Kurt Hassler - Page 2

by Christopher Macdonald, Jul 20th 2009

Let's talk about 2006 and 2007. 2006 was the year we saw the most manga releases. As a buyer for the big chain bookstores at the time, as well as someone who is even more involved in the industry now, looking back do you think it was too much?

At the time when I was buying in 2006 I honestly didn't think it was too much because as a buyer my role was to get the best possible titles on the shelves and usually that means you're the “bad guy”. The buyer is a very thankless role and I don't think that people entirely understand that, but I very much took the position as the buyer that my role was to play the bad guy and talk to publishers very frankly about what books I thought I could support and which books I didn't feel like I could support. And I was very clear. “I will be incredibly aggressive on this property, and with this other property you can expect me not to represent it on the shelves” and I had to say that because knowing the consumer base that was coming into those stores and what they were purchasing, that was my function. To make the category as lean and as profitable as possible and to make sure the customers coming in felt like we had the best selection. Part of having the best selection is making sure you're giving enough attention to the really good titles. So yes, there was a lot of material in 2006, but my role as a buyer was to find the best of the best and make sure that was what was getting onto the shelves, and I think that we did a very good job accomplishing that. A better scenario though is if the publishers do that filtering on their own; they really shouldn't look to the buyer to tell them that this is not a book you should be publishing. The publisher should be saying, “this is not a book we should be publishing right now” or if they are going to publish it they should have a marketing plan in place to reach out to the consumer who's going to pick it up, and be able to go to the buyer and the retailers and say “look this is what we are doing. This is how we are going to get this in front of the consumers. You can help support us in that way.” That's the ideal. I think that this is still a very young business in a lot of ways in that it hasn't matured. I think that there's still a ways for it to go in terms of maturing even further and performing more like you see traditional publishing models.

What kind of changes do you expect to see in the manga market and in the consumer over the next 5 years?

I think what you are going to see is a lot more known properties in the U.S. being developed as manga. We're doing it now with Maximum Ride, and Cirque du Freak, which we licensed from Shogakukan. That's a British property but they developed it into a very successful manga there. It's a known entity that we're going to publish later this year. It's a natural progression, because that's what you see in Japan. It's no different than Haruhi. Haruhi started as a novel that was successful enough that it spawned a manga and I think that you're going to continue to see a lot more of that in the U.S. market. And if you look at how some of those books have performed, they tend to perform near the top of the list. I think that the top two last year in terms of new properties were the Dean Koonz and the Terry (Gross) books. They have existing fan bases so it only makes sense that they're going to drawn in people. That's a good thing for manga because it'll draw in people who aren't fanatic otaku, and it's introducing them to a new format that they can enjoy and everyone should embrace that because it's only good to see the readership grow. Somebody comes in for Maximum Ride because they are a huge James Patterson fan and then they discover these Japanese properties. It's good for the business as a whole. I think that's going to be the biggest trend over the next five years. It's going to become much more ubiquitous. I do think publishers are going to have to be more selective in what they license and what they publish. I think you're going to see the publishers become, in some ways, more business-like. I think they're going to evolve to the point of being more like traditional publishers which right now they are very much not. It is a very new business and you can see that in the way that things are approached. I think the overall numbers are going to see growth in the next five years and that the category has a lot of room to grow. Right now we are maybe 1/20th the size of the Japanese market and looking at our overall population that's a huge, huge potential growth over time. I think that the business long-term is very healthy, and it's going to become a more competitive market even than it is now. I think it is going to be taxing on some of the smaller publishers to eke out an existence when you have more resources being thrown into your competition. But long term I would expect in five years that you're going to see a bigger graphic novel and manga category in the mainstream bookstores and ultimately a healthier one.

How do you see the consumer changing in the next five years?

I think that the consumer base is going to grow. One of the things you hear less and less these days is “oh that's not manga. It didn't come from Japan so that's not manga” and over time I think you'll continue to hear less of that. I think you're going to have new readers coming in who may not be as familiar with some of the Japanese material because they are gravitating toward some of the licenses that they know. At the end of the day it's all otaku culture. I don't think that the fundamental consumer mentality is necessarily going to change. The big question mark in all of it is how much does the Internet effect what we are doing? If you look at other areas of publishing it is certainly slower to change than things like anime or the music industry. Print is still print and it's hard to replicate. I think you'll see, in terms of online initiatives from publishers, I think you'll see real strategies evolve in that arena in a way that they are not out there now.

Where do you see Korea's market going on in the next couple of years?

In a lot of ways I don't like to call it “infrastructure,” but Korea doesn't have as much “infrastructure” for exporting their material as Japan does. Although Korea is doing a lot of the animation for Japan you don't actually see a lot of animation for Korean material and in terms of reaching out to a consumer that's a huge deal for that industry. There's some really exciting stuff coming out of Korea; I had mentioned this in the panel earlier today but one of my first trips to Japan when we were starting Yen Press involved an executive at Shueisha who was kind enough to show me the JUMP offices; I actually got an early issue of JUMP that wasn't on the stands yet. We were at dinner and he'd been asking me a lot of questions about the American market and he told me to feel free to ask him, as I am starting up this new business, if I wanted any advice or anything. So I said “since you offered, looking at the position I'm in, if you could give me one piece of advice, what's the number one thing I should be focused on in terms of developing this business?” He said “you absolutely have to have a great editor. To have a successful list, having a great editor is number one on the agenda,” and then he threw in at the end, “and I would look in the Korean market for that.” He was really impressed with how vibrant and exciting the Korean market had become and you could see it. You see Japanese publishers having more and more Korean artists for their projects. There are a lot more Korean artists being serialized in Japan than there ever were and one of the first books we published was Black God which is a Korean team. So I think Korea has a lot of room for growth but they also have some challenges that the Japanese don't. The material is every bit as good as the Japanese. There are some things that they do incredibly well. The Japanese love Korea, after all. They have Korean dramas on television. It's great to have those connections. It's great to have an editor leading the imprint from that perspective who comes from that market and has real hands on experience working with the talent. At conventions we do these portfolio reviews and the artists who sit down with JuYoun (JuYoun Lee, Senior Editor at Yen Press) are blown away by the kinds of feedback they get from her, and the things she's pointing out, they have never heard before. This is something who has trained working with artists in a market that was basically trained by Japan.


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