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Comics & Games Retailer

Manga by the Book

By Oliver Chin

Working in the Bay Area has its interesting moments. Such as bumping into Peter Goodman, the publisher of Stonebridge Press (www.stonebridge.com), while we're both riding bicycles during our lunch hour. As we took a break for small talk, it struck me that this independent book publisher deserved more recognition with the retailers it has been trying harder to serve.

Based in Berkeley, California, Stonebridge has strove to be known for producing "books and software about Japan." Its main market has been trade bookstores, and Goodman has been an outspoken proponent of the need for "small presses" to unite to promote themselves and their products, and preserve their financial viability in the face of mounting economic pressures from chains and the liability of returns.

However, Stonebridge has reaped encouraging success recently with its forays into the fields of anime and manga titles.

Capitalizing on the growing American interest in Japanese pop culture, Stonebridge has been quick to refocus its energies to cater to this market. Unlike other US publishers who have a pipeline of high profile commercial licenses, Stonebridge has published an increasing array of 3rd party fan commentaries. The most notable is the definitive Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga by Fred Schodt. Nevertheless, it remains involved with Japanese publishers to obtain the necessary approvals for selected projects that have major tie-ins. Goodman assured me getting Studio Ghibli to greenlight to Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation by U.K. critic Helen McCarthy was no small feat!

By concentrating more than ever on creating anime/manga companions encyclopedias, and reference guides for Western fans (such as the recently published Anime Explosion! by Patrick Drazen), Stonebridge's titles should enjoy more popularity in the comics market. Unlike mass-market publishers who are unabashed opportunists (Scholastic for one), Stonebridge has proven legitimacy with "Asian" topics, and intently is using that experience as a "bridge" to reach a newer, larger, and younger readership. Here is my extended interview with Goodman to see how his company came to this point and where they're headed in the future.

Question: What is your company history and positioning, and what is it currently doing that is unique?

Answer: Stone Bridge Press started up in 1989. I had worked as an editor in Tokyo in the 1970s and 80s and after ten years came back to the US to continue in publishing. After an unsuccessful year as a packager for other publishers I decided to start my own company. While we are doing more and more books on popular culture, especially film and anime, we are still a kind of "all things Japan" for general audiences (we don't do specialized art or academic books). We have carved out a niche for ourselves by working in this somewhat arcane subject area but also by providing solid works of reference and information in areas of popular culture. Licensing, color printing, and merchandising costs make it difficult for us to compete in the mass market, so by concentrating on text and information we offer a complementary product to what other publishers are offering.

Question: What are your best titles so far with their approximate sales figures?

Answer: Our Anime Encyclopedia is already approaching 30,000 copies, but our all-time bestseller is Kanji Pict-o-Graphix: Over 1,000 Japanese Kanji and Kana Mnemonics, with over 60,000 copies in print. The mini-treatise Wabi-Sabi has sold somewhere around 50,000 copies. Many of these books are stealth sellers; you don't see them so often in the chains (meaning indie stores should take special note that these are books definitely in demand!).

Question: What do you think are the challenging trends and changes in the industry?

Answer: If you're talking about publishing, I'd have to say ever-increasing pressures on margins and less patience on the part of booksellers to let books have time to get to their audiences. Clearly books are competing with more and different kinds of media for consumers' attention, and standing out in a noisy ocean of adverts and hype is very expensive. Advance orders from retailers are down, as they rely on just-in-time shipments to manage demand, and this makes it difficult for publishers to determine optimal printruns. I worry about manga glut, too. There's not enough shelf space to handle all the stuff that's out there! Plus, many booksellers still look down their noses at manga, anime, and graphic novels, although there is a movement afoot to educate retailers about the burgeoning market that exists for this material. (We ourselves had an Anime Starter Kit that we offered to stores and libraries last year).

Question: What are your release plans for 2003?

Answer: Our slightly delayed Animation on DVD book will be out in March, over 600 pages of reviews and lists of special DVD features for everything from Snow White to Sailor Moon. In fall, we'll be releasing The Dorama Encyclopedia, a guide to vintage Japanese TV shows, many with an anime/manga tie-in, by Jonathan Clements (The Anime Encyclopedia) and Motoko Tamamuro. We will also have another book about kanji and a guide to one of the greatest films of all time, Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, by Donald Richie.

Question: In conclusion, what is your perspective as a publisher on today's marketplace?

Answer: Interest in Japan goes in waves, and for us it's not enough to catch the wave as it is to anticipate it. Prior "interests" have subsided (does anyone read Japanese-management books anymore?), but occasionally things stick: Japanese food, martial arts, Zen, and now anime and manga. Anime and manga I think promise to have the greatest impact of all, because they are radically reinventing the images we use to express ourselves and thus have a much more visceral impact on the culture. Freed from language, they are strong and immediate. Look at all the kids drawing manga-style doodles without even realizing they are participating in an Asian artform! I'm very gratified that we at Stone Bridge, in our own small way, are helping to make this transition to the Asianization of the West a bit less scary.

Magazines

Comics Buyer's Guide is the USA's longest running magazine about comic books. Every month it features new comic reviews, nostalgic retroviews, interviews and a price guide. Oliver Chin reviews anime, manga, movies, videos, graphic novels, comics, and books.

Comics & Games Retailer provides news to comic and games retailers about practical how-to tips on selling comics and keeping up with industry and market trends. Monthly issues include Oliver Chin's column "Going Global" and other articles that give a national overview of the market.