earning a B.A. in Creative Writing at Penn State, I became a pretty good translator. But there was always feedback. In the first year or so, if memory serves me, it was not uncommon for Satoru and I to talk by phone about my scripts and trade ideas. (Yes, Satoru was an editor who actually edited. Crazy, isn’t it?)

I introduced Mari Morimoto to Viz because she was fluent, articulate, and had a solid command of language. I wouldn’t have introduced her if she had been just an enthusiastic otaku willing to work for peanuts. And my introduction was no free pass. She had to pass muster with Viz just as I had. When Mari introduced Lillian Olsen to Viz, the same rules applied. Mind you, there was no shortage of enthusiastic otaku willing to work for peanuts. It’s just that no respectable publisher ever seriously considered hiring such people unless they proved themselves, and even then they were paid a decent wage.

TokyoPop changed that. Why pay six bucks a page when there’s this kid here who will do something vaguely resembling a “translation” for five bucks a page? Or four? Or even three?

I was stunned when I first heard that there were kids at TokyoPop working for three bucks a page. That’s not even close to a living wage.

The practice was cynical on many levels. Obviously, it was exploitation of the translator. But it also revealed a contempt for the reader: These kids can’t tell the difference between good writing and bad, so why pay more for better writing?

Had it stayed in-house, I wouldn’t bother complaining. (After all, I never worked for them.) But the TokyoPop Effect had far-reaching, and mostly negative, effects. In order to compete with TokyoPop’s prices, Viz and other publishers also began to cut corners, and both the quality of translations and translators’ pay suffered. Talk about pay became taboo, because publishers didn’t want the new translators to know they were being paid a fraction of what the veteran translators were being paid. And eventually better translators stopped being offered work, or, worse yet, were forced to except pay cuts.

I should note that I stopped working for Viz in 1999, because I had begun teaching full-time at Kyoto Seika University, and couldn’t keep up with the work. But even I experienced the TokyoPop Effect in my last year of working for Viz. When Viz asked me to translate Banana Fish–a “dream project” Satoru and I had been talking about for years–they asked me to do it for $16 per page, rather then $17. I wasn’t happy about it, of course, but translation was no longer my main source of income, and I felt a debt of gratitude to the company that had helped me make my mark both as a translator and as a freelance writer, so I agreed. I never would have guessed that that one dollar was the first pebble in a landslide.

Mind you, none of this had to happen. Recall the rule of pricing I mentioned earlier. Sailor Moon and Pokémon ushered in a huge new market, and manga sales soared. Higher sales meant higher profits, and it also meant that there was no longer a need (if there ever really had been one) to keep production values low and pay sweatshop prices. They could have invested those profits in higher quality. They chose not to. After all, what did their readers know from quality?

The problem (for TokyoPop) was that those kids had grown up, and, despite having become inured to lousy production values, they could not be expected to keep on buying greasy kids’ stuff forever.

After TokyoPop’s relationship with Kodansha fizzled out, finding manga to translate must have been a challenge. Presumably that is why, like those early low-brow comic-book publishers, TokyoPop turned to original work by unknowns who were happy just to have their work published. And those young creators got the same sort of treatment TokyoPop’s underpaid translators had gotten.

The old American comic book publishers–Marvel and D.C.–continue to struggle to regain what relevance they had back in the so-called Golden Age, but they are still hobbled by decades-long habits of greed and shortsightedness.

TokyoPop could have worked to nurture a mature customer base and remain relevant, but they were, in my opinion, similarly hobbled by greed and shortsightedness–greed and shortsightedness that tainted the entire North American manga publishing industry.

Let us hope that the damage is not irreparable.

POSTSCRIPT: Katherine Dacey introduced this post on her blog, sparking a conversation including great contributions by former TokyoPop freelance editor Daniella Orihuela-Gruber and my fellow veteran translator, William Flanagan. William’s comments, in particular, are an excellent supplement to what I’ve written here.

  1. judi(togainunochi)’s avatar

    Thank you for the insights. As a fan I had no idea of the workings of the industry or Tokyo Pop.
    For those of us who adore manga, let’s hope the damage is not irreparable.

  2. hariman’s avatar

    This does explain why there were the dark days of translation at the start of the millennium.

    There does seem to be a return to quality translations of anime and manga. It’s only kicked in within the last three or four years. Smash hits like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell are the biggest contributors to the recent upswing in quality. Mainly because fans realized what could be.

    It’s not wholly consistent, but it’s getting better. And with TokyoPop leaving the market, we can only hope that other companies learn from TokyoPop’s mistakes and iniquities.

    We must also hope that mangas owned by TokyoPop revert to their original creator, so that we can see new material for forgotten gems like Peach Fuzz and Phantasy Degree.

  3. A Day Without Me’s avatar

    I really enjoyed reading this; I had no idea of the matter with wages for manga translators, and it is rather illuminating.

    I know that this isn’t your purview, but is a similar thing happening with editors? I ask since I have been fairly shocked at the frequency of typos in more recent years in manga.

    My larger question coming away from this, though is: what can we, as consumers, do about this? Are there particular companies we should avoid? Should we write letters to American manga publishers? Should we start petitions?

  4. Monnie’s avatar

    Thanks for the industry insights. Very thought provoking. Here’s to hoping the rest of the industry learns from TP’s mistakes.

  5. Sadako’s avatar

    Very interesting insider viewpoint. I take these comments combined with your work at Fantagraphics to mean that Fantagraphics is taking the correct long-term approach to publishing manga and paying for quality. So is that working out? Has A Drunken Dream and the upcoming Wandering Son been/appear to be a success (despite the higher price)? Will we see more manga from Fantagraphics, and, if so, when? And, if Fantagraphics is showing other publishers a good example, do you know if anyone else is taking note?

  6. Matt’s avatar

    @A Day Without Me: I don’t know about editors, though good copy-editors seem increasingly rare in all media these days. HuffPo is awash with errors that a decent copy-editor should be able to catch.

    @Sadako: I would like to think we are doing that with the Fantagraphics manga line, but whether we succeed (in the sense of both selling well and making a positive impact on the North American manga publishing business in general) remains to be seen. More manga are on the way. There are a few projects in the works now, though I couldn’t say exactly when they’ll be announced. It’s a good sign that “A Drunken Dream and Other Stories” has been nominated for an Eisner.

  7. Erica’s avatar

    Thank you for this Matt. I knew about the slow climb down into the morass of translation, and the contractor-method of publishing is sadly more universal now that ever before.

    But for the historical record, I’m glad to have your take on it.

    My only concern about Fantagraphics’ approach (and when I say concern, I mean “I’m sitting here thinking out loud” ) is that these beautiful hardcover books take these stories out of the mass market where they can reach young people with *some* ease and make them art books in the adult section of the research library.

    I’m buying copies of a lot of manga, including “A Drunken Dream” for my library and they have a growing manga section as a result – but they have no budget for their own purchases, and “A Drunken Dream” was not cheap. It is also very grown up looking and maybe then creates some distance between the teens who might have enjoyed it and the stories.

    “Hourou Musuko” too – high price point, hard cover, makes it not very accessible to young people who are the ones who most need it. Nice for my library that I can afford to gift it to them, but not so nice for many others.

    Bitch about the thin margains of the mass market if you will, but that got loads of books in front of kids. Which is where you have to start to build manga culture in America.

  8. Matt’s avatar

    Hi, Erica. The Fantagraphics manga line is envisioned as a line of quality, smart manga for grownups. There are already plenty of publishers out there targeting kids and teens, and we chose to not try to compete for that territory. The inspiration for the line, in fact, was the dearth of good stuff out there for the Sailor Moon/Pokémon generation that has grown up and presumably matured. “Reaching the kids” was an important first step, but the effort is wasted if, once those kids have grown up, you abandon them.

    Fantagraphics has been selling high-quality comics for more than 30 years, and they really know what they’re doing when it comes to selling excellent stuff while staying out of the red. The decision to make A Drunken Dream hardcover was a no-brainer even to me, who has the business sense of a twelve-year-old. Going straight to softcover with Wandering Son would have been a major risk. But Fantagraphics is in for the long haul. If and when the hardcover editions of any of the manga line are sold out, softcover editions will be seriously considered. Obviously all of us (and by “us” here I mean me, the folks at Fantagraphics, and presumably a lot of you) would like to see softcover editions, so if it proves feasible, it will be done.

  9. Adam’s avatar

    It’s worth mentioning that Sailor Moon’s anime started being broadcast at 8:30 AM in June 1997 on USA Network. MixxZine hit newsstands the following month. This was a point when Sailor Moon merchandise was still somewhat easy to find in stores like Toys R Us and KB Toys, and there was still talk of a possible Sailor Moon movie with Geena Davis. So while the full-blown Sailor Moon revival didn’t happen until Cartoon Network started airing it, Mixx didn’t launch Sailor Moon into a complete void.

  10. Durf’s avatar

    Technical question from a translator who doesn’t work on manga: What is “a page” as you talk about it here? One laid-out page of manga work, whether it’s a text-heavy debate or a series of glowering “. . .” voice bubbles just before a fight breaks out? The drop from $17 to $3 certainly paints a picture of a drastic drop, but I’m not sure how to compare it to page rates in the corner of the industry where I am (which are measured per 400 characters of source text and would be quite low at twice the $17 you quote).

  11. Matt’s avatar

    Peter, a page is a page regardless of the amount of text, the idea being that the average amount of text per page over a given number of pages is more or less consistent. (In fact, it can vary fairly dramatically from one work to another.) I’ve done non-manga translation work, and once or twice tried to work out an equivalence between the one and the other, but I have no head for numbers and gave up pretty quickly.

    Like I said, my rate of $17 was, as far as I know, unique, but I’m pretty sure that most translators were being paid at least $6 or $7 (hopefully more) per page before TokyoPop lowered rates so dramatically. People tend to be shy about revealing how much they are (or were) paid, for a variety of reasons. I myself only started talking frankly about concrete numbers after I stopped doing regular manga work in 1999.

    When manga publishers abandoned the American-style comic book format and shifted to a straight-to-paperback system, they started paying by the volume (usually about 200 pages) rather than by the page, though it is easy to extrapolate a page rate either way.

    What constitutes “fair” pay is difficult to quantify, but what is clear is that there was a huge and fairly sudden drop in the late ’90s, and that it started with Mixx/TokyoPop.

  12. Gilles Poitras’s avatar

    About 8 years ago I was corresponding with an editor at TokyoPop who mentioned he had taken over a series I greatly enjoyed which had had a couple of volumes released. I mentioned the gross liberties in the translation with dramatic changes in the dialog (whole re-written at points) and the changing of pop-culture reference to US ones. He said that would stop now that he was handling the title, and it did, even references to obscure video games never released in the US were left in.

    Alas it was an exception, likely due to the fact that the editor I mention loved the series also.

  13. Matt’s avatar

    Hi, Gilles. That in itself seems somewhat problematic to me. When I took over Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind from Toren Smith, I was very concerned about continuity. Toren had made some choices that I wouldn’t have made, but I felt it was more important to make the transition as seamless as possible than to insist on doing things the way I thought they should be done. I tried to copy Toren’s tone, and gradually, over several months, introduce my own tone. I don’t remember talking about it with Satoru, but I assume he wouldn’t have wanted me to make sudden, drastic changes.

    Of course, Toren had done a great job on the first 4 volumes of Nausicaä, so I didn’t feel a great need to make a clean break. But even on Horobi, I tried to make a smooth transition when I took the title over from Len Wein, despite the fact that I had really hated the way Len had scripted it.

    Although I’m sure the manga you’re talking improved under the supervision of your friend, the fact that he could make such drastic changes so easily indicates to me that the management at TokyoPop didn’t give a damn one way or the other.

  14. Gilles Poitras’s avatar

    In this case continuity would have become a problem is the translations had continued as they were.

    Later volumes of the series would have contradicted the earlier translation as what seemed like small elements that were erased or glossed over with rewrites early on were important. Luckily the tightening of the translation early on made things pretty seamless.

  15. William Flanagan’s avatar

    Matt, I work presently with a number of manga publishers, and only one works on a per-project (single volume) rate rather than a per-page rate. All the rest are per-page. That system is still going strong in the parts of the industry that I know.

    And your old $17/page rate was rare, but it wasn’t unique. It is, as far as I know, a relic of the distant past though. I’d be happy to be proven wrong on that point if there are any takers! (^_^)

  16. Simon Lundström’s avatar

    Interesting read. I was probably the most prominent of manga translators in Sweden when there was still a market. After a couple of years with mostly just One Piece, there was one publisher who started a monthly mag and who straight up told me “We pay $15 per page”. I was shocked; the major publishers paid half that. At the start I got $1000 for one 200 page book, which is about $5 per page. I don’t think the few others with me got more, maybe they did. I could get some extra by doing the actual “stick the words into the balloons” work, though. But I had to work pretty fast to make it work, and especially the proofreading suffered big time in many cases.

  17. Andrew Cunningham’s avatar

    $4 a page for manga (and $10 for novels) may seem like a shockingly low amount to you, but it was on the high end for me. It was just about a living wage, but only because I was pretty fast. As I started to slow down (and do substantially better work) that started to seem like not enough. And then I started getting offers for half that. 400 page novels paying flat fees of $2000, 400 page manga paying a flat fee of $600.
    There’s a number of reasons why I’m no longer translating professionally, but getting too expensive for the industry at the rates you’re citing as rock bottom was a pretty big part of it.

  18. Matt’s avatar

    Andrew–Wow. $2000 to translate a 400-page novel? $600 for a 400-page manga? I’m afraid to ask who the publisher is. Hell, if they’re shameless enough to pay slave wages like that, why don’t they just steal scanlations off the Net and cut out the whole inconvenient “paying for something resembling a translation” process?

  19. Andrew Cunningham’s avatar

    I turned those projects down, obviously, and then checked the quality of the final product for at least one of them; it was what you would expect. Done in a hurry by someone who probably meant well, but didn’t have the experience or skill to make it remotely readable.
    Light novels in particular don’t seem to have been something that worked with the manga business model. Few of them seem to have sold enough to justify publishing them at all, even if the translations WERE free.
    I still love translating novels, but there’s no way I’d do that work now without more control; final approval on edits made, owning the rights to my own translations, and generally having it be my project that I set up and took to a publisher. It’s simply not worth it otherwise.

  20. Josephine’s avatar

    This makes me look at the reprint of Sailor Moon in a whole new light. The translations are fine, but there is absolutely no editing! I’ve been emailing Kodansha about it, but…

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