Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 20, 2006

Holiday Interviews #3: Anne Ishii

An Interview With Vertical, Inc. Director of Marketing and Publicity Anne Ishii
By Tom Spurgeon

imageI went into this interview to find out more about Vertical, Inc., the publisher behind the Buddha series and the one-book Ode to Kirihito, both by Osamu Tezuka, and to find out what someone like Director of Marketing and Publicity Anne Ishii does at such a company. I came out with two scoops; one's been made known since Anne and I spoke (Vertical's doing Tezuka's periodically saucy Song for Apollo in 2007), and the other was removed from the interview at her request.

What remains, however, is a portrait of a company whose manga projects have been an important facet of their overall classics strategy, but not the whole ball of wax, and some unique opinions by Ishii, who provides a fresh perspective on the struggles and travails of the small publisher. Plus, she's funny. I think I probably speak for everyone working in comics at least a little bit when I say it's hoped she'll be a presence in the field for as long as she wants to be one, and that there's enough in the way of classic manga to hope that Vertical, Inc. keeps adding to our libraries.


TOM SPURGEON: Can I ask how you ended up at Vertical?

ANNE ISHII: I was at Columbia grad school desperately trying to find meaning in my study of Japanese literature, when my advisor (VP of the grad school now) introduced me to Ioannis Mentzas (Editorial Director) and Hiroki Sakai (President) of Vertical, Inc. They were starting this hip publishing company and needed someone with actual social skills to help them move books. It was a dream come true for me -- working in a publishing company devoted to all things Japanese, straight out of grad school!

I have no experience or training in marketing per se, but we all built ourselves and our company from the ground up. I only ended up as the marketing and publicity person by default of my defining my work as such. I mean, publicity is almost the exact same as graduate school. You read books, and then write things about why they're important. Then you show that writing to people for a grade. Marketing for me essentially meant two things -- Excel and The Internet. I'm learning more about the elusive world of consumer manipulation, though. I imagine one day I'll just turn into a program, but as long as I look like Major from Ghost in the Shell I won't mind.

SPURGEON: If I'm remembering right, 2006 would be Vertical's fifth year. Are you where you wanted to be by the end of your first half-decade. How is the company different in year five than it was in its first months out of the gate? Where are you in terms of implementing the initial publishing plan?

ISHII: The short answer is no. When Vertical began, we hoped that by the end of our fifth year we'd all be gazillionaires, that we'd own our own building, that we'd be able to take vacations, and that Buddha was going to be the next Jesus, but of course, that did not, and is not going to happen for a while. This is what I call learning from experience.

imageThe slightly longer answer is that yes, we are where we want to be, which is to say we're not in a micro-publishing cemetery. There was a period in Vertical's life when the cold breath of chapter 11 was the only thing greeting us at the office. It was all doom and gloom. We weren't paying ourselves, we weren't paying rent, my boss almost got evicted from his own apt, some of us were eating cup-noodles for lunch and dinner everyday...I'm not making this up. It was shitballs covered in diarrhea, and we were forced to eat it. In fact, I even quit for a brief period of time because I needed to get paid, and I was depressed.

This leads me to how we've changed since birth. We're smarter. We're much smarter. We're also more efficient, and our notoriety in the US is finally catching up to our acclaim in Japan (where we're basically cultural heroes for putting Japanese things other than electronics and porn into the American consciousness).

In terms of implementing the initial publishing plan, we're finally (finally!) publishing as many books as we first intended. That took a while though. Putting together a book is hard work. Especially when you have a translation to deal with. But I tell ya, it took us five years to get done what we thought we would in two, which some would say is a sign that we dreamt too big and ended up at just-normal progress.

SPURGEON: While of course it's possible to think of Vertical in terms of it being a publisher of manga, I think the bigger distinction may be that you're publishing high-end material in high-end formats. Was that part of the company's strategy right from the gate? Do you feel that your books have a longer shelf-life because of the kinds of material with which you choose to work?

ISHII: It's funny. This persona you speak of kind of came by accident. And I'll give credit where it's due. Chip Kidd. His designs for us are so unequivocally brilliant but also expensive. Die-cuts and tiered jackets and obi-bands and acetate are not cheap. But we never once questioned his judgment on our design. This meant jacking up the price point, and hence creating a higher quality product.

That said, with something like Buddha or Ode to Kirihito, the content is so rich with narrative, and the sheer heft of the thing itself required extra special care. We thought about doing mass market paperbacks of Buddha or a shorter serialized version of Kirihito to make it more accessible to the manga market, but then we realized something really crucial to our marketing -- the people who buy $10 mass market manga are not the people who buy Tezuka. It's like trying to sell Cuban cigars to crack-heads. That's not to say there's anything better about cigar aficionados than crack-heads (I'd sooner go to The Bowery than Cipriani... but that might just be me). However we did recognize our Tezuka market relatively well, I think.

As for our other books, which are mostly genre fiction, we never intended for them to seem like luxury items. I think because some of them are hardcover and all of them look so precious, and because they're all originally from the exotic orient, people think they're higher-end than they really are. I know that Yani's wet dream is to sell our genre fiction by the crate to readers in middle America, for example.

imageSPURGEON: How have your books done in American comic book stores? Do you have a sense of the percentage of your sales bookstores vs. comic book stores, and are you willing to characterize one versus the other?

ISHII: Ah. The Direct Market v. Book Trade question. You know, this was something of a shock to me when I first started working with comics - that there was a schism between these two worlds of bookselling. The thing I find most interesting is that while many people begrudge comic book stores for not carrying more graphic albums, few people complain about the trade bookstores not carrying magazine-format serial comics. Like somehow bookstores can't be bothered to support such a format, even though they carry all kinds of other periodicals with circulation of like 200.

I love all bookstores, but each kind of them certainly has its problems. I realize the bottom line is the bottom line, but for example, we pretty much held Borders up at gunpoint in order to get the measly 130 unit buy-in of Kirihito. Did that seriously screw up our marketing outline for the book? Yes. Do I hate Borders for it? Absolutely not. They're business-people... OK, I'm lying. I hate them a little bit, but really, just a little. B&N isn't exempt of criticism either. They still have a really weird humor section that's something like an asylum. It's all frazzled and pointless, but you sometimes find what I consider to be amazing comic books. Because they won't look right in the graphic novels section, or because the audience is too young or old, it gets stuffed next to Best Redneck Jokes of the Year.

Diamond is our biggest account for Tezuka. They have been and continue to be big supporters of our work. I think that means comic book stores are buying in on our stuff. I can't do numbers because I am inumerate, but I'd say our book sales are about half and half between comics and not-comics bookstores.

SPURGEON: In your opinion, has Buddha found its way into the kind of library and perennial book sales positions you've hoped they would? How much of your sales on those were from institutions?

ISHII: Buddha is definitely the long-seller we'd hoped it'd be. It continues to sell well. Libraries love it, Buddhists love it, comics professionals love it, the Eisner and Harvey awards committees love it, we love it, you love it, everyone loves it. Library sales however aren't a huge share of our sales on the series. I mean, they've certainly supported it, but our largest market is still the individual consumer.

SPURGEON: Before I forget -- what are you doing for the holidays?

ISHII: Going home to California for a few days. Need to detox my brain of New York before the New Year. Being home means eating lots of ox tail soup and long drives... and I am very much looking forward to that, actually.


SPURGEON: Do you have a grasp on how Ode to Kirihito has done initially sales-wise?

ISHII: Kirihito has done pretty well despite itself. I mentioned earlier that Borders HDQ didn't buy in many copies of Kirihito, but I have gotten individual emails from Borders managers congratulating us on making such a great book, and that they're going to try to get more copies. However, our goals for Kirihito were seriously compromised without theirs and to a lesser extent, Amazon's support, so the first numbers are not so good. Amazon has ended up re-ordering books anyway, and the ranking's not bad either, because there is public demand for it.

A colleague at another manga publishing company once told me that the hardest part of his job was to make the distinction between what booksellers say and feel about your product, and what the reality of the sales figures is. Sometimes they are miles apart.

SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about how you promoted Ode to Kirihito? Because while I think that's a very compelling book, I'm not sure having read it a few times I could describe it to someone in a way that didn't sound insane. How did your approach to marketing Kirihito different than the earlier Tezuka series? Who did you target and why?

ISHII: Ha! I pitched this as Tezuka's The Elephant Man and purposely addressed all the hot button issues head-on. I was sometimes appalled with my own promotional talk. (In my best Gollum voice) "There's rape, and cannibalism, and murder, and did I mention rapesies? Hee hee hee hee." When people hear that Tezuka, beloved creator of the totally asexual, innocent, optimistic Astro-Boy created a story replete with social degenerates like the character Urabe, it didn't matter anymore that you had never read Astro-Boy. It's like if I told you Walt Disney did cartoons of she-male capers. You'd buy it, right?

SPURGEON: Ode to Kirihito made the spiritual books list released by the Detroit Free-Press. Has there been interest and feedback from Christian readers?

ISHII: Ooooo. Fair Christians, this is my formal invitation to you to write me with thoughts on Ode to Kirihito. Actually there was a review in The Contra Costa Times also, where the reviewer actually took Kirihito to the gym (not to lift, sadly), and the person in the cardio-machine next to him was reading the Bible. I guess the Bible-reader looked at him with disdain. If she only knew... the reviewer noted the irony, and I love it.

A propos -- Buddha is obviously about the Buddha, Kirihito is an implied pun on the name "Christ," which is pronounced kirisuto in Japanese, and our next Tezuka title is called Apollo's Song referring to a God of Greek myth. Spirituality is a hidden Tezuka-Vertical message for sure.

SPURGEON: So it's true you're doing Apollo's Song next?

ISHII: Yes. It's true. Wanna see the cover? It's genius and mind-blowing.


SPURGEON: That is very pretty. Can you give me a breakdown on the book as far as size and number of volumes?

ISHII: It's a one-volume omnibus, much like Kirihito (in that they were both originally three volume works). About 500 pages.

SPURGEON: How do you select which books to do?

ISHII: The Selector of Books is Yani, basically. As for how he makes the decisions -- a lot of it hinges on availability. There are a handful of works we've tried and failed to get. Content-wise, we have so far looked for "classics." Be it sci-fi, religious, horror, it's gotta be a classic.

SPURGEON: Do you have any initial ideas as to how you'll be selling that work, considering some of its adult content?

ISHII: Philip Roth meets Philip K. Dick. Philip K. Dickroth. How's that sound? Or, Philipo Samu-K Dickrothuka? Sounds like an abstract painter. Seriously though, my Apollos' Song one-liner is just that for now -- sexual misanthropy and male (dis)illusion told through ambiguously dystopian futurism. In other words, Philip Roth meets Philip K. Dick. As for how we'll sell it -- bribes and blackmail.

SPURGEON: Are there companies you consider peer presses in terms of trying to do the same things, hit the same markets. Do you think you have more in common with the small prose imprints or the small comics imprints? Is there anything you've learned from other companies in comics?

ISHII: Hmmm. I think if I compared our company to anyone, firstly, they'd sue us for slander, and secondly, our investors would leave us for them. No, but seriously, I think what we're doing is on par with D&Q or NBM, except that their lists are much longer, of course. In the small prose imprints dept, I look to Archipelago as a great model, as well as Europa Editions (they have such gorgeous books I want them all!!!), Seven Stories, Small Beer, Ten Speed, Rugged Land, Black Cat (Grove) and on and on. All of this is just in principle, though. We all have very different business models.

Content-wise, our biggest corollary is definitely Viz fiction (not to be confused with the behemoth that is their manga division, of course. Though they do certain manga that we'd jump on in a heartbeat if given the opportunity). We love those guys. Although it doesn't help that our names both start with V.

Funny thing actually, whenever I introduce myself as coming from Vertical, people's first reaction is frequently, "oh! Wow! I love Vertigo!" When I correct them, I always get this slight look of disgust and embarrassment (for me). I always want to give those people a piece of candy and apologize.

Things to learn from other companies in comics -- 1. Don't be safe with content. Be very dangerous. It always works. 2. Don't try to take down Naruto. It cannot be done. 3. Airtight contracts and no hard feelings. And that goes for anything involving the marriage of commerce and art.

* Jesse Hamm's sketch of Anne Ishii at the 2005 Eisners; I hope he won't mind...

posted 4:07 am PST | Permalink

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