Interview: Stephen Robson, Fanfare/Ponent Mon

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.”

Interview with Kurt Hassler

Just before the holidays, I had the opportunity to chat with Kurt Hassler, who recently left his job as graphic novel buyer at Borders (a gig that got him named Most Powerful Person in Manga) to start a graphic novel imprint for Hachette, together with former DC VP Rich Johnson. In addition to his work on the retail and editing side, Hassler is the writer of the Tokyopop series Sokora Refugees (under the pen name Segamu) and a children’s book, Diva v. Poe.

MangaBlog: What attracted you to retail?

Kurt Hassler: I got into retail bookselling because I wanted to write, and I figured if you want to learn the business, you work in a bookstore.

MB: Did the growth of manga surprise you?

KH: If you saw where the opportunities were and the differences between channels, it didn’t surprise me at all. If you look at the U.S. relative to other markets, the U.S. is behind. Look at the comics market in France or Japan—there was always room for growth and there potentially still is.

It is still odd how the mainstream looks at the category. There is a very big difference if you look at what tends to get picked up by mainstream media as opposed to what seems to be moving in terms of numbers. I’m not really sure there is a wide understanding of it. “Graphic novels” is a buzz word in a way. People latch onto it without really understanding that not all graphic novels are the same thing. They appeal to different demographics, different types. It’s not a genre.

MB: How did your personal tastes affect your choices?

KH: I like everything. The way I’m characterized online, I’m the manga guy, but I love comics in general. It’s funny, because Rich Johnson would come over to my house and see all the superhero stuff lining the bookcases and then go back and hear I’m the manga guy. People think the role of a buyer is to push their own likes and dislikes, and that’s not what we do. It’s to stock the shelves, to be a consumer advocate at some level. If I have a particular insight into one area of the market that is underrepresented, then maybe that was the edge I had over someone else.

MB: What do you read now?

KH: Everything. I have a wide variety of tastes. I will sit down and read through the 9/11 commission report, I’m a huge fan of Death Note, I’m very much following the Marvel Comics stuff with Civil War, I was a big fan of Identity Crisis, I love The Walking Dead.

MB: It seems like there’s a split between what the bloggers like and what sells.

KH: When you’re dealing with the online communities, it tends to be the high-end readers. If you were a casual reader, you wouldn’t be online blogging about this stuff. You get a very educated readership that appreciates the artistic aspects of this. Maybe you lose some of the appreciation of the childish reasons you started to like comics in the first place.

I find things that I think are very heartening about Naruto. I have a four-year-old running around with the headband on. I can get into that. At the same time, I can get into the more artistic [comics], but for different reasons. There are different levels of appreciation. I won’t say one is better than the other. How can you say that something that appeals to a very specific fan and consumer mentality is better than one that has this mass appeal? If you can lose yourself in something for 20 minutes or however long, what’s wrong with that?

MB: What was it like being named the most powerful man in manga—and then leaving your job?

KH: I knew they were doing it—they sent me the poll—and all this other stuff was going on, so that was coming out, and then a week later the Yen Press thing came out. It’s weird because there is this sense that I was hired by Yen Press, and I wasn’t—I co-founded it with Rich.

MB: There was some sniping in the blogosphere after that.

KH: The buyer’s job is to maximize the sales in a category. At the end of the day, you have to tell everybody “no” sometimes, and nobody likes to hear that. If everybody likes you, you’re probably not doing your job very well. At the end of the day, you are doing the publisher a favor if you say “Don’t print all those for me.”

A former colleague of mine says you’re never thanked for the books you didn’t buy. There are a lot of great books out there that are tough sells, and at the end of the day, it’s not about telling people what they should read, it’s what they will buy.

MB: How did you get started on Sokora Refugees?

KH: The first volume of the book was written before I had an illustrator. I had pitched the idea to a few companies and ultimately Tokyopop picked it up. They had some illustrators in mind, but I didn’t see them working in the style I had imagined. Then Dallas Middaugh introduced me to the Estrigious website. I saw Mel’s work [Melissa DeJesus], she happily jumped at it, and we have been working well ever since.

MB: I notice the webcomic is on hiatus. What will happen with the third volume?

KH: We’re completing it. Mel is just gearing up with the art. Far be it from me to hazard a guess when it will see the shelves.

MB: Are you planning on doing any more original work?

KH: Absolutely. There are a couple of things I am very eager to get started on. I’ve written a slew of children’s books, I’ve got a novel stuffed in a drawer somewhere, but definitely there will be more comics projects.

MB: What are your plans for Yen Press?

KH: Everybody wants us to come out and say “This is a done deal” and “These are the licenses we have.” A lot of publishers, their goal is to put out an announcement every couple of weeks. We are waiting until we have something pertinent to say. There are certainly venues for that sort of thing. Comicon is coming up. We’ll be there.

MB: Do you plan to go for a particular niche?

KH: We will not be a boutique publisher. You will see a variety of styles. There is so much hype that goes on in this country about publishers building up their imprints, but if you’re talking about a manga publisher, it’s not their imprint, it’s the Japanese publisher’s imprint that they’re borrowing from. What’s Tokyopop’s list or Viz’s list? It’s a variety.

When we’re dealing with original stuff, maybe we’re developing more of a flavor of our own, but we have a variety of people who are working on the imprint. We want to give everyone a voice. We’re not ruling anything out. The rule is if it’s a good book, we are going to publish it.

We’ll go out on a limb on a book we support. I fully expect there will be books coming out of left field where people will say “That won’t sell in bookstores.” There is such a diversity of material and so many markets untapped here. One of the things we want to do is grow the market as a whole.

The nice thing is I have a good perspective of the market as a whole—I have a good sense of who shops where, what things work, and why. What you often find is things are brought over and released but not really thinking in terms of “Who is the customer?” and “How do we release it?” As far as I’m concerned, the market drives the bus. You have to pay attention to the market. If we’re getting the right books in front of the right people, then we’re doing our job.