ICv2 Interview: Viz Media Vice President – Publishing Leyla Aker"). Last year she moved over to Penguin Random House, where she is the Publishing Director for Square Enix. Aker came to VIZ in 2007, so we asked her to share her long view of the manga industry with us.
What did you do before you came to VIZ Media?
I was actually at Random House before I went to VIZ, at the Knopf group primarily, for about a decade. I got to work for Sonny Mehta, so it was really learning the book trade at the feet of a man who, it is truly not an exaggeration to say, was kind of a genius. I had an amazing trade book publishing education.
When did you first get interested in manga and Japanese culture?
I remember being a child with my brother and watching Gatchaman and Speed Racer, and the old Tatsunoko studio anime. When you’re a kid you don’t differentiate that this is anime. Kids don’t care.
Then I was in college, Gatchaman came on the TV in my lounge and I looked at it and was like "Oh my god, this is the thing I used to watch as a kid! What is this?" In the process of figuring that out and tracking it down (this was pre-Internet), I re-engaged with it. This is around the time Pokemon was starting to take off, VIZ was starting, Tokyopop was starting. Anime and manga were my hobby and what I consumed to take a break from actual publishing. Now it’s the reverse.
You came to VIZ in 2007, which is about the time the manga market started its downturn. What was that like?
I got to VIZ right at the tail end of the salad days. There was a tremendous amount of revenue coming and VIZ was in an expansion mode, with all kinds of business developments going on. I got to experience the tail end of that, and it was a lot of fun: "Try whatever you want! Make things happen!"
The years after the collapse were rough. All the publishers had to contract, and there were layoffs. VIZ, like a lot of publishing companies, was a tight culture. Losing a lot of staff was tough psychologically, and the people who were left had to cover. At VIZ, we had to slow some things down, but we kept more or less the same publishing list, which meant that all the editors and all the staff had to go into insanity mode for a couple of years. To this day I am really, really impressed by the staff and what they were able to do. Everybody just buckled down. I think you can keep up that kind of emergency measures for a while, but it’s not sustainable in the long term.
At that time, there was the constant question of where is this going to bottom out? The Borders group finally closed in 2010. Borders at that time was 50% of the manga market, so we were white-knuckling it for a while. Things stabilized by about 2011, 2012, where the losses that had happened had finally worked through the system and by 2013, the turnaround started. Barnes and Noble took up some of the slack, and Amazon took up some of the lost sales from the Borders group. That’s really when the turnaround happened. I think it was very much just keep the machine running, keep the lights on, keep doing your work, and eventually the market will correct itself.
Why did sales fall when the demand was there all along?
That’s when scanlation started taking off. I think it was a double-edged sword, because it helped foster fandom culture but, as we all know, what it did not do was support the field. Piracy started replacing legitimate outlets, and I think the impact of that is still being felt. Things are changing rapidly. All the companies are stepping up on the digital side, so we may see the situation shifting again.
What about comic shops?
With comic book shops, it was always a challenge to get the manga in there. And some of it is education. If you’re a comic shop buyer and you’re not familiar with the manga and anime sphere, it’s challenging. The companies have tried to help demystify that. VIZ and other publishers do educational material for comic shop buyers: Here are the essential series you should be carrying, here are the essential genres. Some comic shops do a fantastic job of carrying manga. The larger shops can do it, but for the smaller shops it’s challenging.
I loved working at VIZ, and it was a really wrenching decision. For family reasons I had been thinking of going back to the East Coast, and then word came around that Square Enix was launching their publishing program. That immediately intrigued me because I knew from working with them on a licensee basis at VIZ that they were very professional and easy to work with. From a personal point of view, Square Enix has two of my favorite video game properties, Final Fantasy and Nier: Automata, and one of my favorite manga properties, Fullmetal Alchemist. The decision was tough, but the opportunity to work with launching the Square Enix program was attractive enough to make me make the decision.
How has your job, and your view of the manga world in general, changed?
By the time I left VIZ I was in more of a management position. What I love is working on books, working with words and art. Here I work with one colleague, Tania Biswas from Yen, and she and I are a two-woman band. We work closely with Masaaki Shimizu, who is the actual publisher, and the three of us are the kernel of all the publishing. Masaaki and I work together on the licensing, and he concentrates more on marketing and publicity and the consumer outreach side. So the majority of my day is really spent working on the books.
With Kodansha, Yen Press, Square Enix, and Vertical all headquartered in New York, it seems like the center of the manga publishing world is shifting eastward. Do you think that’s true, and do you think it matters?
I think it’s less about where the manga is and more that New York is still the epicenter of trade book publishing in North America. It’s not coincidental that most of the larger manga and comics publishers started distributing through trade book publishers. I cannot stress enough how important distribution and sales are. When publishing companies move to trade houses for distribution, they all see sales jump because of it. If you’re in the book market, that is of critical importance, and one of the distinguishing factors between manga and comic books is that manga is a bookstore phenomenon.
What are you learning at Square Enix?
The primary thing I’m learning now is how to work with Square Enix and how their company culture is, what their priorities are. I’m getting a little bit of a peek into how larger gaming companies work. I play games and RPGs as a fan, but I don’t have a very robust view into the industry side of things.
Do you think that game fans are a potential audience for manga?
I think there is a very strong overlap between Japanese RPG fans and manga fans. If you’re somebody who just plays a shooter like Call of Duty or Fortnite, there may be no overlap whatsoever, but if you are a Legend of Zelda player, Pokemon, Final Fantasy, Nier, those are people who want to know more and consume more of those RPGs. All you have do is look at the success of the Pokemon and Legend of Zelda books.
How is the manga industry different now from 2007? What trends are you seeing?
I think there are a couple of big structural things. We are in a more mature ecosystem for manga. When I first got to VIZ, VIZ and Tokyopop were like 80% of the market share. It wasn’t very diverse. Today Tokyopop is around in a much smaller capacity but VIZ is still going on all cylinders, and you have Kodansha, Yen Press, Square Enix, Seven Seas. I feel like not only are there more players in the market but also the content, it’s a more robust, healthy ecosystem.
The second thing we have yet to see the ramifications of is we have to see what happens with digital. I think the digital distribution ecosystem is going to continue to evolve with both manga and anime.
To this day anime is still the single biggest driver of book sales, just like film, but before, everything used to go on Adult Swim or Cartoon Network. Now the picture is much more fragmented. Crunchyroll, FUNimation making their move with Sony, and who knows what is going on with all this streaming. I think that is also going to be interesting, to see how the streaming wars are going to shake down. That will have an effect on manga sales as well.
The moving pictures, film and anime, are still the biggest driver of any sort of public attention. So anything that affects the anime sphere also affects the manga sphere.
For more great Manga Week coverage, click here!
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This month’s picks include a new edition of a classic crime manga, as well as a searing memoir, a collection of stories about robots in a future society, and a series set in a coffeehouse staffed by cats.