Interview: Kurt Hassler and JuYoun Lee on Yen On Light Novels
While researching info for my article on light novel publishing in North America for Publishers Weekly (see Light Novels Arrive in the U.S.—Again), I had a chance to ask a bunch of questions to Kurt Hassler, VP and Publishing Director at Yen Press, and JuYoun Lee, Editor-in-Chief at Yen Press. We mostly focused on light novels, Yen On and their plans to bring even more of these entertaining and addictive pop-lit novels from Japan to English readers in 2015 and beyond. Here’s what they had to say:
YEN PRESS PUSHES ON WITH YEN ON LIGHT NOVELS
Q: So first off, I wanted to talk a bit about Yen Press’ new light-novel focused imprint, Yen On. I know Yen Press has published light novels before having this dedicated imprint. (Spice and Wolf, Book Girl, Haruhi Suzumiya), so what was the thought behind creating a new imprint just for these types of novels?
Sword Art Online: AINCRAD Vol. 1 by Reki Kawahara | © Reki Kawahara / KADOKAWA CORPORATION
Kurt Hassler: Light novels have been on our radar for years, and as you mentioned, we’ve been publishing them consistently for some time. We’ve always been convinced that there was a huge opportunity with this material, and having observed the market both here and abroad closely, we finally felt that the time was right to dedicate a full publishing program to the effort.
Q: What factors contributed to your sense that the time was right to give light novels a bigger push? Are manga sales up in general? Greater availability of legal, online streaming of anime based on these light novels?
Kurt Hassler: There are honestly any number of contributing factors. Certainly the overall growth of the manga category is one. Heightened awareness of franchises due to easily accessible, authorized streaming is another. But these are just a handful. There’s also the continued growth of light novel sales in the Japanese market itself, establishment of robust light novel categories in other Asian markets, regularly increasing fan requests… We take a very broad and long term view when reaching these conclusions, and this approach has been highly successful for us.
Q: Have you noticed any increase in demand for this sort of content in recent months/years?
Kurt Hassler: Absolutely. While we don’t publicly respond to licensing requests, we always listen carefully to what the fans are asking for, and in a growing trend, we’ve heard a groundswell of requests for light novels.
Q: What are the most requested titles that you’ve picked up for publication? How are readers letting you know what they want to see in print?
JuYoun Lee: Probably A Certain Magical Index. When we made the announcement at Sakura-con, the fan reaction was overwhelming. We get many requests through our public email accounts, our site, and social media, and it feels like recently we have been getting more license request for light novels than manga!
A Certain Magical Index Vol. 1 (light novel) by by Kazuma Kamachi, art by Kiyotaka Haimura | © ASCII MediaWorks
(NOTE: A Certain Magical Index Volume 1 by Kazuma Kamachi, art by Kiyotaka Haimura is due out in November 2014)
Q: What factors do you take into consideration when you select light novels for translation/publication?
JuYoun Lee: There’s no one formula that we use; it’s a mix of everything. Fan requests, multi media like anime or manga, popularity in Japan, etc. are all considered, but ultimately it comes down to what we think will work in this market based on our own evaluations of the licenses.
COMPARING LIGHT NOVELS IN JAPAN AND NORTH AMERICA
Q: When you’re asked by colleagues or friends who are not familiar with manga/anime to explain what light novels are, how do you explain it to them? How do you ‘define’ the term to them?
JuYoun Lee: Like Light Music (Kei-on), light novels basically mean pop-literature, or commercial literature, more than anything, so even if someone is not a fan of manga/anime, it’s an easy recommendation like any fiction out there — purely based on the subject matter and how good the book is.
I always like to add that it reads the “right” way for western audiences in translation, so in some ways, it can be more accessible to non-manga/anime fans who are just looking for something fun to read.
Q: You both regularly travel to Japan, and have seen the light novel phenomenon there first hand. Is the readership for light novels different in Japan than it is in N. America, or is it about the same? Are light novels more popular or as popular as literary novels in Japan?
JuYoun Lee: Light novels are huge in Japan these days, and also in most countries in Asia. In Korea, I think I would say that it’s even bigger than the manga market nowadays. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the Japanese market in terms of numbers, but the fan base is a bit different compared to North America — light novels are mostly geared toward a male readership. I know there are some experiments to create light novels for girls, too, but it’s pretty small at the moment.
Q: Who is the typical reader of light novels in North America? Mostly male? Mostly female? Evenly split? Mostly teens or tweens, or older readers? Is this typical reader similar or different than the typical light novel reader in Japan?
Kurt Hassler: I’m always reluctant to try and draw parallels too closely between audiences in the different markets. If you assume a simple transition between the two, it can be a rude awakening.
Also bear in mind that the Yen On effort is in many ways really the opening salvo for light novels in North America. While we’ve kept a consistent presence in the market, it has been very conservative, waiting for the right market conditions. There were some attempts by other publishers to explore this territory in the past, but I honestly think they were too early. Even now, I’d say it’s too soon to draw conclusions about the “typical” reader because there just isn’t enough material out there yet for them to read. But we’re eager to rectify that soon.
Given that our first “soft launch” title within the imprint, Sword Art Online, has been an unqualified success, securing the #1 spot on the Bookscan Science Fiction best seller list the first week of its launch and has consistently held a spot in the top twenty since then, I’d say we’re off to a great start!
LIGHT NOVELS AND THE ANIME CONNECTION
Sword Art Online (anime) | Aniplex
Q: Light novels have been published in English for almost a decade now. but it seems like there’s a growing awareness and demand for this type of content. From your point of view, what’s behind this growth? Any particular anime or manga series? Or has it been a cumulative growth in readership, as more light novels have hit the shelves and more readers become aware of them?
Kurt Hassler: Honestly, I think it’s the unqualified success of the material in Japan that’s been responsible for the increased awareness. More and more you find that so many of the most popular manga and anime franchises out there have their roots in light novels because of their popularity in Japan. With so much more manga and anime now readily available outside of Japan,the adaptative media naturally drives interest in the source material.
Q: I noticed that your light novel titles are a mix of series — some have anime/manga tie-ins, and some don’t. Do the ones that have anime/manga tie-ins sell sell better than the ones that don’t? Or do they reach different readerships?
Kurt Hassler: At this point, I think it’s fair to say that our best sellers often have some sort of tie-in component. There is a pre-awareness of those titles which drives more immediate sales. However, I wouldn’t assume that will always be the case. We definitely want to find those titles that shine all on their own before they’ve become multi-media franchises.
Q: What are your current best-sellers in Yen Press’ light novel line-up? Which new titles are you most excited about releasing in Fall 2014 / 2015?
Kurt Hassler: As I mentioned before, Sword Art Online hit the ground running as an immediate best seller. Spice and Wolf has been a long running success story for us, as has been the Haruhi Suzumiya series which was the first light novel we co-published with Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
In terms of our Fall launch titles, I agree with JuYoun that A Certain Magical Index stands out as another with runaway best seller potential. Fans have been clamoring for this series for a LONG time. But we’re also particularly excited about Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (by Fujino Omori and Suzuhito Yasuda – vol. 1 is due out in December 2014) The book is hilarious. It’s a relatively new series even in Japan, but it’s taken the market there by storm. We think it has all the makings to replicate that success here.
Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (light novel) by Fujino Omori and Suzuhito Yasuda | ©SoftBank Creative
(NOTE: Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? Vol.1 by Fujino Omori and Suzuhito Yasuda is due out in December 2014)
When it comes to our Spring 2015 releases, we’ve got four incredible series that we’re announcing here for the first time that were specifically selected for their potential for this market.
(NOTE: See Yen Press Bets Big on Light Novels With 4 New Titles for 2015 for the full list of titles and story descriptions, including No Game No Life, Log Horizon, The Devil is a Part-Timer! and Pandora Hearts ~Caucus Race ~)
DIGITAL RIGHTS, TRANSLATION COSTS AND OTHER SPEEDBUMPS ON THE ROAD TO LIGHT NOVEL POPULARITY
Q: Will you be releasing Yen On titles simultaneously in print and in digital format? If so, on which platforms?
Kurt Hassler: Similar to the circumstances with manga, digital rights can be a bit tricky when it comes to light novels. Where we have those rights, though, we will be doing simultaneous releases on all the major platforms.
Q: Are some of your light novel releases currently available digitally? If so, which platforms?
Kurt Hassler: Yes, we do have digital rights to some of our light novel series including the Haruhi Suzumiya and Book Girl series. Another was actually originally released in two ebook editions prior to our print release this Fall, and we will have digital rights forIs it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? publishing this Fall as well. In terms of platforms, you can find them in most ebook retailing outlets like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the iBookstore, Google Play, etc.
Q: What do you see as the main challenges for publishing and marketing light novels in today’s books/comics selling environment today? Are bookstores, comic shops ordering them? Do they know how to shelve them? Are you marketing them as Young Adult (YA) novels or as a companion to manga/anime series?
Two versions of the Yen Press’ edition of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya novels | ©Nagaru TANIGAWA 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 /KADOKAWA SHOTEN Illustration: Noizi Ito
Kurt Hassler: The biggest challenge we have in bringing these titles to market is explaining to book sellers and librarians just what light novels are and securing their enthusiasm and support. This is, after all, something “new” in many respects, and anything new can be met with a certain degree of skepticism. Ten to fourteen years ago, though, manga was no different, but like manga, these books come with a dedicated and voracious fan base that only has the potential to grow. In some ways, that’s the most exciting part of this.
What’s gratifying is that we’ve already received a lot of support out the gate. The first volume of Sword Art Online only published at the end of April, and I believe we’re already on our fifth printing.
Because of the pre-existing awareness built in with the manga fans and the fact that there are often companion manga series to so many of these titles, we’re advising stores to shelve the books with their manga for now, and that seems to be working quite well. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that in the not too distant future light novels could command their own sections in stores.
Q: Will you be doing anything special, promotions-wise to make booksellers, librarians, etc. more aware of your light novel offerings?
Kurt Hassler: When the Yen On program was announced, we created a pamphlet for booksellers and librarians that was given out a BEA to explain what light novels were and to highlight some of our 2014 releases. We’ve been promoting the offerings heavily at our convention presences, and we recently provided Barnes & Noble with posters for Sword Art Online and Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? for their Get Pop Cultured in-store events. We’re working very hard to get the word out there.
Spice & Wolf light novel covers: Two versions
Q: I recall when the Spice and Wolf light novels first came out, Yen Press tried to find a happy medium between cover art that would appeal to fans who prefer the original Japanese/anime-style cover artwork, and YA novel fans who might respond more favorably to a photo-style or graphic/typography-driven style of cover art. How did that experiment work out for Yen Press, sales-wise? Did you learn anything from this that you might want to share?
Kurt Hassler: The cover experiments we did with Spice & Wolf were controversial with fans who are extremely keen on faithful reproductions of the original material – a sentiment that we very much appreciate. But it was a necessary move that we needed to make to garner the support we were looking for at the launch, which it did.
Fans made it loud and clear, though, that their interests were in retaining the original cover presentations. Still, I have to say that the amount of discussion it generated only benefitted sales at the time, so on a whole, I think it was the right move. It is safe to say, though, that in the future, we’ll be sticking with the original cover art.
Q: Obviously, with more words per page to translate, I’d imagine translation costs for light novels would be much higher than manga. Is that the case? If so, does this added expense make it more difficult to produce a profitable light novel offering in N. America?
Kurt Hassler: Translation costs for light novels are obviously higher than the costs for translating manga, but those costs are factored into our plans and approach.
Yen On, Yen Press’ light novel imprint
Q: Yen On has several titles on the roster for 2014/2015 — what kind of publishing schedule are you on now? One out a month? or more? Do you see this increasing in the months/years to come? Or are you still in wait and see mode?
Kurt Hassler: Our original plan with Yen On was to publish 24 titles in 2015, so two per month. However, our initial success and our confidence in this material has already prompted us to take a more aggressive approach.
Q: Hm! A “more aggressive approach?” So does that mean you’ll be licensing/publishing more titles in 2015 than you had originally planned?
Kurt Hassler: We will definitely be increasing our output well over 24 light novels next year. As we’re still finalizing the list — as can tell by virtue of the fact that we’ve just announced four new series, I can’t give you specific numbers yet, but I can say that it will be significantly above our original targets which should be welcome news for fans!
For more on light novels publishing in North America:
So what do you think? Has the time for light novels to find its place in the sun (and on bookstore and library shelves) come at last? Which new Yen On titles are you most excited about? And what would you like to see published? Add your comments below!