FROM THE EDITOR'S DESK: Hassler On Digital

With the recent news of a coordinated push by publishers against unlicensed scanlations online, the manga industry has found itself at the center of the digital comics debate. However, just because the opportunity for piracy is large in the east-meets-west corner of the comics world, that doesn't mean illegal downloading is the only option for manga fans to get their fix. And perhaps no publisher has been able to take to the web with major licensed manga in the same way as Yen Press, who will later this year move its flagship "Yen Plus" anthology to the web, full time.

After a first installment that covered Yen's massively successful "Twilight: The Graphic Novel", CBR returns with another installment of its FROM THE EDITOR'S DESK series, where Yen publishing director Kurt Hassler speaks both to his company's plans for the digital space as well as the rest of the Yen line for 2010. From the possibility of building a dedicated system for legal mobile device manga options in the U.S. like Japanese publishers have instituted, to the specifics of the future of "Yen Plus," and from incoming titles set to up the publisher's market share including the latest from acclaimed art collective CLAMP and a wave of new light novels and global manga planning, Hassler digs into all the pressing issues surrounding manga.

CBR News: Let's talk about what Yen has on the table. It seems like you guys try to cover a lot of different areas that other publishers may focus in on in the specific: licensed titles for various readerships, adaptations and other kinds of global manga. Do you look at manga more as a publishing format rather than as "comics from Japan"?

Kurt Hassler: We definitely looked at this in terms of "What are the market areas?" Obviously, licensed content has been, for the last ten years, the biggest aspect of this market, but at the same time we wanted to look ahead and plan for the future as we were developing our lis. The biggest opportunity we saw there was clearly taking established properties that have a built in fanbase and awareness and creating material that could capitalize on that fanbase while at the same time introducing new readers to manga in general. That was a part of our overall strategy. That's not to say that manga would be the only thing we'd focus on. When the right property comes up, we're open to doing more American-style comics. We're open to doing anything. It's just that it's got to be the right project, and we tend to be very selective about things like that.

Because so many of your books are licensed from overseas, what kind of discussions have you had with your partners about bringing Yen titles to the mobile comics market or the web?

It's definitely something that we're actively exploring with our licensors. I know it's an area of interest for most of the manga publishers in the U.S. I obviously can't speak for everyone else, but certainly we've seen the growth of it with the iPhone. Now, with the iPad, it's becoming a bigger and bigger potential market for us, and I think everyone wants to explore that. There are rights issues that get involved, which make it difficult, and again, the existence of basically an army of scanlators out there makes it difficult to have a conversation with licensors. They're reluctant to give digital rights because of the problems you're already seeing in that sphere. So I think you will see it happen. I think it may be a fairly gradual change. The fans, I think, want it to happen, but they don't always necessarily understand the challenges publishers have in terms of securing those rights to begin with.

It was announced recently that "Yen Plus" is moving online. Before we get into the specifics on what's what with that move, what do you feel is the purpose of an anthology in this market in general? Is this a testing ground for properties that might not be able to support their own run just yet or a focal point for the whole line?

It's not really properties we feel can't hold their own as books, but it is a very good way to get exposure to properties people not might be familiar with when you're putting them next to a "Maximum Ride" or a "Soul Eater" or a "Black Butler." And that was something that was always the intention of doing the magazine format. It's encouraging people to sample something they might not otherwise have picked up by going into a bookstore and picking something up off the shelves.

I'm assuming that sales were a contributing factor in taking Yen Plus from print to web, but what was it that made you hopeful that putting the serialized stories online would bring its audience along and make the magazine successful?

While sales were a consideration in the decision to transition "Yen Plus" to a digital rather than print model, we have always viewed the magazine as a tool to help market our properties. Online we have a far greater potential reach with that marketing. There was definitely an understanding going in that some fans would not be willing to make the leap from print to digital, but for those fans of print, the printed collections of the books remain. For those who want that monthly reading experience, though, we hope that the digital magazine is appealing not only to the existing readership but to those fans we couldn't reach on newsstands.

What are the kinds of changes readers can expect to be seeing in terms of presentation and lineup with the magazine being put together for the web? Are there ways in which you anticipate this move expanding what you could do in the print version?

There will definitely be content changes to the magazine, which unfortunately I can't discuss just yet. As far as expansion of what we do goes, digital gives us far greater flexibility when it comes to page counts and the sheer amount of material that we are able to make available in the long term. That alone makes this experiment incredibly exciting for us.

What kind of format do you expect the magazine to take? Are you looking at a downloadable model, something that works for the iPad, iPhone and other devices, or will this be web-based for the time being?

At the outset, we are strictly looking at web-based, but we are looking at the feasibility of other devices. There are additional issues there, but it is something we'd love to explore.

Looking forward over the next few seasons of Yen titles, it feels like you're at the point where you've built up a strong collection of books that are the anchors of the imprint. You've got fan favorites like "Yotsuba!" and bigger hits like "Maxium Ride." What is the shape of the rest of 2010 in terms of the tent poles you're building around?

Well, we started out 2010 with the strongest list we've had in our very short lifespan as a comics publisher. This year, based on the lineup we have, we're looking to become a much bigger force in the manga market and the comics market in general in the U.S. Last year, looking at some analysis people had put out there about Bookscan, I think we were one of if not the only manga publisher that showed significant growth in 2009. We've got series we launched this year like "Black Butler" which launched in January that immediately went to #1 on the New York Times manga list. It's been on there since its debut. "Soul Eater" is a property that we debuted at the end of 2009 that also shot up the Times manga list. The second volume was on there for several weeks after its debut. So we've got a lot of strong series running, we've got very strong properties coming down the pipe and we're in a position where we do have access to a lot of the best material coming out of Japan. We've had great success with the original material we're doing, and we're looking to have by far the best year we've ever had and ending 2010 very strong in what has been a tough market.

"KOBATO." is coming out, and CLAMP is a group that has garnered a very strong following with American manga readers, but with so much material from them out across the board, do you have to push hard to get that into the hands of fans, or is the name alone something that will bring a lot of readers to that release?

CLAMP is one of the internationally best-selling comics and manga teams on the face of the planet. They really helped kick off manga as a viable category in the U.S. with "Cardcaptor Sakura" years ago. They really have a lot of material and just celebrated their 25th anniversary last year. But I believe "KOBATO." is their first new release in the U.S. in about five years, so we're really playing up that aspect to it. "Here is the latest project from CLAMP!" And it's going back to that core conceit that it really did help kick off manga in the U.S. so we're hoping to not just bring in CLAMP fans but a lot of new readers who are coming to manga for the first time.

Aside from these big name books we're talking about, for you, as someone who's read a lot of manga and is very passionate about it, are there any titles in your list that you wanted to bring to light at Yen?

Well, we've certainly got other major properties coming. We just shipped the first volume of the manga adaptation of "Spice and Wolf." We expect that to be huge. And we just picked up a new license from Japan called "K-ON!" which has been an absolute phenomenon in that market, and we expect that to do extraordinarily well. We've got new properties that we haven't announced yet, but when we do we think they'll go right to the top of the category list. We've been able to demonstrate a lot of success with what we've been doing. For the size that we are, we're really performing with the biggest publishers in the category. We're looking to increase our market share dramatically this year and go into next year with a smaller but also much stronger and more focused list.

As you're putting a list together, since everybody knows your background as a book buyer and someone with an early knowledge of popular manga, is your job today focused on following the Japanese market and trying to see what's of interest there, or do you spend a lot of your time watching what's popular in America and finding books that you can adapt or capitalize on? What's your focus in building the line, to put it simply?

I do a lot of both of those things. Obviously, we're very focused on the Japanese market, and we watch the trends there very closely. It's not always an easy thing to say, "This is a success in Japan" and then bring it to the U.S. and expect it to perform. They are very different markets. It's something I was keenly aware of when I was buying for Borders. It's something I'm even more keenly aware of on this side of the publishing fence. You look for the trends, but you've also got to keep an open mind for where opportunities are and say, "Okay, this is something that maybe wasn't as successful in the Japanese market, but it may have a chance to break out here because of the type of book it is, the type of storytelling it is." At the same time, we are looking to expand the category, and we are looking to bring more people in. Focusing on those prose properties or even something like a video game or film that we could do a good graphic novel of - we're looking at those properties as they come along. There's a lot of material out there, and we want to be able to cherry pick those licenses that we feel we'll be most successful with.

The other thing that we want to do is bring in a lot more new artists - particularly those artists that have been influenced by manga over the years. We want to see more of those emerging artists come out and be able to showcase their talents. We want to see that if not first, than at least second generation of manga-influenced artists plying their craft.

Wrapping up, are there any other elements to the Yen Press plan that you think are important to keep an eye on for the future?

I would say that we're still trying very hard to foster a stronger market for Light Novels in the U.S. We've had several titles published already. The first with our sister company Little Brown Books for Young Readers was "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya," which was a phenomenon in Japan, and we've had great success with it. We've had success so far with the "Spice & Wolf" novels we've been publishing. We've got a new one coming out this summer called "Book Girl And The Suicidal Mime" which is just a fantastic read. The animation for that is just gearing up in Japan now, and I'm looking forward to put that out there for audiences.

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