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Interview: Tokyopop wants more sophisticated yaoi readers

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As part of our Ero Week, one of the things I wanted to understand was yaoi. I understand the principles of its attractiveness to female readers and all that, but just how it sells, and how it finds its space in store shelves. So, I turned to an expert: Lillian Diaz-Przybyl, a senior editor at Tokyopop who is also their yaoi connoisseur.

Tokyopop and its BLU label is one of the major publishers of yaoi and shonen-ai, starting off in 2005 with Fake and Gravitation as its own "independent" label, eventually revealed to be a part of the Tokyopop brand -- at which point, they decided to admit it and pull the brand in-house.

So follow me after the jump as Lillian and I chat about how to make it in this boy-on-boy world.

Why did Tokyopop decide to include yaoi titles in its lineup, and what was the decision behind including/not including them in your main brand label?

I’m honestly not entirely sure why we decided to publish FAKE and Gravitation, TOKYOPOP’s first two yaoi titles, back in the day (it happened right before I joined the company), but I think it was mostly based on fan requests. We’d seen a solid demand for slashy/bishonen-centric series already, and both titles had anime tie ins available here, which surely helped their popularity and our confidence that they would sell. The success of those two titles demonstrated that there was a clear market for this type of content, so we went forward with planning a full line of material. However, at the time we were working heavily with Disney and Nickelodeon as licensing partners, and this was in the wake of the 2004 election in a time when the political climate felt pretty socially conservative, so we were a little wary of being too obvious about our ties to what could be seen as controversial content.  

That said, though, we probably would have at least put them under a new imprint regardless, just to make it easier for consumers who are into BL to find what they’re looking for, and to prevent accidental pick-ups by an unwitting reader. A curse of the manga section in bookstores in the US is that everything is still usually listed alphabetically by title, so we get Battle Royale shelved right near Card Captor Sakura, and people don’t always pay as much attention to the rating on the back of the book as they ought to.

Being a larger brand, what sort of power do you have in selecting your titles? Is just about any artist open to you, or are you still limited by what partnerships with specific publishers you can create?

Our licensing, yaoi and otherwise, is mostly dictated by our relationships with publishers, rather than direct author contact, in part because publishers are EXTREMELY protective of their artists’ time, and also because while we may be big here, that’s actually pretty meaningless to authors in Japan who are mostly focused on the home market.  So it was easier for us to work with publishers with whom we already had existing relationships (Tokuma, Kadokawa, BeBoy/Libre to some extent) than to forge new relationships.  Also, BL publishers tend to be small, so there were certain companies that ended up being off-limits just through a relative lack of resources on both sides (it’s not worth it for them to bother with foreign licensing, and it’s too much of a hassle for us to press the issue for only a handful of titles). If we really, really wanted to go after a title or an author, we can do that (and we did, for one particular title), but when it comes to yaoi, authors also move between publishers much more frequently than they do in other genres, so if we can’t get a title from one publisher, often we could get something else from that author from a publisher with whom we already had a solid relationship.   

We actually did a lot of thought about what kind of content we wanted in the line, too, which is tied at least somewhat to the source publisher, but maybe that’s a discussion for another question down the line. :-)

What are the sales expectations like for yaoi titles versus the rest of your catalog?

BL/Yaoi sells on average about the same as a standard mainstream title, and it’s pretty consistent. It also breaks a few manga industry rules—ie. Mature titles are often a hard sell, and it can be tough to get any attention for one-shot volumes by lesser-known authors in mainstream manga, but none of that is a problem with BL! If it says BLU on the cover and the art is cute, we can pretty much guarantee a certain level of sales. And then we’ve had a few things that go above and beyond. Junjo Romantica has hit the NYTimes besteseller list for the past two volumes (which is also nice because it’s a longer series, and those often trail off saleswise as they go along), Gakuen Heaven is a solid performer, etc.

What are you planning for the future of your BLU line?

More of the same! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We have a really solid relationship with the publisher Gentosha, who do a lot of moderately-explicit one-shot stories, plus a few lighter series, which tends to work well for us. We raised our price in the past year, which always sucks, but we’re trying to compensate by doing things at a larger trim size, and always having color pages (which is pretty standard for BL in Japan, so it’s a nice bonus for fans). The next step is to increase the emphasis on digital releases, which is an interesting challenge for yaoi. On the one hand, the ability to buy and read privately is appealing (BL manga on cellphones in Japan is huge, and we average more sales through Amazon on BL titles than most mainstream series, which is also probably the subject for another email), but on the other hand, it’s tough to get people to pay for digital content when they’re used to reading on the web for free, I personally have yet to see manga on the Kindle that really looks as good as a print book (although I love my Kindle in general...), and iTunes is very restrictive on content, which is a huge problem when your fanbase likes it a little dirty.

How exactly do you market your titles? Yaoi -- and other 16/18+ material -- has a fairly closed audience (at least I would think.) I understand promoting upcoming releases to let current fans know what's coming up, but how do you approach the demographic of people who don't already read yaoi and drag them into that abyss they'll never be able to claw free from?

As with most of the rest of the manga industry, fans and word of mouth are still our best marketing tools. Whether its bloggers, or online communities, one person reads something, writes a nice review, and then other people go out and give it a shot. And this may surprise you, but librarians are often really excited about the lighter BL content as a way to get more LGBT-friendly (sort of) content out there for younger readers. Librarians are awesome.

But I don’t think that getting beyond the existing core of readers is a goal that we’ve particularly set for ourselves, to be honest. It’s not like we’re out to convert hordes of people to the wonders of BL, or anything. :-) Trust me, the internet does that for us for the most part! Generally as people get into anime/manga fandom, they discover BL and then we’re there to serve that need, or else they’re just not interested and never will be. Our job is simply to find stuff that we think fans will enjoy, and get it out there for them in a way that they’ll want to pick up and pay money for. I’m somewhat interested in targeting the intersection of people who read slash fan fiction and people who read BL, to see if we could get any traction there, but fan fic readers are often drawn to relationships between particular existing characters, and so getting them to move into original territory may be more trouble than it’s worth. Plus, for people who aren’t already used to reading manga, the leap directly to BL may be too high a bar.

On the note of Tokyopop's push into digital content, how has the crackdown on illegal scans been? We heard the cannons fire back in June, but since then, not much. I realize the legal process is never a quick one, but has there been much progress, especially in the Wild West of illegal smut translations?

The process has been going slowly but surely, but the take-down of One Manga was obviously a huge deal. The US industry has always had a really complicated relationship with scanlators (some of our best translators came from scan groups!), but I don’t want there to be any doubt in anyone’s mind that the aggregator sites were a disaster for publishing on both sides of the ocean. And they’re still out there, and we’re still going to be going after them for as long as we need to.

Lately, Libre, one of the main BL publishers in Japan, has been pretty aggressively moving into the Kindle space, too, and sending cease and desist letters to smaller scan groups doing their series, which has caused a bit of a stir, but hopefully as more content becomes available legally in these new formats (and the formats themselves improve and get more sophisticated) people will be less negative about the sudden attention from the publishers. As a fan myself, I completely understand the frustration about wanting new content faster, and in a more accessible format, and we’re all doing our best to serve that need, but because of licensing issues and the rapid pace of technology changing (without an established business model to support it yet), it’s not an easy task. That said, things have moved forward in Japan in the last 12 months at an increasingly promising speed, so I am hopeful that the (legal) digital floodgates will open sooner rather than later.

Following up on your mention of digital content to iPad and Kindle as a sort of counterpart to Japanese cellphone BL, have you tried pushing on other handheld formats, such as Android and BlackBerry platforms? And could you give us a better idea of what exactly is pushing the tops of your sales charts in digital format?

The digital movement for manga is all REALLY NEW right now, and we don’t yet have much BL out yet (especially on mobile), but iPhone is the low-hanging fruit, just because it, and probably even more importantly, the iTouch, have the largest market penetration. Android is still new, and so there just aren’t as many programmers out there working on it (yet), but hopefully we’ll see progress there in the near future—whether that has the audience to support BL (and/or the lack of content restrictions so that we can feature more mature titles there) is anyone’s guess, but I’m eager to see how that will all work out. As the system gets established, more and more content will be available increasingly quickly.

So far Hetalia is the big winner digitally, which comes as no surprise to anyone, but our Priest app that we launched at Comicon, which features both the original manwha and a bridge story that we did to connect the original series with the upcoming film, is off to a solid start, too. Interestingly, while Hetalia isn’t actually BL, it often feels like the vast majority of the fan base is primarily interested in seeing the characters hook up with one another, so I personally think that bodes well for whatever we get out next in that space. :-) Plus, the BL readership tends to be slightly older than the average manga consumer, and more likely to have a credit card, so digital purchases are an easier leap for them than a 12-year-old Naruto fan. We see this in sales of print books through Amazon, for instance, and I expect that to carry over to some extent into the new space.

If there's one dream goal for you folks at Blu, what is it?

Dream for BLU... Hm... I’d say to have more readers get beyond the fluffy teen romance stories, and support more sophisticated content, both in regards to story and art style. This is true for the market as a whole, though—the taste range of your average manga consumer is pretty narrow, and I think a lot of readers are missing out on great stuff because they perceive an art style as “ugly” or “boring.” This is very much an industry where books are judged by their covers (especially when Mature books are shrink-wrapped in stores), so the superficial response can really hurt a title that genuinely has something compelling (and entertaining!) to say. Previews online are one way to get people to take a chance on a new title, but at the end of the day, there are some amazing books out there in English (from us, and from other publishers) that just aren’t as commercially successful as they deserve to be.

Will it ever be possible to convince boys to read BL?

Boys already read BLU! Some of them, anyway. And even some who are straight. If you think of BL readers as a subset of the shojo market, there’s a similar  subset of guys who read shojo, and then proportionally guys who read BL.  So it’s not a lot of boys, but it’s definitely a non-zero number. But anyway, this kind of goes along with question 8 in that I feel that the best BL out there does capture and explore relationships on an authentic human level, rather than just going straight for the libido (although that’s likely still going to be a part of it to some extent), so if you’re interested in good stories about people and their feelings, there’s probably some BL out there that you’ll enjoy. I don’t know if that’s the most worthwhile market for us to focus on expanding, per se, but when we came up with the branding and the initial title list for BLU, it was very deliberately designed to not automatically exclude male readers (by which I mean being too pink & purple, or having “girls only” type slogans, etc.).

At the end of the day, though, BL is primarily female fantasy, so a even gay male reader who might otherwise dig comics about guys making out isn’t necessarily going to find a lot to relate to on average, either on a story, or even on an aesthetic level. BL stories can frequently be problematic from a feminist perspective, and that crosses over into general gender politics as well (especially in the US, where queer identity is often very politicized). So while we hope that we don’t unintentionally exclude or turn off a potential reader, neither are we going to go out of our way to push content on someone who is outside its intended audience.

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Brad Rice
Brad RiceFounder   gamer profile

Brad helped found in 2006, and currently serves as an Associate He's covered all aspects of the industry, but has a particular preference for the business-end of things, more + disclosures


 


 



Filed under... #Ero Week #Japanator Original #Tokyopop #top stories #yaoi

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