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.