We’ve been covering the sometimes glorious, sometimes ignominious history of Tokyopop for as long as there has been a Beat. Although its biggest legacy is as a manga innovator, its most notorious is the string of unfinished OEL—”original English Language”—series it left behind. An ambitious publishing program that put out dozens of new books by new creators, the contracts were also strongly in Tokyopop’s favor. When the company went on hiatus, the rights were left in owner Stuart Levy’s hands. Some of the series were never finished, but many creators have just thrown up their hands and walked away, with no hope of ever getting the series back or finishing it, including Becky Cloonan, and most recently Chuck Austen, who have given up on ever getting the rights back.
After Austen’s strongly worded slam at Levy and his business practices (“Its not fair. Stu is a jerk. It is upsetting. It is heartbreaking.”) Levy wrote back with his own response to Austen getting back the rights to BOYS OF SUMMER:
Mr. Austen claims that I “wouldn’t give (the rights) up for any amount of money.” Simply not true. When he approached me, back in 2011, my response was that “we can work out a deal that would be equitable.” Almost two years later, it is beyond me how Mr. Austen translated “we can work out a deal” into “wouldn’t give up for any amount of money.”
Further, according to Mr. Austen, I “wanted an exorbitant fee.” Neither of us ever brought up monetary conditions – and I would be happy (even now) to consider any offer Mr. Austen proposes, exorbitant or otherwise.
Finally, he claims I wanted “consideration as director of the project.” In actuality, I only direct projects I’m passionate about, and I have never brought up Mr. Austen’s work as a project I’d be interested in directing, let along requiring my attachment.
In summary, I have no problem with Mr. Austen, or anyone else, calling me names. I may be sensitive but I’m tough. However, I don’t appreciate being lied about.
Lied, eh? Well, Levy reprints his email correspondence with Austen, and while it can’t be said it is in plain black and white—the tumblr is a ghastly phosphene-inducing black type on fire engine red—there is very CLEARLY this passage from an email from Levy:
Chuck – we have a ton of time and money invested in BOYS OF SUMMER ($40,000 just in artist and writer fees alone, I think) and do not ordinarily consider reversion requests as a result. (The main reason for this is because since neither party has breached this agreement, the only way we would even entertain a reversion would be for us to be made whole by the creator on our direct costs to develop and produce the series.)
So what that says right there is Levy needs to recoup his $40 K to even consider reversion. Austen then asks if $40,000 is enough and Tpop’s business manager Mike Kiley replies:
Yes, we’d be happy to discuss further if that were an option.
Uh, what was that Levy wrote on Robot 6? “Neither of us ever brought up monetary conditions.” BZZZZZT. Wrong.
Is $40,000 an exorbitant amount of money for a property you are sitting on like a dog in the manger with no intention of doing anything with it unless somewhere somehow there is a stirring of interest from some media entity? Or: how much is Levy making from BOYS OF SUMMER right now? $0. So it’s better to have 100% of 0 than any other percentage of $40,000.
Now, not everyone is as unsuccessful at dealing with Levy as Austen was. Brandon Graham got Tokyopop to agree to allow him to publish the complete KING CITY at Image. Terms have never been made public (as they are no one’s business) but we’re guessing Tpop must have shared the revenue.
Here’s another even more interesting example. Jen Lee Quick’s Tpop OEL Off*Beat is not only being reissued from a new publisher, Chromatic, but it’s going to be finished eventually. It’s up as a Kickstarter right now. How? What?!? I wrote to Chromatic’s Lianne Sentar and Rebecca Scoble, and they responded with this link to an interview at MTV where they explain. The LDP in the questions is Lillian Diaz-Przybyl, a former senior editor at Tokyopop; if anyone knew how to negotiate with Stu Levy it was probably her:
One of your first titles will be Jen Lee Quick’s “Off*Beat.” This was originally published by Tokyopop, and many of the Tokyopop creators have had trouble getting full rights to their works. Can you explain what happened with “Off*Beat” and what the rights situation is? Was it different from the other OEL manga in some way?
LDP: Tokyopop is a business and Stu is a businessman. I approached Stu with a pretty clear idea of what I thought the value of the property was, both to us and to Tokyopop, and made my case that way, and while Stu agreed very quickly and readily, we were both aware that this was kind of an unusual circumstance. For one thing, a particular value of “Off*Beat” that made it extra appealing to us (the fact that it was unfinished, and we had the opportunity to continue a story that had a nice backlog of demand) was something that made it less valuable to Tokyopop, so I was able to negotiate accordingly.
LS: We essentially bought Tokyopop’s rights to “Off*Beat” and put the full copyright into Jen Quick’s name, in exchange for her signing a new publishing deal through Chromatic. We felt that Stu was really fair with us, but it wasn’t an insignificant amount of money, so we understand how that could be tough for an individual artist who wanted to buy the rights to her OEL.
So it IS possible to get your book back if you have a former Tokyopop editor doing the negotiating and a not insignificant amount of money. That doesn’t change the he said/he said nature of Levy’s accusations with Austen. In our own dealings with Levy, we’ve often found him to be personable, but also oblivious to the practical effects of his actions. Maybe he doesn’t think $40,000 is exorbitant—maybe it isn’t—but he surely mentioned a figure to Austen.
Some may have an even less charitable view, such as Mark Waid, commenting in the Robot 6 thread above:
No one who’s had even the most tangential experience with Tokyopop believes you, Stu. No one. Go back to counting your millions.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.