The endless speculation about Kodansha’s plans for the American manga market is now over. Kodansha, the largest publisher in Japan and an important licensor of manga to U.S. publishers, is setting up an office in New York City and plans to begin publishing and selling manga direct to the U.S. market beginning in October. The new line of manga will be called Kodansha Comics and it will be published under Kodansha USA Publishing and distributed by Random House.

Kodansha USA Publishing will be headed by Yoshio Irie, v-p and board member of Kodansha, who will be based in Japan; and general manager Tomoko Suga, a familiar figure on the U.S. comics and manga scene, who will be based in the new Kodansha offices on Park Avenue South in Manhattan. Kodansha Comics will launch with two classic manga titles, the post-apocalyptic sci-fi epic Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo and the metaphysical sci-fi police thriller Ghost in the Shell by Shirow Masamune. The two series have been published in the U.S. by Dark Horse Books, and both offer an extended array of multimedia franchises that include animated films, video games, prose novels, merchandising and more.

Kodansha is a significant licensor of manga in the U.S. market. But despite the launch of the new line, Irie said Kodansha will continue to license manga in the U.S. market. Kodansha has also had a co-publishing agreement with Random House since 2003 and Del Rey Manga, Random House’s 5 year old manga imprint, has been a significant licensing partner from the imprint’s beginning. In an email interview from Japan, Irie-san noted that the launch of the new office is intended to coincide with 100 year anniversary celebrations of Kodansha, which was founded in 1909. He discussed the reasons behind the new U.S. office, Kodansha’s views on the current manga market and original publishing, simultaneous Japanese/English publishing as well as the importance of a digital publishing strategy.

PW Comics Week: When will Kodansha USA Publishing launch?

Yoshio Irie: The first books to be published by Kodansha USA Publishing, Akira and The Ghost in the Shell, will be launched under the label name of Kodansha Comics this October.

PWCW: Who will head the office, how many will be employed there and is KUSAP a new publishing entity?

YI:Kodansha USA Publishing is headed by myself, and currently there are four people in the company. At the moment, there is only one person on-site in the U.S., Tomoko Suga as General Manager, but expansions of the office and operations are being discussed. Kodansha USA Publishing was founded for strategic reasons, so part of its mission is to collaborate with Kodansha and all its related companies as regards publishing in the US. It will start with comics and manga for sure; the possibility of taking on other labels in other categories is there for the future.

PWCW: Why is Kodansha setting up a U.S. office at this time?

YI: We had been looking at different ways of promoting our properties and manga as a category in English-speaking territories for some years, and we came to the conclusion that in order to understand and make a long-term commitment to this market, it was necessary to have a foothold here in the U.S. In choosing this particular launch date, we also had the centennial anniversary in mind: Kodansha was founded in Japan in 1909. Although the manga market in US did not grow this past year, we believe that in the long run it has yet to reach its full potential. It was about time we started planning for the next model with our publishing partners here.

PWCW: How many titles can we expect to see from Kodansha USA Publishing in the first year?

YI: We’re making a gradual start. During the first year, the subsequent volumes of Akira and The Ghost in the Shell will be released. Other titles are due to be added on later in the year, and we’re currently working on the schedules. For both the two starting titles, there are movie projects that we have been working on, though we can’t yet disclose any details. Such projects could change the current scope and reach of manga marketing. We will be releasing a new manga version of the TV anime series, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. I really hate to miss this opportunity to make announcements: we do have other projects coming up, but cannot tell you about them right now.

PWCW: Who will distribute Kodansha USA Publishing manga in the U.S.?

YI: Kodansha Comics manga trade paperbacks will be distributed by Random House, with whom Kodansha has had a broad alliance relationship since 2003. In many ways, publishing is a local kind of business, both in terms of logistics and of editorial and marketing knowledge. There was no doubt that we needed a strong partner on-site, and there was no doubt that Random House was the best partner in releasing our first publications.

PWCW: How will Kodansha USA Publishing affect Kodansha licensees like Del Rey and others?

YI: Kodansha Comics will not directly affect Del Rey and other publishers who license titles from Kodansha. As you can see, licensing of new titles to publishers continues. Kodansha Comics doesn’t aim to be the exclusive label for titles from Kodansha.

PWCW: Is there any special marketing strategy or working agreement that Kodansha USA is developing with Random House?

YI: For those titles that Random House distributes, we’re working together on a title by title and project basis to market and sell those books effectively.

PWCW: The manga market has developed and matured since its boom in 2002. Most licenses lean heavily on movie or anime or television tie-ins for their success. Will the bulk of Kodansha releases for this year and next have some sort of tie-in?

YI: As you say, it’s particularly true of the U.S. manga market that licenses seem to lean heavily on movie and anime. It’s actually one of Kodansha’s motives for setting up a presence in the US market, and we want to do whatever we can to support and co-promote our properties with film projects and tie-ins. In the long term, this will be the key to increasing our presence in the market, as well as in promoting market growth itself.

PWCW: Who do you consider to be your main competitor in the U.S. manga market?

YI: There is such a variety of genres and titles in manga, and many ways in which to publish them, that we didn’t really have a particular competitor in mind. We can learn a lot from what everybody has done so far, but we would like to set our own goals, and do what’s necessary to build our brand.

PWCW: Which audience are you targeting with your books? Teen boys? Girls? Older readers?

YI: The first two titles are big classics, mainly aimed at an older and more general audience. Our aim is to find a new generation of readers for these books, perhaps people who started reading manga during these past five years or so and are looking for something substantial to read, as well as people who are not usually manga readers. We’re not targeting a specific demographic. What we do want to do is work on titles which have the potential to draw in new readers, of any age.

PWCW: Can we expect to see American versions of Kodansha manga anthology magazines for the U.S. audience?

YI: Are printed anthology magazines a direction to go in at this point? Our bet is that it isn’t. It doesn’t really make sense to set up serialization magazines unless your aim is to generate new original series locally.

PWCW: Are you concerned over the state of the economy and its effect on the manga market?

YI: Yes and no. Any publisher of print product anywhere should be concerned over the state of the economy right now. In the short term, for the manga market in the U.S., it has meant that the strong growth of recent years has slowed and reached a plateau. In Japan, publishers have, over many years, developed and changed manga formats and pricing to suit changing markets. Manga also evolves on a creative level, and it isn’t just what you see being sold in stores right at this moment. We’re confident that in the long term there’s room for more growth.

PWCW: Will Kodansha publish only its own translated properties or will it look to do any original publishing in the U.S.?

YI: We will start with translated properties, there’s no doubt that that is our first mission. It’s one of our ambitions to eventually become involved in original publishing. One of our strong points is that we have direct access to editorial resources and pool of creators in Japan, as well as a library of backlist titles. This means there should be exciting opportunities in setting up cross-over and co-development projects as well.

PWCW: How does Kodansha view the possibilities of simultaneous Japanese/English language publishing?

YI: It’s one of the challenges that we’re looking at. Theoretically, it can be done, but there has to be a lot of lead time till the Japanese publication date, and not many titles are eligible.

PWCW: How does Kodansha view digital publishing and does it have a digital publishing strategy for the U.S.?

YI: Last year, revenue from digital publishing in the Japanese manga market was at 6% of the revenue from print-based publishing. About 80% of this revenue from digital publishing was the mobile phone content market, which incidentally, was about the same as the size of the U.S. manga market, at roughly 200 million USD. We think the percentage occupied by digital publishing is likely to go up to 10%-15%, and become much more general audience, so we’re preparing. Exactly what kind of digital reading experience will be popular differs from country to country, but there’s no doubt that it will be taking up an increasing proportion of the market. In the U.S., it’s an excellent time to start planning for digital publication of titles we intend to bring over.