Originally published in December of 2003. I had contacted TokyoPop with a request to interview Stu Levy, but was subtly told I and CollectorTimes.com wasn’t big enough to warrant an interview with him. I was instead given access to Jeremy Ross though a PR person, which was a new experience for me. I had always interacted directly with an interviewee, this time all my questions went though a middle PR person. Still the interview came out okay and it happened at a interesting point in time. TokyoPop had recently started their cost saving, unflipped, “Authentic” Manga line. I had read some unverified comments online that they were selling well, but this interview revealed they were selling much more than well. Every North America Manga publisher would soon adopt the format and continue to use it today.
Interview with Jeremy Ross of TOKYOPOP
I’m sure everybody has noticed a whole lot of Manga in their comic books shops and at bookstores. The biggest US publisher of manga is TOKYOPOP Inc., but very little is known about the company and the people behind it. This month’s interview is with Jeremy Ross, TOKYOPOP’s Editorial Director – their rough equivalent to the Editor in Chief. We cover his background, TOKYOPOP’s growth in bookstores and their relationship to the direct market. I should let you know a few of the business questions were answered by Kristien Brada-Thompson, TOKYOPOP’s Marcom Manager.
Jamie: Give us some of your background. When were you born and where?
Jeremy Ross: I was born in Norwalk, Connecticut in 1953 but I spent my early years in London, England.
Jamie: What was the first comic book you read?
Jeremy Ross: Some realistic comics about WW II in England. When I moved back to the States in Second grade I started to get hold of comics like MAD Magazine, the Fantastic Four and Archie.
Jamie: What did you do prior to working at TOKYOPOP Inc.?
Jeremy Ross: I was Executive Producer at Kleiser-Walczak, the company that made the 3-D CGI Spider-Man ride film for Universal in Orlando, FL.
Jamie: How long have you been working at TOKYOPOP?
Jeremy Ross: Since January 2003.
Jamie: It’s been noticed that TOKYOPOP have been hiring a number people in key positions. Has there been turnover or is the company expanding?
Jeremy Ross: It’s almost all growth. We have doubled our office space and dramatically increased the number of titles we are releasing for 2004. We are also expanding our business in many areas.
Jamie: TOKYOPOP already does a lot more than just publish comics, what other areas will they be expanding too?
Jeremy Ross: Our revenue (and our business overall) has doubled every year since TOKYOPOP’s inception. In order to meet the demands of a steady growth like this, we need to supplement our staff. While manga is obviously our biggest area of growth, we are also greatly expanding our Cine-Manga line and delving more into television properties and licensing. TOKYOPOP will announce more exciting developments officially in the future.
Jamie: Since TOKYOPOP is dealing with reprinting material, I imagine your job is somewhat different than editors at original publishers. What is your workday like?
Jeremy Ross: In fact, TOKYOPOP produces both licensed, localized books and –increasingly–original books of many kinds. Each are their own challenges. All of the editors are working long hours to fill the demand for manga in America. The energy and enthusiasm as well as the pace are unusual for publishing…but then again, we’re an entrepreneurial entertainment company that happens to release a lot of books as well as animation, soundtracks and other products. In a way, it feels like working for a dot com with one significant difference: We’re making old-media products that people want and doing it profitably!
Jamie: Does TOKYOPOP have plans to hire American creators to do original work?
Jeremy Ross: We already do. See our web site for titles such as Shutterbox, @Large and World of Hartz. In the future, we plan to hire manga artists from all over the world to create many original works.
Jamie: Does TOKYOPOP plan to reprint comics from countries other than from Japan?
Jeremy Ross: We were the first company to successfully introduce Korean manga (they call it manwha) to America and now Korean books make up a significant portion of our lineup. Our Digimon manga comes from Hong Kong. And we are planning to publish manga by European creators.
Jamie: How has the switch to right to left format affected the sales of your books?
Jeremy Ross: The switch to the Authentic format coincided with a dramatic rise in sales. Readers prefer to see the art as it was originally designed, not flipped. There’s something particularly appealing to our audience about books that read in the opposite direction from Western publications.
Jamie: How big was the jump in sales between left to right and right to left?
Jeremy Ross: Without giving any numbers–since we do not release sales information as a rule–I can tell you that our business doubled . . . and has doubled every year since inception. Of course, you may have heard this before, so I’ll give you another tidbit that should provide better perspective: In the same month we launched our first line of 100% Authentic Manga, our largest distributor at the time–LPC Group–also happened to declare bankruptcy. This was a tremendous blow to our business financially, and we truly didn’t know what would happen. The Authentic Manga launch did so well, however, that we still ended the year with a profit! These books blew away everyone’s expectations. The line was a bonafide success story!
Jamie: How did you go about courting the bookstores and major chains into carrying TOKYOPOP books?
Jeremy Ross: We have a fantastic sales team, a proven track record, and a market climate that is ripe for our form of entertainment.
Jamie: Recently many traditional comic book companies have signed on with distributors to sell to the bookstore market, but large print runs and slow sell throughs have hurt them financially. How does TOKYOPOP manage to do it so well?
Jeremy Ross: Selling manga graphic novels in bookstores is a cornerstone of TOKYOPOP’s success. It has allowed us to attract a very different demographic than the traditional comic collector who buys at comic shops. Teen and tween girls and boys love our format and like finding their favorite series in bookstore chains. We have dedicated displays in stores such as Barnes and Noble. The buyers there love our series-based books because they attract dedicated customers who buy several series a month and come to the store regularly. Our manga is also found at Suncoast, Frye’s, Best Buy and other places where we can reach a mass audience.
Jamie: Within the “traditional” comic industry there was talk for a lot of years about reaching out to women and children readers, but nothing they did seemed to work. How did TOYKOPOP successfully market their books those demographics?
Jeremy Ross: Even the traditional comics industry used to appeal to a broader demographic. They became more focused on superhero stories over the years and were quite successful with them for a long time. Manga, on the other hand, exists for every conceivable age group including young kids and adults. Our success was largely the result of bringing compelling and unique content to an audience that was ready for it and making the books available in retail channels that attract the broadest possible demographic.
Jamie: Was there any specific advertising done that reached those readers or did you get sales because the TV anime shows were popular and spin off from that?
Jeremy Ross: Our success in reaching girls and children may be attributed to a number of marketing tactics, but a big part of it is supply and demand. Typical American superhero style comics do not have as much appeal to these audiences as manga does with its multiple genres. We are providing girls and children with an entertainment form that largely wasn’t there for them in the past. The tie-ins with related anime TV shows (for some properties) certainly help as well, but that’s only one part of a very large equation figuring into the growth of manga sales to girls and children.
Jamie: How important is the direct market to TOKYOPOP?
Jeremy Ross: The direct market is important to us because it allows us to reach more customers, but it represents only a portion of our sales.
Jamie: What is the percentage of TOKYOPOP sales between the Direct Market and Bookstores?
Jeremy Ross: We’re a private company and we do not release sales figures, but it’s fair to say that the majority of our sales are through bookstores.
Jamie: When TOKYOPOP releases books to the Direct Market, a lot of books are shipped on the same week. Why do it that way?
Jeremy Ross: Considering that we are releasing on average 40 books per month and that our business is way up, we ship once or twice a month, usually in the first two weeks of the month. Our distributors then determine when and how the books land in the direct market. With so many titles, this is simply the best way we’ve found to do it.
Jamie: Shonen Jump has been selling Manga through the newsstands, do you see TOKYOPOP doing something similar?
Jeremy Ross: Shonen Jump is an anthology magazine with serialized stories. TOKYOPOP has a history of selling manga anthology magazines on newsstands in the past (Mixxzine, Smile) but we have found the economics of the magazine business for manga to be challenging. We have had such runaway success with the industry-standard graphic novel size that we pioneered, sold through bookstores, that we have so far chosen not to re-enter the magazine business. We do sell manga anthologies (The Rising Stars of Manga) and give away samplers (TOKYOPOP sneaks) in our standard graphic novel size.
Jamie: Many traditional large comic book companies make the bulk of their money off licensing their characters. Yet TOKYOPOP is the one licensing characters for comics. How does this affect the company?
Jeremy Ross: We are a licensee of many Manga series, but also a sub-licensor of those same properties. For example, we licensed Radio Shack the Initial D property for their micro machine RC cars. At Comic-Con 2003 we announced that we have acquired the rights to the Korean series Priest to make a major motion picture. When we acquire or develop a property, we are more often obtaining the rights to multiple licensing categories. Rave Master is the most recent example of a property for which we have the master license, with the exception of Asia.
You can expect to see more announcements of TOPYOPOP as a licensor rather than a licensee in the future.
Jamie: Are your licensed books still your strongest sellers?
Jeremy Ross: For the time being, yes, especially when you figure in the Cine-Manga deals with Disney, Nickelodeon, Sony and other heavy-hitters. Those books do extremely well. However, since we’ve only really just started working on original material, we have no true basis of comparison. Ask us in another year, and you may be surprised.