Interview with Kurt Hassler of Yen Press

Yen Press opened their doors just three years ago. Despite being the fairly new kid on the block in manga publishing, their connection to Hachette Book Group insured they weren’t going in blind to book publishing. They have recently stepped into the lime light with their connection to Square-Enix in Japan as well as their license of the Haruhi manga and co-license of the novels. Yen Press has taken on many titles and genres not widely known or represented in the U.S. market and they continue to make strides.

Kurt Hassler was a well-known name even before he became together with former DC VP Rich Johnson and the Hachette Book Group to form Yen Press. He really made a name for himself in the manga community while being the graphic novel buyer at Borders bookstores. He was good enough at his jobs that ICV2 named him The Most Powerful Person in Manga. He has also been a long time aficionado of both American and Japanese comics so he has a great perspective on the manga industry and publishing in general. So who better to ask about Yen Press than one of the most connected men in company and perhaps even the industry?

Reverse Thieves: You are the Publishing Director so what exactly does that mean? And what is your job like on a daily basis?

Kurt Hassler: As the Publishing Director of Yen Press, I’m basically responsible for the direction of our imprint. I make the decisions about what titles to publish and the best strategies to release them into the market. I also directly oversee Yen’s editorial staff, have a hand in the marketing and publicity related to our titles, and work directly in acquisitions and maintaining relationships with our various publishing partners. So I kind of get to have my hands in a bit of everything, which is fun!

RT: What manga that Yen Press is publishing is your personal favorite?

KH: Hmmmm, that’s a tough call. There are so many titles we’re working on now that I have trouble choosing! I would have to say that the one I most look forward to reading when it crosses my desk for an editorial pass is Soul Eater but then of course I feel guilty about all the other titles that I didn’t pick. . . . It’s like choosing your favorite child!

RT: You originally did a lot of work for American comics, do you still read them? If so, what are you reading now?

KH: I was very much involved with American comics during my stint at Borders and have been a fan ever since I was a kid. Obviously it was something I was introduced to much earlier than manga as so little was available when I first got into comics. I definitely still make my weekly trek to the comics shop. . .which I’m always so happy is right across the street from our offices (*shout out to Midtown Comics on Lex and 45th in Manhattan*). Walking Dead from Image has to be at the top of my list these days in terms of what I’m reading from American comics publishers. I’m also very fond of Kirkman’s Invincible.

RT: How is selling and marketing manga different from comics?

There are a lot of similarities in terms of fan mentality, but the key differences are mainly demographics and destination. American comics have been a fixture in the market for decades, and what is commonly referred to as the “direct market” (comic shops) really evolved to cater to the fans of American comics, which for the most part are directed toward a very specific male demographic. Manga, however, tends to be more broad reaching in terms of its demographic appeal because it is so widely accepted and a part of the mainstream in Japan. The bookstore market was really the first sort of mainstream adopter of manga—although there were obviously many, many independent comics shops who were there from the beginning and do a great job with manga (The Beguiling comes to mind)—and because mainstream bookstores tend to have a more diverse clientele than the average comic shop, it was easier to find consumers for the more shojo sort of properties.

So a lot of the selling of manga is directed at the bookstore market. A lot of the marketing of manga is done through the bookstore channel and outreach tends to be directed to the “manga” community and where they congregate. Currently, there still tends to be very little overlap between the American comics and manga readers. . . which is really a shame because both have so many great properties to offer.

RT: The U.S. manga industry has really grown in the past few years, what does Yen Press bring to the manga market? What makes you guys unique?

KH: Yen Press brings to the table both expertise in the category and passion for the material. We consider ourselves “fan advocates” in a lot of ways because we know what fans are looking for, and we’ve always been committed to living up to fan expectations of how the material is presented. And because everyone at Yen is a fan, we really strive to put forward material of the highest quality when it comes to translation, reproduction and respect for the original material.

Add to that our association with Hachette Book Group, one of the largest and most respected publishers—not just in the country but the world—and we’re very well positioned to be a major force in this market. I think that our track record with respect to some of the properties we’ve already acquired speaks to that.

RT: Was Yen Press always planning to enter the light novel market or was it only after the acquisition of the Haruhi novels became a possibility?

KH: Light novels are always something we’ve been keenly aware of, and we did have plans to test the waters before the acquisition of Haruhi. Actually, Haruhi wasn’t the first light novel we acquired. The first was the source material for the manga property that we published last year, KIELI. The first Kieli novel will publish this June, and it is absolutely a great, great read. It isn’t something you have to be a Japanophile to enjoy, and we really hope that it finds its audience.

RT: How does licensing manhwa differ from licensing manga?

KH: For the most part, the process is quite similar. You’re really just dealing with different markets, but the actual licensing process is much the same.

RT: What is a title that isn’t getting a lot of notice but you feel is particularly strong?

KH: Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro has gotten a lot of nods critically, but that’s one I would love to see reach a wider audience. It is a unique and utterly endearing title, and I can not recommend it more highly.

RT: How has licensing mature titles worked out so far? What, if any, are the major concerns when deciding on these titles?

KH: We really don’t set out with the intention of “okay, we’re going to license mature titles today. . .” Every title is acquired based on its own merits. Now certainly our book Sundome has found a voracious fan-base, and that’s very gratifying. But the book wasn’t licensed because of the “edgy” material. The story of the relationship between the key characters there is the compelling part of the book, and I think that’s what makes it so appealing.

Speaking more generally, there’s always some degree of concern when you license mature titles, but just to reiterate what I said earlier, we strongly felt there were audiences for the few mature titles we’ve released under our imprint so far, and we felt that the material justified having an advocate in this market.

RT: Do you feel there are any untapped manga markets in the U.S.? Are there any niches you feel are gaining momentum?

KH: I think the biggest issue facing manga publishers now is not in finding the untapped niches within the Japanese market that can find a small fan base in the U.S. but rather building a wider reading audience for manga in general in this market. While the growth of the category has been unprecedented, there are still a host of new readers who have yet to be introduced to the great material that is currently available, not just from Yen but from other publishers out there as well.

One area where the market is seeing significant growth is in adaptations of known licenses in the market here into comics or manga form. I am personally of the opinion that this is going to ultimately serve as one of the best possible bridges for opening readers to manga in general.

RT: What determined the way Yen Press translated sound effects since it varies from company to company.

KH: This was something that was discussed at great length before we began publishing our first titles. The idea of completely eliminating sound effects simply wasn’t an option for us. Too often, sound effects represent an integral portion of the art on a page, and that wasn’t something we were comfortable offering. At the same time, sound effects in Japan and Korea tend to be far more diverse that what you find in American comics, and we really felt that all too often the translations of sound effects were lacking. Too much of the original “tone” of the sound effects was lost in translation. Simply leaving the “untranslated” sound effects didn’t seem like an idea solution either, though, as often it would be confusing as to what sound was actually trying to be evoked and what that represented on the page. Ultimately, we made the decision to both transcribe and translate the sound effects to help give readers the richest experience with the material.

RT: We aren’t aware of any editing of titles, would Yen Press license a title that required editing?

KH: If you’re referring to censoring material, this is something that Yen has never done to date, and so long as it is a decision that is within our control, we have no plans to. We completely understand readers’ desire to experience the material as it was originally presented, and it is a sentiment we share. We are far more comfortable rating material appropriately than censoring the creators’ vision and voice.

RT: What strategies have worked best marketing/advertising wise?

KH: Honestly, that’s always a debatable topic. It’s very difficult to directly tie any marketing or advertising strategy to actual sales. However, in terms of feedback, Yen’s anthology magazine has unquestionably garnered the most attention, and we’re of the opinion that it has significantly raised the profile of the titles that have appeared there.

RT: Is there any reason Yen Press seems to be tapping the 4-panel comic market more than other companies?

KH: Tapping the yon koma market wasn’t a particular initiative or strategy for us. We simply fell in love with a lot of that material and felt that it was something readers here would appreciate as well.

RT: Have there been any decisions that were ill received by fans?

KH: There’s always something you do that someone doesn’t like. It’s absolutely unavoidable. It’s impossible to make everyone happy all the time. Ultimately, though, you make what you feel are the best decisions for your business—some of them may be decisions that the publisher doesn’t even WANT to make but are necessary for the health of the business, and you move on. The hope is that whatever decisions you make are informed by the desires of the fans, the necessities of the market, and the needs of your business. Sometimes the act of balancing those factors can be incredibly tricky. . . but at the end of the day we always hope that the fans know we are working in what we feel are in both their and our long-term best interests.

RT: In the earlier days of the industry, people would hire translators and then give their translation over to re-writers. Do you hire translators that are also re-writers now or do you still use two separate people?

KH: This is really a case-by-case decision. For the most part, we use translators who are re-writers, and our editorial staff tweaks where it is deemed appropriate and necessary. However, we do use some re-writers for certain projects.

RT: It has been about 6 months since the first issue of Yen Plus, has it lived up to the companies expectations?

KH: Yen Plus is always going to be an evolving concept where we strive not only exceed our expectations but to increase those expectations. As we’ve said often before, this is really a marketing tool—the goal of which is to raise the awareness of our licenses in a very crowded market. Has the magazine accomplished that? Absolutely! It has also raised our profile as a publisher far more than we ever anticipated. We’re never going to be content, though, to just say, “Oh, this is working great. Now lets bury our heads in the sand and not give it any more thought.” The goal is to constantly ask ourselves how can we make this better? How can we do more to expand our reach? How can we do more to raise awareness of the great titles in our catalog? We’re always looking for newer, better, more innovative strategies in everything we do, and Yen Plus is definitely at the forefront of those initiatives.

RT: What is the most popular title/least popular title in Yen Plus as far as you can tell?

KH: It would be difficult to generalize too much, but certainly Maximum Ride and Soul Eater seem to consistently top the charts. We’re constantly shocked by the feedback we receive when people are selecting their favorite titles. “Ah, they like Jack Frost and. . . One Fine Day. . . . Those two are quite different, actually. . .” Of course, that was the premise of the magazine in the first place. We didn’t want to assume that just because someone enjoys one shonen title that that’s ALL that interests them. The intent was to provide diversity and the opportunity to explore new things. Given that broad range of responses we get when people are checking off their favorites, I think it speaks a lot to just how well that strategy is working.

RT: What determines the release schedule for graphic novel versions of titles in Yen Plus? Some of the dates are very far off making it hard to catch up to a series in Yen Plus if you haven’t been reading from the beginning.

KH: Very good question. A number of factors go into the release schedules for the books. How long are the chapters? How long can we serialize while maintaining a consistent release schedule for the tankobon before the two begin to collide? (That one’s a major concern…)

For anyone who hasn’t been reading from the beginning, there are always short summaries of the story that’s come before to bring you up to speed quickly. If you’re absolutely DYING to read the previous chapters, I highly recommend going to your local comic shop which should very easily be able to order back issues through Diamond Comic Distribution for as long as stock is available. And of course the tankobon is the final, best solution to add the material permanently to your library!

RT: Has Yen Plus shown any signs of making manhwa more viable?

KH: Absolutely. I can’t think of a better vehicle we could have used to raise the awareness of our manhwa properties than to include them as peers alongside the manga. I know we’ve received a TON of feedback from fans who’ve said they never knew that there was so much high quality manhwa out there in the market—and there is!

RT: Yen Plus will be rotating series as it continues on, any upcoming titles you can talk about?

KH: Well, of course, we’ve already announced the newest title—Hero Tales—the first chapter of which debuts in the February issue which should be hitting newsstands in a couple of weeks. Any fans of Fullmetal Alchemist should be thrilled to get a peek at that one. Can’t say that I can talk about any new properties at just this moment. . . but we are discussing some licenses that will make a lot of people very happy, I think. . . .

RT: Would you considering putting some of your other already being released titles in Yen Plus? What about adding light novel chapters to the magazine?

KH: We’ve already done a couple of previews of existing series like Black God, and starting last month we decided we’d begin to feature chapters from Goong in the magazine for a bit just to shine a spotlight on that license because it is attention well deserved. Light novel chapters certainly have not been ruled out as a possibility at this point.

RT: How much does Square Enix suggest/have pull over the titles appearing in Yen Plus?

KH: Obviously we work very closely with Square Enix, and we take their suggestions very seriously as to what they would like to see featured in the anthology. We share a very productive dialogue. They’re always very candid about any concerns they have or issues they may face with respect to properties we may be interested in. They are a great company to work with, and we really value their input and support.

RT: One Fine Day is a rather unique work, how did you come to know about it?

KH: One Fine Day is funny and cute and ADOWABLE! It’s a title that Daiwon was kind enough to bring to our attention, and we felt that it would make for a great addition to Yen Plus in terms of diversity. One Fine Day is exactly the kind of book that we love to bring to people’s attention.

RT: Between Yen Press and Little Brown who was the head decision making body for the Haruhi novels? What was each of your roles in it’s production?

KH: Haruhi has very much been a joint venture between Yen and Little Brown every step of the way. I think that trying to differentiate the roles of each would be something like trying to separate conjoined twins, so I won’t even make the attempt!

RT: Nightschool is 100% original for the magazine, what are the challenges you’ve faced with this?

KH: Challenges? Try delights! (Are you reading this, Svet?) Seriously, though, Nightschool has been a pleasure from day one. It’s one of the first projects that Yen ever signed and was certainly the first original book that we acquired. Watching it make its debut in the anthology was a pleasure and an accomplishment on so many levels. . . *getting teary here*

You’d be far better asking Svet or her editor about the challenges on this one. They’re the ones pouring blood, sweat and tears into the project. I just get the pleasure of reading it before anybody else!

RT: Has publishing Maximum Ride produced the crossover appeal you were hoping for?

KH: Maximum Ride is an AMAZING property on so many levels, and we’ve been really gratified to see how many Max fans who were not previously manga readers have really embraced this vision of the work. We only just received our first look at the finished tankobon, and everyone has been absolutely stunned at how beautifully it came out. (Even our printer commented that of all the manga they have worked on that this one really raised the bar.) I think that in terms of crossover appeal, Maximum Ride is setting a new standard.

RT: Due to the recent economic crisis and its subsequent impact on the publishing industry, how has Yen Press adapted? And how has it affected future plans for the company?

KH: Obviously the overall economic situation is of great concern to everyone. In terms of how Yen Press is adapting, we’re definitely being more selective in terms of what titles we are adding to our list going forward, trying to make sure we are publishing the absolute best of the best and those titles that we feel of are particular interest to fans. We’re also taking a very hard look at what we feel should be our “ideal” number of releases per month so as not to put an undue burden on consumers in terms of their spending dollar.

*Interview conducted through e-mail

4 thoughts on “Interview with Kurt Hassler of Yen Press

  1. Vampt Vo says:

    Really great interview. Yen Press is an awesome company, so it’s nice to have a face put to their business practices. Those were some pretty interesting questions you guys asked as well.

  2. Shirachi says:

    Nice to know that they work closely with Square-Enix, maybe they’ll pick up Pandora Hearts since its previous licensor shut down.

    Great interview, very interesting read!

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