Matthew recently talked with Kurt Hassler, one of the founders of Yen Press who made waves when he moved from being the head buyer at Borders to starting his own manga publishing company. Yen Press has been going strong for some time and stepped in to help out fans by working through several Ice Kunion titles when that company ceased releasing a number of their works. It's been a few years now since Yen Press got underway and a good time to sit down and talk with Mr. Hassler to see where things stand.
Matthew Alexander: Kurt, I remember meeting you for the first time at San Diego Comic Con in 2007. At the time, I was really excited to see the start of a new manga publisher with the backing of an established book publisher like Hachette Book Group. In the two years since, Yen Press has grown by leaps and bounds, has this level of growth surprised you at all? Where do you see Yen Press a year from now?
Kurt Hassler: Hey, Matt. Glad to get an opportunity to talk to you again! Has it only been two years since Yen released its first books? Time flies… I can’t really say that I’m surprised at the level of growth we’ve experienced since Yen started publishing. If I look at our initial business plan, we’re pretty much spot on the title count that we’d projected going into our third year. What’s really gratifying is that we’ve been able to achieve the trajectory that we set for ourselves and build the solid relationships that we wanted to establish – particularly with our licensors in Japan and Korea. It’s only through those relationships that we’re able to get the quality of titles that you’re seeing on Yen’s list today like Soul Eater, Haruhi, Yotsuba, Kobato, Black Butler, Spice and Wolf, and so on. A year from now, I hope to see Yen continuing to build on those relationships and refine its list so that we can say confidently that we offer one of the finest selections of manga in this market. That’s been our goal since before day one.
Matthew: What are some of the decisions behind which manga series Yen Press decides to license? Series length, anime tie-ins, genre, gut feeling?
Kurt: I really wouldn’t say that we have a set criterion that we follow when it comes to licensing. Series length isn’t something we pay particular attention to. Anime tie-ins are something that you take note of, but I can’t say that it has ever been a make or break factor in a decision to license something. Gut feeling definitely has a lot to do with it. Is this a good book? Is there something about it that resonates with us? Does it have that spark that’s really going to inspire readers? Do we think we can successfully help it reach the right audience in the market here? Those are really some of the key motivating questions that drive our licensing decisions, and I think that’s one of the main reasons that when you look at Yen as a whole you’ll find we have a very diverse list.
Matthew: Speaking of anime tie-ins, Yen Press had been releasing the Black God manga (a personal favorite of mine) for awhile before the anime (Kurokami) was shown here in the U.S. earlier this year. Did you notice any increase in sales for your Black God manga after that or is it just too difficult to judge?
Kurt: I would say that there was a positive effect on the manga sales when the anime started airing, but that’s the kind of thing that’s really difficult to quantify unless the numbers are so pronounced that there’s no other possible explanation for the lift. Black God is a really great, energetic title, and the storyline that we were publishing when the anime started airing was really hitting its stride, so it would be really difficult to say that word of mouth wasn’t also contributing to a sales lift.
Matthew: There is the idea that manga growth in the U.S. began slowing before the current downturn in the economy and not necessarily because of it. Do you agree with this and do you think manga sales would have slowed regardless of a down economy, perhaps because the manga market in the U.S. had become oversaturated?
Kurt: I don’t think it’s arguable that there wasn’t a slowdown in manga sales that preceded the recession. There was. That was plain in the numbers. Oversaturation…? Meh…yes and no. I’m not particularly fond of the term. Technically, you could argue that any area of publishing is oversaturated. There are always going to be books that a publisher thinks could have sold better, and if it just wasn’t for all those other darn books that other publishers put out, they would have, dagnabbit! Whenever something demonstrates success, there are always competitors out there who recognize that success and rush to replicate it…and suddenly you’re “oversaturated.” But there are still good books in the mix that can perform wonderfully, and I think that’s really the biggest challenge that’s faced the manga industry here for the last few years – calling out the winners and supporting them to reach their potential. Publishers are refining their strategies to better accomplish this, and in many instances that means paring down their lists to provide greater focus and emphasis on the best of their best, and I’ve seen some encouraging indications that it’s starting to work.
Again, I think every area of publishing has and does struggle with these same challenges to a greater or lesser extent, but you have to bear in mind that manga in this market is still in many ways in its infancy. The category as we know it today has only been around for less than a decade, so some of the growing pains seem much more pronounced.
Matthew: Yen Press’ acquisition of ICEkunion and their titles a few years ago was great news to fans of that publisher. Have most of those original ICEkunion titles run their course yet, and has Yen Press licensed new Korean titles from other Korean publishers?
Kurt: There are some great books that we acquired from the ICE K list, and we’ve been able to help a lot of people complete their collections. I’d say the majority of the titles we acquired from ICE K will run to completion in the next year. That said, we are still licensing other Korean titles, several of which have been or are serialized in our monthly anthology, Yen Plus, and we are constantly getting letters and e-mail praising those series. Jack Frost has been doing extremely well. (That one raised a lot of eyebrows in the very first issue of the magazine!) Pig Bride has become a fan favorite. Time and Again is just a gorgeous book any way you look at it. We’re really looking forward to releasing the first collected edition in that series in December, and I highly encourage everyone to check it out.
Matthew: In the U.S., graphic novels from Korea and China have mostly failed to receive as good a reception as their Japanese counterpart. Do you think U.S. publishers have marketed them incorrectly? Have Yen Press Korean and Chinese titles been selling up to your internal standards?
Kurt: The tough thing about books from China and Korea is that they don’t have the same built-in fan awareness that so many of the Japanese titles have. Anime is a huge component of that awareness, and obviously you just don’t have that with licenses coming from Korea and China. So it’s really tough to position those books to stand out in the market when essentially they have to compete for attention with books from Japan that can have a much higher profile. That’s one of the key reasons why when we set up Yen Plus that we were very clear that we wanted to serialize some of our Korean titles alongside the Japanese titles – in the same way that they do in Korea. It gives readers an opportunity to read these titles that they otherwise might not have given a second thought, and far more often than not, they find that they really enjoy them. So for our purposes, that was the new sort of marketing “spin” we added to the mix.
Matthew: Since you brought up Yen Plus, let’s talk about that in a little more detail. Yen Plus is an anthology magazine that Yen Press has been releasing for just over a year now. Each issue of the magazine has a chapter from various Yen Press titles much the way Japanese publishers release series before collecting them into a tankubon, or graphic novel. Could you describe your magazine a little for us, such as whether it is monthly, how many different series/chapters are in the average volume, and how well the available subscription method of purchase is working so far?
Kurt: Yen Plus has been our major marketing initiative since it launched with the August 2008 issue. It’s a monthly anthology that’s different from anything else that’s been in the market here in that it serializes Japanese manga and Korean manhwa as well as original titles from Yen like the manga adaptation of James Patterson’s New York Times bestselling series Maximum Ride and Nightschool, the new series from the ever-talented Svetlana Chmakova, creator of Dramacon. It’s a thick mutha of a magazine with every issue weighing in at over 400 pages, and it has some powerhouse titles from Japan like Soul Eater and more recently Black Butler. On average, each issue has 10 to 12 series a month with occasional previews of other properties including light novels like Kieli and the December issue will have a preview of the forthcoming Spice and Wolf novel. The magazine has been a huge endeavor for us, and we have some fiercely loyal fans out there. As for the subscriptions, I know we’ve had some hiccups in terms of the timeliness of the deliveries over the past few months, but I hope (crosses fingers not for the first time) that those problems have been sorted with the company that handles our subscription fulfillment. For anyone who hasn’t already, the magazine is well worth checking out. Our Editorial Assistant, Abby, even does a monthly yon-koma page if you ever want an inside glimpse into the hijinks of our editorial office.
Matthew: I’m curious to hear your take on the yon-koma, or 4-koma style (4 panel vertical comic strip) manga. This comic strip style of manga is popular in Japan and some think it should have taken off sooner/better here in the U.S. than it has. As a U.S. publisher that has explored yon-koma more than most (4 different series?), what are your thoughts on their marketability? Does Yen Press plan to introduce any other yon-koma series in the near future? And where is the next volume of S.S. Astro? The wait is killing me.
Kurt: Actually, I think that with the addition of the Azumanga Daioh omnibus that we’re releasing in December, our yon-koma title count is up to seven! As far as marketability goes, it isn’t really that much different than any other title with the exception that because it is “newish” you have the challenge of making everyone involved recognize the potential for the material. Azumanga was a huge hit, but it’s been a long time since that was originally released in the market. Had someone been able to follow that up immediately with some really strong yon-koma material, I think you would have seen the format take off much earlier. That said, I’m a huge fan of the yon-koma titles on our list. Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro is probably one of my favorite manga of all time. Keep an eye on the yon-koma stuff. You may just see that explosion you were hoping for yet!
And as soon as we know where the next volume of S.S. Astro stands, we’ll be sure to let you know!
Matthew: Yen Press has recently ‘rescued’ manga licenses Azumanga Daioh and Yotsuba&! from ADV. I understand that Yen Press started from scratch with the translation/adaptation for Yotsuba&!, which means the books aren’t exactly the same as the ADV incarnation. Will this be the same method for Azumanga Daioh? Are there extras compared to the ADV versions that should interest people in double-dipping if they have already been collecting these series? Are there any other series on the ‘rescue’ list, perhaps from other defunct U.S. publishers?
Kurt: Like Yotsuba&!, we’re approaching Azumanga from scratch. So that means brand new translations, new lettering – the works. Since I’ve never actually gotten to flip through the ADV omnibus, I can’t actually say how it’s going to compare. I can tell you that as is our preference, we’re retaining the original color pages which will appear between the volume breaks in the collection. Azumanga is just a classic – something that should be on any collector’s shelves, and we’re just happy to be able to bring it back.
As for any other “rescues,” I really don’t want to give people the impression that we’re just sort of trolling the waters around the Island of Lost Licenses. I wouldn’t rule out that we’d consider it for the right property – we’ve obviously done it already with some success, but it’s definitely an uphill battle to try to breathe new life into a series that’s fallen by the wayside. I wouldn’t look for any imminent announcements from us on this front.
Matthew: I would like to touch on your mention of including the original color pages as a preference. The continued release of books with color pages is something from Yen Press that continues to impress me as it seems some other publishers have cut back on color pages over the last year or so, possibly to keep down production costs. Along those lines, your large format all color release (112 pages!) of The History of the West Wing is both beautiful and impressively priced at only $12.99. The question I do have is about later print runs and color pages. Will books with color pages have those pages reproduced in black and white in later printings past the first edition?
Kurt: We have had several reprints of books containing color pages at this point, and we currently have no plans to cut back in this area. We pride ourselves on reproducing material as faithfully as we can to the original releases, and I think this is one area where Yen Press really stands out in its commitment to quality.
Matthew: The integration of portable electronics in everyday life seems to be a lot further along in Japan than here in the U.S. This is especially true in Japanese readers ability to access electronic versions of manga. Some of Japan’s larger manga publishers already port manga to the Wii, Playstation 3, Nintendo DS and cellphone networks. Obviously, a few American manga publishers have attempted to port some titles to electronic devices such as the Sony eReader, Kindle, and even the iPhone. Could you share your thoughts on this distribution method and where Yen Press may be in relation to this technology?
Kurt: Digital delivery is definitely something that is on our radar, and we are actively exploring our options. I know a lot of people have the perception that somehow these technologies are lost on publishers who just aren’t keeping up with what’s going on around them because they’re up to their necks in paper, but that just isn’t the case. On the surface, it seems like the simplest thing in the world to just slap some pdf files on a website, but the reality is that are a lot of serious hurdles that publishers have to confront to move into these areas. Luckily, our parent company, Hachette, has the best digital team in the business, and we’re working with them to get our strategy in place so that when we do move we can be confident that all of our bases are covered and that we’re doing it right.
Matthew: With your upcoming December release of the Spice and Wolf light novel, Yen Press decided to go with a more American fantasy style cover. A smart decision from a publishers viewpoint. Could you share how that idea came about and if you plan to continue this method with future light novel releases.
Kurt: Ah, the Spice and Wolf cover. It’s a dilemma worthy of Kraft Lawrence himself. So in the spirit of Spice and Wolf, allow me to address the question as a simple merchant of books…
The market for light novels now is poor. Rock bottom, actually. Though I have dedicated and valued customers in that market, the market itself simply isn’t sufficient to support a trade in this commodity. However, there is a very vibrant market for fantasy novels – and the product I have to sell is, if packaged differently, a fantasy novel. Knowing my valued customers can just as easily buy a fantasy as a light novel, do I stick to the light novel market where business for what’s in my cart is unsustainable, or do I take my wares to the fantasy market and hope that the customers with whom I’ve cultivated a relationship follow? In simple business terms, there’s only one solution.
Sorry, the opportunity to tie the issue back to the novel itself was too tempting to resist… It really does summarize, though, why we went this route. This strategy represents our best opportunity to make the books successful, and if it works, we get to keep supporting these books that really do deserve all of the affection that fans have for them.
Matthew: Instead of fans picking up the Spice and Wolf slip-cover with the original art in the December release of Yen Plus, any chance of selling future copies with the American style as the slip cover and the original art underneath?
Kurt: It’s something that’s been suggested to us several times since the new cover was released, and it’s a good idea. Best way to make it happen? Go out and support the first book. The more successful it is, the more ammunition we have to advocate giving back to the fans who helped make it a success.
Matthew: Any thoughts of omnibus releases down the line for your longer running series?
Kurt: We are looking at omnibus editions. They make a lot of sense and are something several key retailers have been asking for. Rather than focus our attention on what’s already in the market, though, as several of our competitors have, we’re looking ahead at the list to see what makes sense in terms of an omnibus approach from the get go. Azumanga aside, you can expect to see both Darker Than Black and RomeoxJuliet (which were both complete in two volumes in Japan) released in single volume omnibus editions. No waiting for the second volume to come out! They’re going to be slightly oversized in the same trim size as Nightschool and a lot of our Korean titles to showcase the art a bit better, and at an $18.99 price point we think it will be a great value. I really hope that fans like the format.
Matthew: Making an omnibus edition for a two volume series, with a larger format, and for less than two separate volumes; all sounds like an awesome idea to me. Well that's it for me. I just want to thank you for taking time to speak with me and give us a little more insight to Yen Press.
You can see what Yen Press has to offer at their site, www.yenpress.com