In the late 1980s, 15-year old Taiwanese immigrant Kuo-Yu Liang began working part-time at the Central Park Bookstore in San Mateo, Calif. Now, 24 years later, Liang—or Ku, as just about everyone in the publishing biz calls him—is the v-p of sales and marketing at Diamond Book Distribution, the book trade division of Diamond Comics, the largest distributor of comics in the world. Liang joined the company in 2002 to launch and direct DBD, which distributes graphic novels and pop culture merchandise to the book trade.
Since DBD was launched six years ago, the graphic novel category—comics in book format—has grown tremendously in both the traditional book industry and in the previously periodicals-focused comics industry. And Liang has had a hand in fostering that change and exploiting it to sell books. Since he started at that San Mateo bookstore in 1984, he hasn't stopped working in the book business. “I never went to college,” Liang says. “I was too busy working.”
At an NCIBA meeting in 1991, a Random House representative offered him a job as an assistant sales rep for Ballantine, “back when they had assistant reps for indie stores,” Liang says, laughing, about a job that doesn't really exist any longer. Two years later, he was a full-time rep on the West Coast, overseeing accounts like Seattle's Elliot Bay and University of Washington bookstores, as well as accounts in Alaska, Idaho and Hawaii. “I was 20 years old. I couldn't even drink,” he says.
By the mid-1990s, Ballantine asked him to move to New York City and manage an important but at the time stagnant imprint—Del Rey Books. He was 24 years old and took the job as Del Rey sales manager—1993 salary: $27,000—“without really knowing what I was doing.” He was named Del Rey associate publisher in 1995, at a time when the house was still operating under some outdated policies, such as never attending fan conventions and never bidding for a book at auction. Given a mandate to make changes (including reversing those policies), over the next five years, “we took sales from $20 million to $50 million,” he says.
In fact, Random House provided Liang's higher education. Over the next four years he worked overlapping jobs, spending time at RH Distribution and RandomSoft, learning distribution systems (which would come in handy), selling videogames and even developing e-book strategies. Working under CFOs Gilbert Perlman and Ed Volini, he researched possible acquisitions and even considered starting a manga division in the 1990s, “but it was too soon for a comics startup,” Liang says. He knew manga from growing up in Taiwan, but at Ballantine, he worked with bestselling comics properties like Garfield and Peanuts, and “we doubled the business in the first year.”
In 2002, after 13 years at Random House, he was getting antsy. “I was thinking about leaving.” He got a call from Baltimore-based Diamond Comics, the dominant distributor in the comics shop market. They wanted a book industry veteran to launch DBD. “I didn't know much about Diamond. I even heard they were called the 'Evil Empire, ” Liang recalls with amusement. So he went to Baltimore, essentially, to interview Diamond, and “walked away very impressed. I was sold.”
“This was all before the manga boom,” Liang notes, pointing out how the growing popularity of Japanese manga in bookstores, the growth of the Web and Hollywood's embrace of the category has changed the U.S. comics market completely. “At first buyers didn't understand comics and didn't want to be bothered,” Liang says. “We had to convince them to stock it, it was so new. Today it's a growing business.” To be sure: in 2007 Diamond Book Distribution had revenue of $70 million and its U.K. business was up 34%. Today Liang works out of his home in Seattle, makes about 50 trips a year to accounts around the country and abroad, and thrives on new challenges.
“I always told everyone I worked for that I will sell any kind of book; that I like to travel; and I will live anywhere,” Liang says, explaining his circuitous path through the publishing industry. “I just like to do new things.”