The British publisher Fanfare/Ponent Mon has built a reputation in the U.S. for publishing the greatest manga you’ve never seen. Their books are well regarded but hard to find in bookstores, so when Publisher’s Weekly’s Kai-Ming Cha picked the Fanfare title The Building Opposite as the best manga of 2006, the reaction from the blogosphere was a resounding “Huh?”
Having been frustrated myself by hearing so many great things about books I could never seem to find, I went directly to the source: Stephen Robson, who pretty much is Fanfare. In a lengthy transatlantic chat via phone and e-mail a few weeks before NYCC, Stephen explained the difference between Fanfare and Ponent Mon, why his books are so expensive, and what it’s like being on the ground floor of the nouvelle manga revolution.
Fanfare is really a labor of love for Robson, who works with a part-time editor and a handful of freelancers. On the other side of the slash is Ponent Mon, a Spanish publisher run by his friend Amiram Reuveni. “We are totally separate,” Robson said. “We are just friends who work closely together.” They met when Reuveni was publishing posters by French and Japanese artists: “He was doing Akira posters before anybody in Europe had heard of Akira, purely as art posters,” Robson said.
Robson had discovered French BDs while bumming around Europe in the 1970s, after graduating from college (fun fact: his degree is in mathematics). A few years ago, Reuveni discovered the work of Nouvelle Manga pioneer Frederic Boilet and suggested that Robson publish the English editions of his work while Ponent Mon handled the Spanish versions. “I said, ‘I’ll give it twelve months and 12,000 euros,’” said Robson, who began working on the books in earnest in January 2004. Boilet introduced the pair to other artists in his circle, and the list began to grow. “If you look at our list, it’s French and Japanese, not just manga,” Robson said. “It’s good storytelling that attracts us with clarity of image.”
Robson has freelancers translate books from Japanese to British English, and then he edits the book before sending it to another freelancer to be Americanized. If a book is originally in French, he may translate it himself; his current project is Tokyo Is My Garden, by Boilet and Benoit Peeters. Even if a book is originally Japanese, Robson may pick up the French edition to check the translation. Recently he hired a part-time editor, which he hopes will speed up production.
Fanfare’s books are distributed to comics stores by Diamond, but Robson initially had trouble getting a bookstore distributor interested in his small catalog. “We didn’t have enough of a backlist, or a forward list, because we were taking a book at a time,” Robson said. “I had to get one book out so I would have enough to buy rights for the second book.” Last year, he signed with Biblio, but shipping costs remain a stumbling block. The books are printed in Spain, and because his print runs are small, Robson has to wait until he has two or three titles in print to make it economical to ship the books to the US.
And that’s why nobody could find The Building Opposite in a bookstore. “The Building Opposite came out through Diamond last summer,” Robson said, so it was available in comics stores. “But I didn’t have another book to ship with it. It is leaving Spain together with The Times of Botchan 3 and the revised version of Yukiko’s Spinach, which has never seen the light of day in Borders because I didn’t have enough of them.”
Robson is grateful for the support he has gotten from the direct market, and he says his books will probably continue to arrive in comics stores first, but he’s getting the hang of book distribution—and he is optimistic that his print runs will increase. “If I could send 2,000 to Biblio and be sure they would sell, I’d ship book by book, but I’m a small publisher,” he said. “I can’t afford to ship pallets of books that are costing me money sitting there.”
This caution is born of sad experience. In the 1980s and 1990s, Robson worked with a company that produced high-quality French BD albums. “Sad to say, I remaindered every single one of them,” he said. “It’s cruel and it’s awful, but they just do not appeal.” Now that he’s on his own, he can’t take that chance. “We’re putting these books together with a lot of love, a lot of care, but also a lot of caution,” Robson said. “One bad flop at the moment, I go ‘Oh great, print 5,000’ and it doesn’t work, and there won’t be a Fanfare/Ponent Mon after that. There has to be a balance between getting it out to consumers and keeping the ship on an even keel.”
Robson starts small, with first printings of 1,500 to 2,000. “It’s difficult to make a pot of gold our of those sort of print runs,” he said, “but it needs that nurturing. To me it’s worth it.” And his efforts are starting to pay off: two of his early titles, Yukiko’s Spinach and Jiro Taniguchi’s The Walking Man, are going back for second printings, and he is beginning to think about increasing his initial runs.
Shipping costs are one reason for the high price tag on Fanfare books, which typically retail for $21.99. Quality is another: the paper is noticeably better than most manga, the print quality is better, the trim size is larger, and the covers are heavier stock. “We’ve got a quality product, we wanted to put it in quality packaging,” said Robson. “I didn’t see any point in putting Japan in a [flimsy] cover.” The third factor is the weakness of the dollar against the euro, which has caused the prices to rise just to keep pace.
Fanfare’s best known book is Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators, a project Robson was in on from close to the beginning. “Japan was instigated by [the publisher] Casterman in France and the Japanese publisher, but they invited various other language publishers in on the project so we were there from day one when it was more or less a Frederic Boilet/Casterman idea,” he said. Usually he prefers to publish books that are already completed, however. “I think you get better work if you let the artist do what they want to do,” he said. “We are not yet in the position to pay an artist for a year while they do a book for us.”
This warm reception is building his confidence for the future as well. “We are stepping up our purchases,” he said. “We’ve pre-purchased rights on a number of titles.” These will include Korea by 12 Creators, a followup to Japan, and Hideo Azuma’s Disappearance Diary. Robson plans to publish 6 to 8 titles in 2007, about double his previous rate.
Robson’s comics career began in 1979, after he bumped into an old friend who happened to be one of the founding partners of Forbidden Planet. “It took me six months to persuade him he needed someone to help him on the wholesale end and another six months to persuade him it was me he needed,” Robson said. One of his first assignments drew on his carpentry rather than his marketing skills: “I was the first person to build a back issue comics box in wood for Forbidden Planet.”
When Forbidden Planet started Titan Books, Robson was the first sales manager. “I’m a good organizer,” he said, “and it was much more fun selling comics and science fiction than baked beans.” Around 1996 Diamond took over the company, and Robson didn’t last long. “I’m not a good corporate American,” he said. So in 1997 he left and formed his own company, Fanfare. Using his contacts from 20 years in the business, he became a middleman between small producers and large companies such as Diamond.
Now Robson runs a warehouse and ships books and toys for four different companies. “It’s still only me and my good lady that is the company,” he says. “Now and again if I have a big container coming in I have a few lads from the village that help me, but on a day to day basis it’s still only her and me who do the whole thing.” The posters, figures, and T-shirts he sells, “the tits and the bums,” as he puts it, pay the rent and allow him to focus on the manga. “It’s the one that will still exist in my dotage,” he said. “It’s what I wanted to do, but publishing drinks money so you have to have something there in order to finance it in its early days.” Robson envisions himself at in his old age, sitting in his garden, sipping soup through a straw, and dictating edits to an assistant.
“When I edit a book I do get completely lost in the pulse of the story and get as close as I can to the feeling the creator must have had,” Robson said. “Some have been difficult and serious, others light and airy. But they have all been a pleasure to be proud of.”