Tokyopop and HarperCollins

Have you heard? A certain manga publisher will begin a bold new era of slicing bread prior to distribution in grocery stores.

Wait, no, that’s not right. Where was it? Oh, yes.

A certain manga publisher did, in fact, convert the mold on said bread into a wide-spectrum antibiotic that will save countless lives.

Shoot, that’s not it either. Let me check my notes. Ah, here it is!

A certain manga publisher has developed a technology that generates a sustainable, environmentally friendly fuel resulting from the conversion of automobile emissions into sparkly rainbow crystals that smell faintly of dried lavender, can be recharged with the laughter of children, and will power the Las Vegas Strip for months without waning, even during peak periods.

Oh, okay, here it is.

Tokyopop has entered into a partnership with HarperCollins. HarperCollins will manage Tokyopop’s bookstore distribution, and the two companies will partner to create manga-inspired graphic novel versions of some of HarperCollins’s catalog. Common consensus seems to be that this is the biggest development in the history of graphic novel publishing. Somewhere in the afterlife, Johann Gutenberg is seething with envy that his achievements have been exposed as modest.

But is it all that huge? “Huge” seems to be the adjective of choice when discussing this union, and while it’s certainly huge for Tokyopop and smart in general, I’ve developed what may be an excessive skepticism when this particular manga house blares its own trumpets. So let’s look at the deal piece by piece.

Much like Viz did when it expanded its distribution relationship with publishing powerhouse Simon & Schuster, Tokyopop has handed this aspect of business off to publishing powerhouse HarperCollins. Of course,Viz also handed its bookstore sales and marketing off toSimon & Schuster, availing itself of Simon & Schuster’s vast experience in this area. Viz had an existing relationship with Simon & Schuster. Tokyopop seemed close to inking a distribution renewal with CDS/Perseus until HarperCollins showed up in a cooler car with a nicer corsage.

(In a weird bit of coincidence, CDS used to be a part of publishing powerhouse Random House until it sold it off in 1998. Random House has its own manga imprint, Del Rey. Interviews with HarperCollins indicate that the house considered opening its own manga imprint but opted for partnership instead.)

The second component will be joint production of the aforementioned manga versions of popularHarperCollins properties, starting with the young-adult novels of Meg Cabot. This will provide HarperCollins withTokyopop’s experience in crafting original English language manga. Tokyopop will be able to expand its line with already popular young adult properties.

(Tokyopop Publisher Mike Kiley would like it very much if you didn’t refer to these joint projects as “adaptations.” As he said to retailer news site ICv2, Tokyopop ddoesn’t“retell stories, we present new stories based on particular universes.” The direction of the company’s work on Jim Henson’s Labyrinth seems to support this position. I would imagine enthusiasm for that approach would vary, depending on how protective they are of their work. Since they have full ownership of their work, I’m guessing they have a fairly iron-clad right to refuse.)

It’s an intriguing prospect. It was also an intriguing prospect when Scholastic’s Graphix line added illustrated adaptations of The Baby-Sitters Club by Raina Telgemeier. (I’ve pre-ordered it via the comics shop, but I browsed it at the bookstore this weekend and it looks delightful.) Or when Pocket Books announced that it would be crafting graphic novels that expand on the incredibly popular television series, Degrassi: The Next Generation. Or when Papercutz launched its line of graphic novels featuring Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. (The Nancy Drew books are on their third printing.)

“Wait,” you’re no doubt mumbling. “You’re making it sound like Tokyopop has just cobbled together ideas that have been successfully employed by other companies into some Franken-deal. You’re disrespecting the deal’s hugeness!”

Well, yes, I am. But I rush to stress that I’m not trying to undermine its smartness. Because it is undeniably smart. It gives Tokyopop much-needed logistical support and lets HarperCollins break into a growth area of the publishing market in one neat little maneuver. It appropriates developing trends in canny ways.

But it’s still an appropriation of those trends as opposed to an invention of them. And while I can certainly understand Tokyopop’s desire to paint itself as an innovation leader (Grab your muskets and join the Manga Revolution!), I’m continually baffled by people’s eagerness to let them do it.

I mean, look at OEL. Tokyopop is widely recognized as owning the category, and that’s probably deserved, but perception seems to be creeping in the direction that they invented it. They’ve made more of it, and they’ve been unfailingly slick about it, but that egg did not come from Tokyopop’s nest.

Hyperbole certainly isn’t unusual in the graphic novel industry. Something’s always coming that changes everything or revolutionizes the market or breaks all records. But really, in this case, isn’t it enough that this deal is really smart? Does it have to be huge, too?