Interview with Ed Chavez of Vertical Inc.

There may be a million and one reasons to interview Ed Chavez. We’d go as far as to say he’s one of the leading experts in all aspects of manga in America. He has been a freelance translator for a variety of American manga companies. He does a decent amount of blogging and podcasting at The Mangacast. He has had the extremely enviable but demanding job as an assistant editor for Kodansha in Japan. He has probably met and talked with more manga-ka than normal manga fans could even name. He has nearly an encyclopedia of knowledge about the world of manga and the intricacies of manga theory as well. And finally, he is currently the head of marketing at Vertical Inc. As Vertical has recently announced that they were unveiling a whole new line of manga we thought it a perfect time to talk with Ed. Although Vertical has done several extremely well regarded Tezuka manga and other classics, they recently decided to expand their focus with their latest acquisitions. What emerged was an extremely diverse new selection of titles. We asked Ed about how he is settling into his job, his views on manga, the new titles, and Vertical’s plans for the future.

Reverse Thieves: Just tell us a bit about how you came to Vertical first.

Ed Chavez: Let’s see how long has it been? I officially started on May 1st so that’s 6, a little more than 6, months. But I was in the office as of April 20th of this year [2009]. Vertical as a company did not have a marketing department at the time. There was around a 4 to 6 week period where there was just nobody. Our sales director had also gone back to Japan around the same time. The company as a whole had started to shrink so much that they needed to hire more staff. According to my boss Yani [Mentzas], he was considering me for a little while. We did like an informal interview/dinner at this year’s [2009] New York Comic Con. He kind of scouted me out and tested my proficiency on a number of levels, personality-wise and language and things like that. Some of the things he was already familiar with because of my previous writing, and he knew I had done work at CMX and for other publishers, as well as my work for Kodansha. And so I filled a hole that we had with staff and it also allowed the company an opportunity to fulfill a promise they had been teasing with for a while and thats the expansion of their manga line. They have been discussing it, at least publicly for a year and half, two years, before I joined.

RT: So expanding the manga line wasn’t spontaneous.

EC: Oh, no, not at all. I think they would have done so sooner had they found a licensing partner. Which we still don’t have. And if the economy was a little better. In general we don’t release a lot of long series, Black Jack is an exception, but once you get towards the really popular titles, they tend to be a little longer. So licenses can cost a pretty penny and for a small publisher like us, it’s a little hard if we don’t have the money. And with the economy being what it was last year [2008] and the beginning of this year [2009], it kind of derailed things.

RT: With such a small staff, you seem to be a man of many hats at the company.

EC: This is actually my first marketing position. Right now, I take care of all sorts of things not just of marketing. Like the sales data kind of thing. Random House does our actual sales, they’re our distributor. I have a part in licensing, research and development, office management, publicity, advertising, that social networking thing that has to be done by somebody. I have to find an intern who wants to do that! [laughs] Not interns that know it exists, and do it on their own, but who want to do that for us. They can hang out on the computer all they want! Then I could focus on something else.

EC: I guess I should also say, I do a little bit of editing. I won’t give myself that hat right now. But I do go over everything we release except the cookbooks, oh and the craftbooks which are generally straightforward enough. But I do look over every translation and edit that my editorial staff does. You know, I’m there with a medical dictionary looking up training terms for Black Jack and stuff like that and other little details. I do this with the prose books we release as well. It’s just some additional quality control I guess. I do a little translation work also. That’s about it. Oh, there’s always events and the wrangling of authors when they come to town. It keeps me relatively busy.

RT: Since you’re coming into marketing without any formal background in it, how have you found the position? What kind of expectations did you have?

EC: It’s hard to answer early on. If I had a budget, I think my expectations would be different. I would be doing ads, we wouldn’t just have promotional material concepts, we’d have actual promotional material. [laughs] It’s not that we won’t next year, but the closer we get to the release dates of some of our titles, the more reluctant I am to actually spend that money. My concern is to build-up something ahead of time and then try to get some word of mouth. Now obviously we do send out review copies of our backlist so people can be aware that we are releasing other books. And I make mention of those reviews just so people can know that A Rabbit’s Eyes is cool and that somebody just reviewed The Cage. And everytime someone mentions Buddha, even though it’s sold more than 100,000 units combined, it’s always good to keep the flame going. But it would be nice to see what actual promotion does to a book. In comparison to publicity. And what I mean by that is outside of reviews and word of mouth; not what the public says, but what we would like to have heard. For me, it is a little frustrating because I know we have done that in the past and I haven’t really been asking what the budget was back then, but literally having a zero dollar budget makes things very complicated.

EC: When I go to events and I see that people respond well to what I say, or what the company presents to the public, that’s actually surprised me quite a bit. I don’t think we do anything better, or do anything fancier, or put in any more money or resources than our competitors do, but I like to think that we do more with less in those situations. And in the time I’ve been around, and meeting with public, the response has been really positive but I haven’t necessarily seen that correlate to sales outside of events. At events I can sell out of almost everything we’ve got. And that is good, especially looking at our numbers from past events. But in actual bookstore numbers, or when looking at Amazon or Diamond, who knows. It has improved the situation with our distributor and vendors. We can direct them to the excitement, and we get more requests for books but we are still selling about the same number of books. At least things aren’t going down! Our limitations are pretty heavy.

EC: Coming in with no experience . . . Well, when I was at CMX I was doing a little marketing but just some things online outside my editorial duties. But it’s the non-personal stuff, the stuff that is not about interacting, that I had the least amount of experience with but I feel I have a better understanding of that now. And that is figuring out who your readership is, demographics, where people are buying, and then manipulating that. I have figured that much out, but how to best do that is tricky.

RT: When you say manipulating, you mean capitalizing on a group or expanding it, or both?

EC: Manipulating, I chose that word because it is both positive and negative. It is very much capitalizing on things and marketing is always about an endgame. How you get there isn’t always going to be clean.

RT: What is Vertical’s mission statement for the new manga line?

EC: [laughs] I don’t know if there is one to be honest! When we initially, or really Yani and Vertical at the time, were trying to launch it was to move towards more contemporary titles. They were saying they would like to have a line up of titles that had anime properties on the Cartoon Network, when that network was still doing anime. So that can tell you how long they’ve been thinking about this. Television patterns have changed and the anime industry has changed a lot in this country though. But in general it [the new manga line] is about finding some of the best stuff that’s out there right now. One thing that has changed is because of all the partnerships that have been built up like Square Enix and Yen Press, Mag Garden and Tokyopop, Shueisha and Shogakukan and Viz, Kodansha and Del Rey and now Kodansha USA being here, it’s harder and harder to find new publishers to work with. So to work within that structure we have decided to focus not on necessarily mainstream genres and we’ll continue to do that. That is to say not a focus on your standard shonen and shojo categories. In the future, who knows, we might get those opportunities again. We’ve had shojo and shonen titles before but in general the manga industry out here has not gone outside of those two too much. So we feel we have a wide open playing field when it comes to seinen and josei and maybe even some experimental or alternative titles and even some titles people might consider to be adult. There are a number of things we are considering. We aren’t going to be limited to the classical titles, we’ll still be releasing them, but what we are tying to find are good titles, challenging titles, titles that are analogous to what we do with our prose.

RT: What’s your personal philosophy when it comes to manga, and how does it overlap with the company’s?

EC: Uh, whoa! [laughs] For me manga is, outside of film, it’s possibly one of the more challenging and more fulfilling forms of media out there. The only reason I can say that is because with a film you have directors, producers, cinematographers, casting crews, actors, scripts writers– There all these jobs that need to be put in to make a good movie. In a manga it is similar, you may not have the same big production crew, though if you are working on a weekly comic you’ll have assistants, but essentially you and your editor are the director and producer, you’re doing storyboards, you’re inking, and penciling, you’re making characters, writing dialog, there is even cinematography and all that to manga in many ways. The only thing there isn’t is a music score or something like that. As far as entertainment is concerned in many ways for me it is superior because it is portable, too. Just pick up a title and you have entertainment for the next 15 minutes to an hour and you do it almost anywhere as long as you have light. It’s generally affordable and no matter what the snobs out there say, it is disposable. If it offends you, you can throw it away. That’s not something you can do with TV or in a movie theater, yeah you can walk out, but you can actually throw it [manga] away. You can express your distaste that way. That functionality is really cool.

EC: And there is also the sub-culture element to it, it covers so many genres; anything can be a manga. There are guides to physics now and looking at certain blogs you will run into guides to anal masturbation! Or you know you can go to doujinshi, which I love, independent self-published comics that has its own world. The freedom of expression makes me feel there is a reason to live in a first world country I guess. And in manga these are generally stories about individuals, characters, and I think it psychologically makes people have hope. There are a lot of times in media where people are removed from the storytelling quite a bit, you are just looking at things from an omnipresent perspective and you aren’t necessarily supposed to affiliate yourself with certain characters. But in manga that’s not the case because narrative isn’t as important as character development. So there’s always that interesting dynamic between cast and reader. I think it’s expressed even more intimately in doujinshi. But I think this is also what separates manga from other comics as well because in Western comics you’re totally just an observer. In manga you’re a part of the universe Lum could easily destroy if she wanted to. You could be part of the human race that is struggling to take back the earth. Or you could just be one of those random kids that gets hit by a car that Black Jack meets and puts back together! [laughs] Manga does all that.

EC: And I think Vertical understands that when it comes to Japanese media, manga is the pinnacle. There is a reason why you have so many magazines, so many genres, so many stories covering everything in comics. There are people who will only read those stories in that format, only experiences those stories in that format. They see it on TV they won’t appreciate it the same way and they can’t expect to see certain stories at all in movie theaters. While you can have your physics book, it might not be as fun without the moe characters and art. Vertical isn’t covering everything yet and I don’t know if we will end up covering everything in the future but we already cover quite a bit: sex ed, medical drama, post apocalyptic sci-fi, quasi-biography of religious figures…We have pet manga coming soon, and then there is the space academy comic! [laughs] And that all fits in with our catalog; it’s eclectic. We try to give people a little taste of J-pop in a different way.

RT: Do you feel that Vertical being such a strong translator of prose gives a different feel to the manga line?

EC: Yeah, we’re lucky to have good editors and good translators. I mean how often do you have a PhD candidate in comparative literature edits all of your books who is also a Japanese native. He basically knows both languages inside and out. He analyzes English for fun! [laughs] So we look at all our work a little different. When we make mistakes we take it really seriously. With prose it’s a priority so when we transfer that same amount of background to manga which has so much less text, we make sure that everything is right. But on top of that, there is more to the translation process than making sure the Japanese and English are somewhat consistent. There is also making sure dialogue fits in bubbles and using certain fonts. One thing people may not notice too much in our manga but we don’t change font size too much as far as dialogue is concerned. What that means is basically we are having to rewrite translations to fit the bubbles. Where you might see our competitors cram things, yeah it would be great to make sure there are an equal number of words in Japanese and English, but sometimes you can say the same thing with less. And having people in the office who have that grasp of English, their minds are thesauruses, and it works for the most part. That is not to say it always works, I have gone back sometimes and decided we were relying too much on the visuals to tell the story. If that’s the case then we’re cheating and I think other publishers do. I’ve heard others say they rely on “intuition.” Seriously? Hearing a word like that scares me. To me that tells me they don’t trust their translators or their rewriters. If you need intuition for this one section, how can you be confident with the rest of the book? It’s not uncommon for us to rewrite 75% of a translation. That doesn’t mean the translation is wrong, it has to convey the spirit of the piece and read well. We actually try to make paragraphs and rework the structure. To do that with manga, because its like one line and one line, it ends up looking like poetry but we still try to get that type of feel. When someone is saying something, you have to get the right type of response for that scene. You can’t just translate things literally because all of a sudden the motion, flow, and mood can be distorted.

RT: Going along with that, doesn’t the average Japanese manga reader read a chapter in just a couple of minutes?

EC: Yeah, it is actually averaged out by like a train stop so it’s around 4 minutes! [laughs] The visuals take you to the sound effects that take you to the faces that take you to the words and to where the eye needs to be on the next panel. It tells you where to go so there is an active structure to paneling. But that’s going into more manga theory. The better translators of manga understand not to disrupt that flow as a translation needs to maintain that same type of motion. We try very often to retain that pacing.

RT: Why did you pick the titles that you did and what do you think their greatest strengths are?

EC: In the case of Chi’s Sweet Home, this is going to sound like a joke but it was first and foremost to please my girlfriend. That sounds ridiculous but there is a reason why I wanted to do that outside of wanting to have a nice family life. I realized that anybody could appreciate that story. My girlfriend doesn’t read manga, she doesn’t watch anime normally, and I didn’t introduce her to Chi’s Sweet Home or have copies of the book in the house. There were no posters or plushies, nothing. She was entirely introduced to it on her own on the internet and not through a scanlation site, she saw images on some Flickr craft page. And after doing a little research on Google and Wiki all of a sudden I was translating chapters for her and buying each new copy of Morning magazine just to satiate her. And I thought if my girlfriend could have that type of feeling, and the same could be said about all these thousands of other people, when Chi wasn’t translated, the anime wasn’t on Crunchyroll at the time . . . then there has to be some innate broad appeal. When I was working at Morning and on my way out, I spoke with the editor of Chi and I basically told her that in my new job if I have the opportunity to handle the licenses then this would be one of the properties I would want to launch with. And I thought in our case we needed to find a title with an X-factor, something that did not say Tezuka, did not say manga, did not even say Japan. Yeah, Chi is set in Japan, the Yamadas are still going to be called the Yamadas, Kohei is still going to be called Kohei, but Chi could be the next Garfield or Snoopy. My point is I don’t want this to be Japanese. That is not going to sound right to fans but my objective is to try to get as many people to read Chi [as I can]. If you don’t want to share this title with anybody outside the fandom, I feel a little sorry, because media should be shared with people.

EC: Peepo Choo is just a unique title to begin with. How often do you have a western artist working in Japan . . . getting published. It wasn’t my first choice, I would have liked to have done it after our manga catalog was fleshed out. But Yani liked Peepo Choo from the beginning and it is a very, very Vertical title. It’s got violence, sex, comedy, culture clash, real good art, and the other good thing about it is that it’s on the heels of when it’s coming out in Japan. The people who pick it up will love Peepo Choo but a lot of people won’t know what it is. That will be even sadder because all of a sudden you will miss out on a crazy good comic. It’s a little disappointing that it’s only going to be 3 volumes. We just found that out, as it was originally going to be 5. But Felipe is going to move on to a new title for Morning and we hope his new project will be an even bigger success.

EC: Twin Spica is probably the best narrative of the four. I’m shocked it wasn’t licensed before. This is another title I was unsure of at first though. It’s long, it’s seinen but reads more like a shojo title; the character designs aren’t seinen. The main characters are a bunch of girls in high school, and there’s no romance. It’s sci-fi but has very little actual deep, deep sci-fi to it; instead, it’s more slice-of-life with heavy character development and tons of drama. But those characters, you feel for them right from the start. I think people are going to be really surprised by Twin Spica, I just hope they are willing to stick it out for 16 volumes. It’s one long-term story that takes its time building up a narrative and the personalities of its sweet young cast. And it’s so touching it forces you to want to follow these kids. After reading the whole series I knew we couldn’t pass on it.

EC: 7 Billion Needles caught me mainly for its art. Well, I didn’t like the monster designs, but after reading the original novel written in 1948, the monster designs made sense. I was able to accept those details. What was interesting was having this aloof highschool girl always wearing headphones basically shutting herself out from the rest of the world, grow up naturally to become this really unique heroine. She’s one in a billion trying to find the thing that came from outer space. She’s not doing this to save mankind, she’s not doing this just because she’s got super powers now, she would actually rather just listen to her iPod and take long baths, but she is doing this because she has friends and she wants to make sure they’re not hurt by whatever is out there. She doesn’t have many of them but the two or three that she feels she can trust, the ones she is connected to—because she doesn’t have a real family . . . she wants to maintain those connections. There is some type of metaphor there, she has this thing in her so she’s never alone, but there are other reasons for people to fight, right? It’s planned to be 4 volumes. Things are moving so well right now, and it’s really well-paced out, so you get to see so much of her background as the action picks up. Her world doesn’t expand much throughout the series . . . I think there are like a total of 10 characters including the supporting cast, so it’s an intimate sci-fi title. You’re in the character’s brain. You’re trying to solve the mystery, like old classic sci-fi, and when you do get to those action scenes the tension builds up but never to the point that you feel that is the climax, you know there is more. And knowing it is going to be relatively short, I think it’s building up just right where people are going to be really satisfied.

RT: With Chi you are really pushing for a larger audience, are you worried about alienating manga fans?

EC: I don’t care. I’m sure it will. Look, people need to get over certain things. If you’re censoring a book, renaming characters, taking out pages . . . those are problems. What we’re doing here is with the permission of the author, making it more accessible to more people. Some people can’t read right to left, it’s not that they can’t read they just don’t understand it. This is the optimum solution for that. Will that alienate people? Yeah, sure. But I don’t think there will be enough for me to care. And I think that eventually people can focus their angst and frustration on other things. We’ll get to the point where we won’t have to do flipping anymore because people will have a better level of comprehension and appreciation. But right now it is my feeling that the people that complain the most are doing the least for this form of media, actually undermining it.

EC: What makes me feel more at ease with our decisions is that after we gave our treatment to Konami Kanata, she liked it so much that she ended up giving us rights that she didn’t give anybody else. The author wants it to be done this way now.

RT: Chi is in color, what are the challenges in releasing a color manga and will Chi be printing overseas?

EC: It’s a pain in the ass. Paper stock is different, the color is also different. We typically use 3 colors plus black, in Japan there are sometimes 4: red, yellow, blue, and a hyper color . . . that makes colors pop. Paper is different from printer to printer. We’ve already talked with with the Japanese printer for Chi. They do have offices in the U.S., they have access to those same color files so we’re going to see what is going to be financially best for that title. For us it is going to be tricky because all the sound effects are also in color and we have to retouch them . . . so that’s going to take more time than usual. Production for that is going to start much sooner than it does for any of our other manga. If we have time we’d like to print it in Japan. The frustrating thing about that is that it adds about a month to the lead time so we’ll need to have everything done by March. If not it will be printed in the U.S. by the Japanese printer just using American paper stock.

RT: What will the size of the new manga line be and what is going to be the release schedule? And what are the prices?

EC: They will all be to Japanese specs, so paper size B6 which isn’t available normally in the U.S. This is more analogous to our paperback novels which are also printed in Japanese size. Twin Spica comes out in May and a new volume will be available every other month . . . so you’ll get 4 volumes in 2010. Chi starts the first week of June and is on the same pace through the year, so 4 volumes in 2010. Then starting in 2011 there will be a new volume in February and then we catch up with Japan. This series comes out twice a year in Japan so when we get to volume 6, we’ll be spreading it out to one every four months. I want to keep Chi fresh on people’s minds. In the case of Peepo Choo, . . . we’ve changed the schedule so volume 1 comes out on July 13th a week before [San Diego] Comic Con where he [Felipe Smith] will hopefully be doing a signing and have a table there. Volume 2 comes out in September, then volume 3 is tentatively scheduled for December. Also volume 1 is going to be kind of wide because they are adding a few extra chapters to it. 7 Billion Needs comes out every 3 months starting in August. Twin Spica and Seven-Billion Needles are going to be $10.95 . . . Peepo Choo is 18 up and will be $12.95 and in the case of Chi, it’s going to be $13.95 but don’t forget it’s color and it’s 160/170 or so pages. It’s funny when I look at the Japanese price I realized I should be charging more! [laughs]

RT: With two sci-fi titles on your initial lineup are you hoping for a resurgence of the genre? And will there be any attempts to market them to the traditional sci-fi audience?

EC: I don’t think that’s really our hope. To be honest about that, when I had my very first meeting with our sales reps at Random House, and this was jut a one-on-one meeting, they were kind of feeling me out and what I wanted to do with our catalog. They also let me know what they were doing with some of their other clients and also told us what was selling well. They told us to be very careful about our titles . . . they [manga] are doing okay, but they aren’t the hot topic anymore. But they did say that sci-fi, not sci-fi manga, but sci-fi itself was a resurging genre. And I kept that in mind. I like sci-fi, I appreciate it a lot, and knowing that Random House might be a little more responsive . . . it made it a little easier for us to choose these titles. But even with that in mind, it was a little coincidental that we picked these titles, they were just some of our better options at the time.

EC: With 7 Billion Needles, if I have the money, I will be looking to put ads in traditional sci-fi magazines. Twin Spica we actually want to send copies to the aeronautics industry to see if we can get astronauts and people like that to send reviews. I’m not sure what the potential is for that but we’ll definitely push it that way. The Japanese version of NASA, the JAXA, actually endorsed the series and were co-producers of the live action series so there is some type of tie-in that way. Whether that will correlate to the States I’m not sure. At the very least we’ll try to get that angle in there. The promotional material that we’ve done is heavy focus on rocketships, stars, and skies so that’s definitely something we want to make known.

RT: What about future titles, how many do you think you’ll be picking up in the near future?

EC: Hopefully we’ll have one more manga series for 2011 and I can’t discuss it yet. There will be another new manga title in the fall of 2010 too which we’ll be announcing hopefully in a couple months. In 2010, we have these four titles to launch this kind of MANGA 2.0 thing. Before that we’ll see reprints of Ode to Kirihito and MW in new formats. MW is going to come in a paperback and Ode to Kirihito is going to come in two volumes instead of the big omnibus. Hopefully we’ll get another Tezuka title for October 2010. And we might squeeze in a one-shot manga for December 2010. So that’s up to six new titles for 2010. In 2011, Twin Spica’s going to continue and so will Black Jack. Black Jack will end at the end of 2011, but Twin Spica comes to an end in 2012, I think. I don’t know if we’ll be around! [laughs] So for 2011, I should have, if everything goes well, one new manga series for the spring and I should have two new manga for summer, and might have some more classic shojo book for the fall. Hopefully by the end of 2011, we’ll debut a new Tezuka series. Expect for the foreseeable future starting in May two volumes of manga a month. That’s not bad considering right now it’s one volume of manga every other month. It’s not VIZ or Tokyopop and don’t expect us to be either one any time soon or ever.

Bonus –

RT: How are the cookbooks doing?

EC: The cookbooks are actually doing very well. I won’t give you the numbers, but they sell as well as our best-selling manga. [laughs] I’m not sure what that says overall but that makes me very happy! It’s a revenue stream that my bosses thought was intriguing but I don’t think they had this type of expectation for it because our print runs were less than our manga. But in the case of Bento Love, Noodle Comfort, Donburi also, the demand has been very high. With Bento I was interviewed for TV and I think more people overseas have seen it than in the States, actually I think it was on CNN here. We are getting requests for the book everywhere, we’re desperately waiting for new stock to come in as we had to have it go to reprint again. It’s one of highest ranked Japanese cookbook titles on Amazon; it’s in the top 10,000. And that’s when they are waiting for more stock!

EC: The tricky thing about the cookbooks is finding the right market for them, not the right audience, but the right place to sell them. This was actually a mistake on our part because the books are so thin and when you look at them on the shelves with all the hardcovers that are commonplace with cookbooks, you can’t even see them on shelves. That’s not to say they aren’t selling in bookstores, but the places they are selling like crazy are portals on the web like Amazon.


11 thoughts on “Interview with Ed Chavez of Vertical Inc.

  1. Evan Minto (Vampt Vo) says:

    I have yet to dig in and read this whole interview, but I’ve got a little formatting suggestion: Perhaps you could put the questions in bold and the answers in in normal text? It’s a bit hard on the eye with all that bold text!

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