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Interview with Vertical

Out of mainstream books find the perfect home

By Matthew Alexander     September 22, 2009


Cute Dogs
© Vertical

Vertical has been one of the more interesting publishers to show up in the last several years when it comes to manga as they've chosen some of the more offbeat and non-mainstream titles that fans should be hearing about. Whether it's tackling Black Jack or talking about the best way for otaku to diet, whenever a new Vertical book comes out, it's worth taking the extra time to really look at it. Matthew Alexander sat down with Vertical's marketing manager Ed Chavez recently to talk about the company and the market:

Matthew Alexander: Vertical has an eclectic group of fiction and nonfiction titles compared to most other manga publishers in the U.S., can you tell us a little about the various genres you publish?

Ed Chavez: At our core we really are a genre fiction publisher.  I am not sure why there has been a misconception as to Vertical being a "literature publisher" or a "boutique manga publisher" when out of our more than 100 books the majority of titles come from the world of popular fiction - sci-fi, hard-boiled mystery, thrillers, dark comedy, and historical fiction.  Sure we have our lit fic, Beat Takeshi's collection of short stories BOY is an example, but what we tend to release is just the broadest sample of the best Japanese fiction has to offer.  Many of our books are award winners and best-sellers in Japan.  So we make sure they are as accessible as they are well-crafted.

Matthew: Vertical has published some of the long-running Guin Saga novels and graphic novels, could you break down that series for us?  How many volumes of each type are there and does Vertical have plans to publish all of them?
 
Ed: Woah...I don't think I can do a series like this justice in a short interview.

To start the Guin Saga is the life's work of one of fiction's most prolific authors, Kaoru Kurimoto.  130 volumes of classic fantasy story-telling not only inspired many light novelists in the years after its debut, it also inspired many of the fantasy manga and anime we love today.  The series started back in 1979 and along the way Kurimoto penned 130 volumes of the original Guin Saga, with 21 gaiden (alternative universe) stories, two manga series, a PC game, a couple short story collections and two musicals.

Vertical has published the first arc--"the Marches Episode"--which consists of the first five volumes of the original series. Last year when Vertical relaunched the line in paperback form we also released a manga series based on the first volume of the Guin Saga Gaiden - The Seven Magi. The worlds of the Gaiden and the original Saga differ slightly. The Gaiden world is full of magic and mythos, whereas the original story is more buried in drama and action featuring monsters, ghouls and warriors.

As much as we would love to release the entire Guin Saga, I have to believe that was never an option.  The intention was to bring Guin to the western world and the first arc does that. If sales were a little stronger we might do another arc.  The Japanese release of the Guin Saga anime and inquiries for a possible Guin movie have possibly helped sales over the summer but not enough to justify taking on another handful of volumes. 

We have spoken with the Kurimoto estate since she passed away and we still have their blessings to continue to work with the property in English, so who knows if a North American cable or DVD release of Guin is ever announced or if that movie option gets picked up maybe we will get to see Guin finally take the twins home someday.  However even if Guin became a mild hit, unless it begins to see extremely strong sales (think about BLEACH numbers) I don't think a series in the triple digits is at all possible for a publisher like Vertical (or any small publisher for that matter).

Matthew: Aside from the Guin Saga manga from Kazuaki Yanagisawa, you guys have mostly released manga from Keiko Takemiya and Osamu Tezuka.  Are there plans to branch out to other mangaka and if so can you tell us who?

Ed: Ahh this question kinda ties into my role at Vertical. Outside of my duties as the Marketing Director I am also our manga licensing monkey.  So essentially because of my experience in the field, having worked with in the US and Japan, I was hired to help with the planned development of Vertical's manga catalog.

While self-imposed no-disclosure agreements prevent me from sharing who we will be publishing or what in 2010, we will be releasing primarially contemporary seinen manga starting in July 2010.

Our first new author has been published in the US previously and has been nominated for awards here before.  It was a pleasure seeing his work develop while I was in Japan last year, so I am extremely excited to see him return to the US market with a title that will definitely inspire conversation from fans.

We are also looking into the debut work from an up-coming artist.  It's a sci-fi title heavily inspired by the works from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, particularly works published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine.  And we also have another sci-fi title that I feel will appeal to shoujo fans as much as seinen fans.

At the same time we are still looking into more classic titles. Ideally I would like to release another Tezuka omnibus next year, but we need to figure out which one.  And we have been approached by a publisher about some more classic shoujo.  

Matthew: Vertical is in the unique position of publishing translated Japanese books that find their home outside of the mainstream mall-housed bookstore here in the U.S.  Because of this, do you think Vertical has been somewhat insulated to the current downturn in the economy when compared to the other manga publishers pushing pre-teen and teenage titles and relying heavily on the brick and mortar stores?

Ed: HAH!!  Well that might be true...But honestly, like our competitors, financially we do have to rely on stores like Barnes & Nobles, Borders and Books-a-Million to survive.  Obviously, they are not are only vendors.  Our distributor Random House sells books to online shops (like Amazon), wholesalers, mass market retailers and specialty stores to help our specialized catalog get out to the broadest marketplace possible.

That said, while the industry as a whole has felt a pinch since the economic downturn, Vertical actually experienced growth in sales revenue.  And while we were hit hard in certain categories, our range and flexibility helped us see tremendous growth in specific market sectors in 2008-2009.

Ultimately as a company we want to keep losses to a minimum, so we have changed the way we work as a company.  We are just as lean as ever, but now we are meaner with our license selection.  We are also smarter about which markets we target and what our expectations are for each sector.  Still we will not change who we are.  Vertical will continue to publish exciting relevant titles, whether they are cookbooks from Iron Chefs or diet memoirs from the founder of GAINAX.  Just don't expect us to risk our financial health on one or two books.  So whenever I ask for recommendations, please don't bring up a 20 or 30 volume series, I personally will not commit to something like that right now.

Matthew: Are there any new Vertical books still on tap for 2009?

Ed: The rest of 2009 will see a few new titles.  While most of the catalog will be new volumes from continuing series--Black Jack 7 and 8 and Easy Japanese Cooking: Veggie Haven and Appetizer Rex--we will debut a couple new licenses.  First off is Walking Your Way to a Better Life a memoir from KIMIKO the inventor of the Posture Walking craze.  Last week we released Chie Hayano's chibi-kawaii (petite-cute) craft book Cute Dogs: Craft Your Own Pooches (a follow-up Cute Pups: Canine Friends and Accessories will be released in November).  In October, we will continue our Vertical Cooks line with Kumiko Ibaraki's the Worry-Free Bakery, a collection of low-fat dessert recipes that never skimp on taste or texture.  We will also unleash the Sudoku Plus series, the latest line of number placement puzzle games from Japan's puzzle master supreme Tetsuya Nishio, in mid-October.  

Matthew: Where does Vertical expect to find itself in 2010?  Publishing the same ratio of novels and manga, or perhaps more of one or the other?

Ed: 2010 will see a slight change in Vertical's releasing patterns.  After a year where production was down, we expect to eventually release three books a month, with the following pattern in mind --one manga, one prose release and one craft or puzzle book.  Eventually the ratio will balance itself out like this - 40% prose, 40% manga and 20% other (crafts, cooking, or puzzle).

Tezuka's Black Jack will play a major role in 2010 as six volumes will be released.  The spring will be a little prose heavy as we will be releasing Season of Infidelity and Shall We Sumo? (by the director of Shall We Dance).  We will then follow that up with a new non-fiction title--Nintendo Magic: How the Video Game Wars Were Won.  Nintendo Magic is a rare look at the world and philosophy of Nintendo over the last ten years, from their near death knell with the 64 and GameCube to their recent reinvention of the concept of "gaming", which lead to their current market dominance with the Wii and DSi.  Over the last thirty years or so only a handful of books have been written about the Big N, so this book should offer some needed insight to a company that has significantly influenced pop culture worldwide over the last few decades.

Matthew: Ed, I know you and I have spent a lot of time at cons talking to publishers, translators, and artists.  Now that you are on the other side, what do you enjoy about working the publishers booth?

Ed: Hmm... Tough question.  I honestly don't know how to answer this.  As an individual, I am pretty shy, but when it comes to manning the booth I can pimp books all day.  Now that doesn't mean I'll sell many books, but I try to hustle as best as I can.  Knowing the concrete facts about the industry and market place, without having to rely on second-hand info is great.  That has opened my eyes to many of the difficulties that surround this business.  And meeting with our die-hard fans has been an eye-opening experience.  Vertical isn't a major player, but does have some street cred.  In these few months I have realized that our fans are pretty devoted and for the most part quite knowledgeable, so it has been great learning from them, as well.

Matthew: Any more 2009 conventions that fans can find Vertical attending?

Ed: We will be at the New York Anime Fest later this month.  One of my former interns is taking care of some stuff for me at Anime Weekend Atlanta.  I will be attending the Alternative Press Expo in October.  And we will also be participating in or attending a few Tezuka related events in New York and DC in October and November.

The best place to keep tabs on us is by going to either our website vertical-inc.com or by following me either on facebook or twitter.  I am always doing something on the interwebs.

We also host a book club at Kinokuniya NYC every month.  I usually cover manga demographics, but we have discussed light novels and specific genres before.  I'm trying to find out how to expand that project, as I have received requests to host our Vertical Vednesday events outside of the New York area.  Maybe a webcast would be the best way to approach that...

Matthew: A webcast isn’t a bad idea in this day and age.  Continuing on, what do you enjoy most about working at Vertical?

Ed: Oh, I'd have to say the license hunting.  Look, this has not been the easiest part of my job.  Licensing is almost impossible now with so many partnerships (Viz with Shogakukan and Shueisha; Kodansha with Del Rey and Kodansha USA; TokyoPop and MagGarden; Yen and SquareEnix; and everyone else fighting for comics from only a handful of license holders like Kadokawa Holdings (Kadokawa, Fujimi, enterbrain!, and MediaWorks), Akita Shoten and Hakusensha) locking down so much content to a few pubs.  Then again, we are not your standard manga publisher.  As we have discussed, we are not a manga publisher either.  Vertical is a publisher that happens to publish manga and manga just happens to be a key part to our future as a business.  So we can take risks where other publishers cannot.

I have been scouring the magazines from under-represented publishers for months now.  Some of the Japanese pubs I have looked at have never been published in the US before.  And the artists we are looking at are pretty much what you would expect from a source like Vertical--entertaining, well crafted, and often innovative.  And like our novels you might not know the names behind these titles, but you will eventually.

On the flip-side, I have not ignored the big name pubs or artists either.  The hard part about dealing with them given the circumstances is convincing every party involved--publisher, author, and our investors--that we are the right company for the job.  It's hard work but I believe we will snag a major property in the coming year.  Luckily we have some decent street cred in Japan and I have some connections, so with enough legwork we should build up a decent catalog.

So yeah, basically I spend a third of the time hunting down books and reading manga.  But what really kicks about the job is being able to critique the books with the staff.  As you know it is always fun to analyze works for the public, but doing so privately with others who are just as into the medium cannot be beat.  Breaking down comics and light novels with the crew is worth all the stress that comes with marketing.

Matthew: I’m putting you on the spot here, name your favorite Vertical manga and nonfiction title
 
Ed: Non-fiction?  I guess that would be Sayonara, Mr. Fatty.  Now mind you I am not really overweight.  While I need to work some on my love handles, I am just about the average weight for my body type.  However, I took Toshio Okada's (the founder of GAINAX) advice about self-reflection and analytical control of consumption and applied it to other parts of my life.  Specifically I used it to control my spending habits and I have to say the idea works.  Okada takes a very nerdy approach to dieting comparing other programs, finding out what works and how much effort is needed to succeed.  And like only the OtaKing can do he presented the whole thing with humility and humor, making it accessible to anyone looking to learn more about life-style management.

Manga is a tough one.  While it is easy to critique Tezuka and Takemiya, I find it almost impossible to dislike any of their works.  Black Jack is shounen but the anti-shounen, and what amazes me about the property is how Tezuka was consistently able to find new ideas that are so timeless and universal.  Black Jack reads as if it could have been first published a few years ago. As the characters in 999 leave a mechanized Earth, the characters in To Terra want to take it back and Takemiya takes some of the sci-fi from the 70's and repackaged it for an 80's and 90's readership making modern day sci-fi manga look inadequate with their overuse of mecha and comedy.  And even though Dororo starts off like another wandering samurai story, Tezuka eventually uses the setting to reveal his takes on Japanese mythology.  Rendering obake and kaijuu, like the legendary seven-tailed fox, with such tremendous detail I was literally blown away by Tezuka's imagery.  And come on, who doesn't love Buddha.  I became a lifelong Vertical fan because of that series.

But my nod goes to Apollo's Song.  Love, romance, and sex are topics you, Matt, know I have always loved to explore through manga.  Apollo is all of that and none of that; dissecting the idea of sex to an almost metaphysical extreme visually, while reminding readers that sex is only a means to DNA replication without love.  Tezuka is almost cruel to his readers and his lead character as he subjects both to a Phoenix-like eternity of romances gone bad.  But ultimately wraps up his opus by reminding readers that many of us cannot live without love.  Tezuka didn't have to tell me, but I feel there are plenty of people out there, particularly otaku, who could learn a thing or two from that comic.

Matthew: Well I’m definitely going to have to branch out my personal list of Vertical titles after those summaries.  I just want to thank you for your time and giving us a better insight to Vertical, its inner-workings, and the company’s near future outlook.

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