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Interview: Kurt Hassler

by Christopher Macdonald,

Kurt Hassler, a former buyer for Borders and also one of the founders of Yen Press, sits down to answer questions about his experience in the publishing industry, and also the health of the manga industry. He and DC Comics vice president Rich Johnson founded Yen Press in 2006, which serves as the manga and graphic novel publishing imprint of Hachette Book Group. They have an extensive catalogue of manga and manwha titles, as well as light novels, original series, and international properties.

Were you in the book trade before you started at Borders?

Yes, pretty much. Even right after high school, I started working at Doubleday booksellers. There used to be a Doubleday on 5th, right across from Trump Tower, and I worked there for quite a while and then went back to school. I worked at an independent bookstore, then was sort of an on-again-off-again librarian at the school university, went back to the bookstore, took over the buying staff, and then ultimately ended up going up to Borders from there.

When you were at Borders, you were the buyer in charge of manga, although I'm sure that wasn't your actual title.

Actually, I started out as the assistant regional buyer. I bought for the eastern half of the U.S. and at the time, not long before I took over that job, I was buying exclusively for Walden Books. Graphic novels at the Walden Books chain were handled by the newsstand buyers, the magazine buyers, and then that was transferred over to the book staff. One of the other buyers took it over, but he left the company. My boss, who was the regional buyer (I was his assistant), took over graphic novels, and let me manage the graphic novels as the assistant buyer. I did that for about a year and that's when we first starting testing out manga. Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball were some of the first ones that got put into the store. I moved out of there briefly, just a couple of months, but then the buyer I had worked for left the company. When they promoted me, I originally took over self-help and relationships, and I got graphic novels with that. So, it was interesting, especially since I went from buying relationship books to graphic novels. People always assumed, “Oh, graphic novels.”

Not too long after that, I also started buying science fiction and fantasy for Walden Books, and this is when we were really trying to drive in serious growth in the graphic novel and manga categories. At some point, it just grew to be so large that I went and said, “I would like to do this for both sides of the company,” and that pretty much became my sole focus as a buyer. I was buying graphic novels, manga and role playing games, and that was more than enough to keep me busy.

Was your intro into manga through your job as a buyer, or outside of that?

Outside of that. Actually, when I was working at Doubleday in Manhattan, I first got introduced to anime when they were showing Akira down in the Village. That really got me into it, and that's when I started aggressively following manga. There wasn't much available at the time, but I ate up all the Rumiko Takahashi stuff and anything I could get my hands on. I sort of stayed a fan from then on, and when I had the opportunity to start actually putting material into a book store, that was really gratifying. Obviously, that took off. It worked out really well.

Sounds like you probably have a set of bookshelves that look like mine.

When I moved here, I was crushed by the amount of stuff I had to give away to move from my house to an apartment in Brooklyn. Even still, my entire place is covered with books and manga. It was heart-wrenching, because you can't keep everything. I basically got every book that was published over a number of years.

You were at Borders, and then you moved on to Yen Press. How did Yen Press come into being, and were you involved in its creation?

Yeah, it was something that Rich and I put together. We saw what we felt was an opportunity in the market, and we really felt like we could see the direction that companies were going in. We felt like, at the time, there was still a good opportunity for a new publisher to come in and be able to make some serious headway into the category. I knew all the publishers in Japan pretty well at the time, so we approached Hachette and they were eager to get into the graphic novel category, given that it was seeing such huge growth. It was sort of a perfect marriage, and things moved from there.

You say that there was still opportunity for growth. How do you think that changed between when you first started planning it, and when it came to be?

It didn't really change. I mean, you pretty much still had the same players in the market. We felt like Japanese publishers would react well to having a new alternative when it came to finding someone they could trust to handle their properties. For us, that's proven to be the case. I think we really won over a lot of supporters in Japan.

What year was Yen Press founded?

We were established in November 2006, and we published our first book in September 2007. So for all intents and purposes, that had been our full first year in operation, in terms of being an active publisher in the market.

Let's talk about Haruhi. There's an interesting story there that lots of people don't know. How did you get that license?

Well, obviously it was something everybody wanted to be a part of. For us, we approached the property very much as a whole. Being aware of the light novel market in the U.S. and the challenges that it has seen, as well as the attempts that other publishers have made, we really looked to our sister company, Little Brown. We already had some success as a manga publisher, so everybody knew we could handle that piece of it. Because the novels are the source material, though, obviously that was the main focus of the Japanese licensors. We really approached it in terms of a joint venture between Yen Press and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers saying, “Look, we have the expertise in this arena. We also have one of the most successful children's publishing divisions in the market, and demographically, if you're looking at who this is going to appeal to, this is very much a book for young readers. This is our corporate area of expertise and we can leverage our expertise in each portion of this. It's going to be better for the license as a whole.” Ultimately, that was a very compelling argument for Kadokawa.

Do you think if it hadn't been for the relationship between Little Brown and Yen Press that Yen Press could have gotten the license?

I think we probably could have. I think we still would have been competitive in terms of our approach. I think at the end of the day, that was one of the things that put us over the top. You have to use all of the resources available at your disposal.

Are you personally involved with the publishing of the light novels?

Absolutely. Everything from the cover designs to the translation. I have a hand in the whole thing.

Between the manga and the light novels, which one do you expect to sell more, by what kind of ratios?

Ratios are hard to say. I expect the novel is going to outsell the manga, which is aggressive since the manga has already been a best seller in the market. It's been hugely successful even in a year when everyone is sort of trembling. I do expect that the novels are going to do better than the manga. Ultimately, the goal is to drive fans between the two mediums. In the novel, there is an excerpt of the manga; in the first volume of the manga, there is an excerpt of the novel.

Are you doing any co-promotion with Bandai Entertainment?

We have talked to Bandai. We're just sort of looking at what the best areas are. Since Bandai already has their material in the market, it's a little tougher, but they've provided us with some material for the web. We're preparing to launch a website that will count down to the book release. We definitely want to work with them. It's just that when something's already fully in existence in the market, it makes that co-promotion a little more difficult, but we always like to work with the other vendors as much as we can.

What are your thoughts on the numbers presented this weekend at the ICv2 graphic novel conference? It all depends on how you look at it. Overall, graphic novels were up in terms of dollars, though in terms of units, graphic novels were down. Everything is in how you dissect the numbers and how you're approaching that. I heard reports this weekend that the fourth quarter was bad. But let's use Naruto as an example. In the fourth quarter of 2007, Viz released twelve volumes of Naruto. Take those twelve volumes, cut it down to the two they released in the fourth quarter of 2008, and that's a significant gap in sales. It would be like saying, “children's publishing is down,” and not taking into account that there was a Harry Potter the previous year. Those numbers were significant particularly for the fourth quarter.

Also, in fourth quarter, you have to bear in mind that the economy tanked for everyone. Find me anyone who did well in the fourth quarter. It's going to be a tough search. Manga was down, but I think you have to look at some of the overall trends driving these numbers to get a solid understanding of what it is. I think that a lot of retailers are struggling to deal with the amount of material being put into the market, trying to differentiate what the best series are. I think there has been an overall trend where people aren't really picking and choosing which properties they are going to support. I get the feeling that people have been more inclined to treat everything the same way, and see what rises to the top. Diluting the focus like that has definitely had an effect on the numbers. One of the things I hope to see in the next year is people getting aggressive about the series that they think are going to take off.

How's the current market going to affect Yen Press's licensing choices?

We've been an evolving business ever since the first day we entered the market. A lot of what we did initially was introducing ourselves to licensors. As a new company, people aren't going to be inclined to give you their “A” properties. You have to prove to them that you can approach the material well and handle it well on their behalf. We proved that, so now we have earned a position where we can be somewhat more selective about what we license, and that's something we plan on doing. We're always looking for the best material we can get. In the long term, we have to be more selective about what we license. Every publisher has to be more selective in what they license, or you continue to inundate the market and the buyers with too much material. I definitely think that you are going to see publishers putting out less material. It's nothing immediate. Everything we have in the pipeline is still solidly in the pipeline. We will support everything we have licensed. We had a great deal of confidence in them since day one, or we wouldn't have licensed them. But there does come a point where, aside from having to be more selective about licenses, you have to make sure you're giving every property the right attention. With less on your list, you can devote that much more attention to whatever else there is.

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