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Interview: Kurt Hassler

Yen Press Publisher

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Kurt Hassler, Yen Press Publisher, at Anime Expo 2007

Kurt Hassler, Yen Press Publisher

© Deb Aoki

Shortly after earning the title "The Most Powerful Person in American Manga," former Borders book buyer Kurt Hassler decided that he could offer more to the manga world as a publisher.

So with partner Rich Johnson (formerly from DC Comics), they launched Yen Press, a new manga publishing imprint from Hachette Publications. Yen Press also announced that they'd be taking over publication of Ice Kunion's manhwa titles, giving new life to these graphic novels from Korea.

As the first Yen Press titles, With The Light, Black God and Zombie-Loan make their way onto bookstore shelves, Hassler talks about expanding the manga market, one book at a time....


FROM BEHIND THE BOOKSTACKS TO THE CENTER OF THE MANGA UNIVERSE

Q: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. There have been a lot of announcements from Yen Press about your debut releases and upcoming titles, so I'll ask you about that for sure, but let's get started with you.

Tell me a little bit about your background in manga, as a reader, as a book buyer for Borders, as an author and now your new role as publisher for Yen Press.

Kurt Hassler: Well my background in manga and comics, it goes back to when I was 10 - 12 years old, so I'm a longtime comics and manga fan. Given my age, when I got into comics, it was much more about the American superhero comics that were the most popular, if not the only thing that was available in this country. And then I got into manga around 1990. I initially got into anime, then I got into manga after that. So I've been a fan for quite a long time.

Professionally, my first experience was when I was a book buyer for an independent bookstore in Indiana. I bought the graphic novels section there, and then I moved to Borders in 1998 and took over the graphic novels category, originally as an assistant buyer, then was given the category as a buyer in 2000.

Q: So what kind of comics and manga do you like to read?

KH: I'm a fan of all kinds of comics. Anything from superheroes to shonen manga, ala Naruto, or things like With The Light, which is not standard manga fare, but I love the book. I have very eclectic tastes.

Q: While at Borders Books, you started as a graphic novels buyer there, and around that time, from 2000 to 2006 the manga category just exploded.

KH: Well, in all fairness, I did have something to do with that. (laughs) Well, especially in the case of manga, I had always been a fan which wasn't always the case of the people who were buying that category previously. So I made a dedicated effort to give it space. At the time I was just buying it for the Waldenbook stores, but I really wanted to give it an opportunity to sell. Since I was a fan myself, I had good sense of what readers were looking for. I ended up making those stores a destination for those kinds of books, which facilitated the growth that you saw in that category as a whole.

People look at 2002 as the year that manga really started to grow. But it was really before that, by virtue of the bookstores making a dedicated push to bring in that consumer in a way that wasn't happening in other parts of the market.

Q: One of things that is most often mentioned about you is that in 2006, you were named as "the most powerful person in manga" by ICV2.com. How did that go over at Borders?

KH: That went over very well, in fact! I mean, a lot of that has to do with the things I did behind the scenes for the category. I did a lot of consulting with the various publishers in the market, and shared things that most people who come in from outside the industry, they wouldn't know about it. So I had an influence on the industry as far as directing publishers to certain licenses to pick up; pointing them to the kind of titles that the mainstream consumer market wouldn't be aware of.

So this was a poll based on responses from people in the industry, what people in the publishing and retailing business were telling ICV2.

Q: Wow, so it was a nomination from your peers and colleagues in the industry. And soon after that announcement, you went ahead and went to the other side of the equation, to the publishing side.

KH: Well, that was funny, because (the Yen Press deal) was already in the works when they made that announcement. So the timing was interesting, definitely.


THE POWER OF TWO: LAUNCHING YEN PRESS

Q: So what drew you to this opportunity? Did it come to you, or did you seek it out?

KH: I guess it was a little bit of both. I felt like there was a good opportunity in the market for a publisher to come in and approach the category differently. As a retailer, you're limited by the decisions that publishers make about how they approach the business. I felt like the business could stand to go in a different direction. I also felt that with everything I knew about where the industry was going at the time, there probably wouldn't be a better opportunity to make a move like that, and really be impactful.

So working with Rich (Johnson), my partner, and having conversations with Hachette, it just seemed like the perfect marriage of opportunity and experience. So we took the leap.

Q: You mentioned wanting to do things differently (as a publisher). Can you give a few examples of what you've done so far, what you have in mind to do in the months to come?

KH: I think our first book is a great example of that. With the Light is the sort of story you haven't seen presented much to manga readers in this country before. And it's not an accident that it's the first book we're putting out.

It's a license that the publisher was looking for someone to take on for quite a while but wasn't finding any opportunities. But as soon as we saw it, we leapt at it. We definitely felt like it was something that wasn't the typical thing you see in the manga category, but we felt it was an opportunity to expand the readership (for manga).

The response to this book has just been overwhelmingly positive, far beyond our expectations at this point.

(More on Page 2)
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