An Interview with Nick Mamatas
by Charles Tan
Hi Nick! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. This is Haikasoru’s third year. What are your plans for 2011?
We’re pushing ahead with a lot of fun books. I’m very excited about Ten Billion Days And One Hundred Billion Nights by Ryu Mitsuse, for example—as far as its importance and popularity in Japan it’s roughly analogous to, say, Dune! We also have our first science fiction, as opposed to fantasy, novel by a female author coming up: Cage of Zeus by Sayuri Ueda. And we’re doing some experiments with high-quality associational novels; for example we’re releasing Miyuki Miyabe’s Ico, based on the video game no less than Guillermo del Toro calls a “masterpiece.”
Sounds like an interesting selection! How have your criteria in selecting books and authors to translate been changing and adapting? For example, Ueda is a new name while for Miyabe, this is if I’m not mistaken, the third book that you’re bringing over.
Not especially, though we’ve tested some theories. Is it better to offer 500 to 800-page epics or short novels of the sort very common in Japan? We’re still not sure, actually. What we are aiming for in general hasn’t changed: high quality work that is easily recognizable as some subgenre of SF or fantasy or horror so that we can say to retailers and the public, “Yes, this is Japanese SF but it’s not just a novelty. This is hard SF!” or whatever—military SF, Utopian satire, etc. We’re also counter-programming a bit in that we like to offer SF with positive visions of days to come, rather than the now very common “grim meathook futures” of contemporary Western SF.
With the data you’ve accumulated over the past two years, who do you think is your core audience? Your titles have been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Awards (horror) and the Philip K. Dick Awards (sci-fi) so I’m interested who your perceive your target market to be, especially if there’s a lot of crossover from the different genres.
The core audience, that is the people who buy our titles the first week they are available or have them on reserve at their local library, are fans of anime and manga or Japanese popular culture generally. With each book, we have to win part of the traditional SF, or fantasy, or horror audience. We are finally starting to get reviews and notices from the SF mainstream that go beyond, “Hmm, well this certainly is an example of Japanese science fiction, isn’t it?” and that’s a good sign, as are the award nods. The PKD award has informed my reading decisions for years, so I was especially thrilled when Harmony was nominated.
How have the fans of anime and manga been receiving the books?
They like them for the most part, of course. It’s interesting that manga/anime reviewers will often focus on character relationships within a story—often comparing them to characters in manga and anime in fact—while SF/fantasy reviewers will scrutinize the science fiction elements more closely. But any book that can withstand multiple types of reading is a good one, in my view.
What are some of your favorite titles (and why), either previously published or the ones that are going to be published this year?
As we only do a handful of titles, I actually do like them all. My favorites were Harmony and The Next Continent. Harmony presses all my buttons—I love utopian satires (which people often confuse with dystopian stories for some reason) and it works very well. The Next Continent is pure SF—engineers, nay, ENGINEERING, is the hero. And it cleverly deals with the social and political ramifications of lunar colonization as well. For upcoming titles, the three I mentioned previously really stand out for me.
How many titles are you planning on releasing this year and what’s the schedule like (i.e. 2 titles every 2 months, etc.)? How about the backlist, are older titles getting reprinted?
We’re moving it around a bit. In January we did Mardock Scramble, which was so huge-800 pages—that it was our only release. This month we have Rocket Girls: The Last Planet, then in May Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince by Noriko Ogiwara, in hardcover, which is related to Dragon Sword and Wind Child. VIZ put out that book in 2007 and we just put it out in paperback in November. We’re also doing a paperback of The Book of Heroes. A couple of our books are being reprinted—Battle Royale: The Novel (the new edition we did last year) is in its second run, and All You Need is Kill is on the verge of reprinting, thanks largely to the movie developments.
How about eBook releases, what are developments on that front like? For example, The Ouroboros Wave and Mardock Scramble are available on Amazon and the iBookstore (in the US as we don’t get it here in the Phil.), and you released a novelette for Mardock Scramble as well.
We have a number of books available on Kindle and iPad, and we should be rolling out versions for Sony and Nook and the other e-reader formats soon. So far we have Lord of the Sands of Time, Usurper of the Sun, Brave Story, Yukikaze, Loups-Garous, Slum Online, The Next Continent, Harmony, The Ouroboros Wave, and Mardock Scramble available, and the two Rocket Girls books should be live in a few weeks. The one fun thing about the ebook is that one can really easily see jumps in sales based on some well-placed online reviews or even mentions by fans. So we’re trying to encourage those, of course. The ebook reader really fuels impulse buys!
So is it fair to say that your entire backlist will be available as eBooks? Are there plans to make the eBooks available outside of the US (Amazon’s the only one that sells outside the US but adds an additional $2.00 charge)?
We don’t have digital rights to some of our titles, but we should have almost everything in digital formats by the end of 2011. We have worldwide English rights for most titles; right now they are available on Kindle and iPad in the US, the UK, and Canada but we’re looking to distribute into other areas with significant numbers of English-language readers as well.
Moving back to the editorial side, how do you decide on the translators for each book?
At this point I have a small number I rotate between—partially it’s simply a matter of keeping everyone busy, but not too busy. Partially it’s serendipity. When I met Edwin Hawkes, for example, he mentioned that his favorite Japanese SF novel was Mardock Scramble, which we happened to have the rights for. With Ico, translator Alexander O. Smith brought the book to our attention, and also took care to note that the game on which the book is based is being re-released for the PS3.
And of course, if someone has done a certain author’s book, we try to retain them when we do another book by that same author.
How about book design and cover art, how involved are you with the process?
Very. I try to keep the internal design fairly consistent, and we’ll do a few test pages here and there to take a look at the designs we use for scene breaks and whatnot. We design many of our books in-house, but ship some out to a couple of different freelancers, though we usually provide a template.
With the cover art, we’ve been working with consistent fonts in order to build a brand, but now that we have some traction are experimenting—Mardock Scramble looks a little different than the other paperbacks, for example. For the art, sometimes we use the Japanese art, as in The Stories of Ibis and The Ouroboros Wave, or we’ll commission original art as with The Book of Heroes—the cover artist for that one was painter Dan May and we literally had to scan a canvas. The Rocket Girls covers are also original art, from Japanese artist Katsuya Terada. Sometimes we just whip something up in-house, as with Mardock Scramble or Harmony.
Do you think the cover art has a significant impact on whether it’ll be picked up by anime/manga fans as well as genre readers?
Well, we don’t use mangaesque covers; even the Rocket Girls books and Usurper of the Sun, while betraying some hint of manga influence, don’t really qualify. And our books appear in the SF/F section of bookstores, rather than the manga section. However, it is tricky—what we don’t want to do is “whitewash” our books; we’re selling Japanese SF and there’s a certain visual aesthetic that goes along with it. We could look like every other book on the shelf, but we’d rather have our books be distinctive in a way that, we hope, pleases both audiences.
Thanks Nick. Here’s my last question. Are there any challenges you didn’t expect or discoveries that you encountered, after working with the Haikasoru line for the past two years?
One challenge is that every aesthetic or plot choice an author makes is, as a default, chalked up to either the translation or cultural differences, whether it’s true or not. If an American author decides to be terse, for example, in the spirit of Raymond Carver, that’s one thing—if a Japanese author makes the same choice, for whatever reason, critics and reviewers may assume that the choice was just an artifact of translation or an error.
The solution is easy though: more Japanese titles in translation, so that people can see the range of artistic choices Japanese writers make!