Cultural Differences, as Told through Popular YA Cover Design

One of our ongoing projects at Ooligan Press is debut author Meagan Macvie’s YA novel The Ocean in My Ears. It’s not releasing until the end of 2017, but we’ve already finalized our cover design and are fine-tuning our promotional efforts. Even after the rise of social media marketing and the trend toward digital publication, the cover arguably remains the most important piece of marketing material in the publisher’s repertoire. Intuitively, we as publishers put a lot of time and energy into creating covers that not only catch the eye but also provide insight into what kind of story is being told, so as to persuade a possible target consumer.
One would think these principles of cover design are universal, and yet, I’m staring at a couple of Japanese novels on my desk and can’t help but wonder if the standards of design are a little bit different (read: awesome) there. Japanese best sellers, especially foreign titles, are often printed as “bunko,” which are similar in form and function to mass market paperbacks in the West. However, they do tend to be a bit shorter and slimmer than western paperbacks, and they are usually only about two hundred pages long. Because of this length restriction, many western best sellers are often split up into multiple volumes. These criteria mean that cover designers have less space to work on per book, but potentially more books are available. You might notice an almost universal trend of larger, more numerous typographic elements on Japanese covers. As my team has been working on a YA cover, I’m specifically interested in that market. As a teaching example of differences in YA cover design between Japan and America, one need look no further than America’s favorite dystopian series about ritual teen murder and bird-themed rebellion: The Hunger Games.
American Cover:
Japanese Cover:

The American cover of The Hunger Games is dark yet expressive, prominently featuring a gold pin of the mockingjay, a fictional bird used in the story to symbolize the spirit of revolution. The Japanese cover designers said to hell with all that and depicted Katniss (and most likely Peeta) in standard manga/anime style. This is the perfect example because it highlights a couple key differences between American and Japanese cover design strategies.
First, the cover is character centric, as the design of characters is seen as the most important element of plotting in most Japanese media. For example, a Japanese anime, movie, or video game will most likely advertise the character designer before the director, creative director, writer, etc. Many YA novels in the West will put a cast of characters on the cover, but there is always pressure here to highlight the setting or symbolize the plot with abstract design work. Such elements rarely make it onto Japanese covers.
Second, the anime renditions of Katniss and Peeta are a clear designation of the age group this novel is intended for: young adults. Children and teens in Japan are the primary consumers of manga and anime, and they have hundreds of options to choose from every season. In order to catch the consumer eye, many Japanese cover designers emulate manga-style art. This is the most popular way to advertise YA fiction in Japan, with some of the more famous examples being The Fault in Our Stars, the 39 Clues series, and Twilight. This manga-style rule often expands into adult fiction as well. For example, these amazing covers for George R. R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire, which have many split editions because the books are so lengthy.
These observations are by no means rules, and there are certainly western YA novels that make it to Japan with the cover design work largely unchanged, but it is interesting to see how differing cultural norms and demographics can alter how a novel is presented on the store shelf.

The Bizarre State of Japan’s Failing Book Publishing Industry: What We Can Learn

You step into a Japanese bookstore. Wall to wall you see nondescript, two-tone spines with black lettering, so you decide to search by author and genre. Unfortunately the books are grouped by publisher and you don’t know which one you are looking for, so you ask the attendant for help. He tells you, “That’s a foreign book. We only stock bunko, or proven bestsellers.” And it’s the biggest bookstore in town.
Much like in the West, the Japanese publishing industry was hit hard by the rise of digital media and the Barnes & Noble–style superstore. These changes and the resulting panic they caused have largely settled down in the West, where print has proven to be resilient to total destruction, but publishers are struggling to remain relevant by adopting new technologies and upending traditional business practices. Can the same be said for the nation that, in 2016, does business almost exclusively through fax machines? No, seriously . . .
Yes, Japan’s book publishing industry is almost certainly in the toilet, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. With Apple, Google, and Amazon slowly but surely expanding their digital distribution services in the country, the problems will only compound. But I’m more concerned with what we can learn from this as future publishers in a risky business. How did it go so wrong? Here is just a taste of what I think happened:

  1. Japanese Pricing Models and Return Rates Are Insane – The Japanese bookseller is operating on saihansei, or consignment, meaning they don’t have to pay for their stock and instead are making 20 percent on each product sold to the consumer. If the book doesn’t sell, it can be returned to the publisher, just like in the West. There is, unfortunately, a huge caveat to this system: the vast majority of Japanese books are priced by the publisher, and the price cannot be adjusted at any point in distribution or sales. This hurts the publishers the most, as a poorly judged market can mean unprecedented rates of return, sometimes averaging over 50 percent. While there have been pushes to deregulate this rigorous sales model, Japanese publishers are resistant to losing total control over their products in the storefront.
  2. Foreign Titles Are Almost Universally Disregarded – Earlier, I mentioned Bunko, or mass-market bestsellers. They are small, paperback books with undecorated spines and little to no cover art. They are also virtually the only format for foreign works in the Japanese bookstore. Scouts for Japanese publishing houses will typically only choose certified bestsellers with clear mass-market appeal for localization, and they don’t choose many of them. It is estimated that only 8 percent of the books on sale in Japan were originally printed in other countries, and that 8 percent doesn’t mean the newest and hottest books on the international market. It’s not uncommon to see nearly all foreign shelf space taken up by ancient but proven backlisted titles. Patricia Cornwell, Michael Connelly, and even Aldous Huxley—deceased since 1963—take up the most visible and marketable positions in Japanese bookstores. Here is a great article on the impossible challenge for the foreign bestseller in Japan if you’d like to delve a little deeper.
  3. Print Media is Not Made Valuable in Japan – Many western publishers put a remarkable amount of effort into increasing the heft, build quality, and aesthetic appeal of the books they release. Why do so when condensed paperbacks are so much cheaper to produce? Because a consumer will perceive a bigger, prettier book as more valuable, though not strictly from a monetary perspective. A book’s build quality and art are powerful marketing tools, as a fancy book becomes more than just its contained information. It can also be sold at a greater profit margin. In Japan, however, there are almost no hardcover books, especially in trade publishing. Even guaranteed bestsellers are printed in a publishing house’s uniform paperback style, devoid of the typical artistic embellishments of the western hardcover. And if the value of a text is solely the information within, then what’s the incentive for purchasing physical over digital?

Ultimately, these examples show that it was an unwillingness to change that brought Japanese publishing to its knees; a steadfast reliance on older models of sales and consumption that couldn’t hold up in a more competitive market. Now, Japan seems to have no choice but to prepare for the all-digital future that we are actively and consciously adapting to in the West.

Stumptown Comics Fest: Searching for Greg Rucka

By Sarah Soards
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I arrived at the Stumptown Comics Festival. Maybe some live reenactments of Superman’s death? Were catgirls going to be trolling the booths looking for hugs? I had been to an anime convention a few years ago, and was shocked to see cosplayers lined up in the hotel hallways with cardboard signs saying “Hug Me” in thick black Sharpie. Luckily, I was saved from having to give any hugs to strange, sweaty teenagers dressed up like Snake from Metal Gear Solid.
Booths were packed like sardines into the event space—it was a veritable comic book-filled labyrinth. It took a little getting used to, but once I figured out how to navigate the narrow aisles, it became less overwhelming. Dark Horse, Oni Press, and Top Shelf were just a few of the companies that filled the room at the Oregon Convention Center. With my trusty press badge around my neck, I plunged forth into a sea of comic books, graphic novels, merchandise, paintings, and chapbooks.
Know Your City
Now, I love comic books and graphic novels, but I am certainly no connoisseur. I can generally tell if the art is not so great, and I can separate a good story from a bad one. But there were so many amazing comics to look at and choose from! A bit overcome, I stumbled into a booth where a man declared that he had created a new type of superhero graphic novel.
The story follows a young man as he battles the forces of evil in order to save his city from destruction. The young man also happens to be gay. The comic’s creator explained to me that as a young, gay teenager he enjoyed the action and storylines of comic books, but was never fully able to relate to the protagonists. So he created his own superhero that he and other people in the community could connect with. He stressed that the comic still contained non-stop action and all of the standard superhero tropes, but that the lead character just happens to like men instead of women. It’s a story about a modern superhero for a modern audience. We had a great conversation, and I realized that this man was not the only one writing LGBT-themed comics.
I walked around a little longer, breathing in the stale air and smiling like an idiot. I ended up purchasing two graphic novels, even though I had told myself that I was attending purely as a press person. But there was so much excitement and hope squashed into that little room, how could I not buy anything? It’s an incredible community—they constantly support one another, which is how they have been able to keep growing over the past few years.
There weren’t any hugs, catgirls, or people yelling in Japanese, but there was still a sense of giddiness. There are so many paths that the industry can take—the possibilities are endless. Whether it’s a web comic or a perfect bound hardback, the comic book world will continue to push and explore boundaries, and that is something we can all look forward to.

Jesse Morse Guest Poet Post

Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Jesse Morse, a poet from Portland, OR, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Colorado. Please enjoy his post!

Two Years After

What happens to a place when you leave it? Rather, what happens to the place inside of you when you are no longer there?
It is impossible for me, for example, to stare dumbly at this cloudy Texas twilight (on a layover at the Houston airport) and not be reminded of my six years in Portland, Oregon. For the rest of my life, grey sky and drizzle will be internalized this way. I left Portland two years ago to pursue a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Denver. I’ve thought about Portland three or four times a week since.
As one stumbles through life and poetry, into one’s mid-thirties, the places one has lived and left grow, if not in quantity, than in abstraction. Some people never leave. Poets tend to. I have left other places: Oberlin, Ohio; Takamatsu, Japan; Cupertino, California. All places I have lived. All places in my rear view mirror; places I think about rarely. This has been impossible with Portland. The leaving has been anything but leaving.
Portland Drizzle
And it is poetry, I contend, that lies behind my inability to do away with Portland. To live and write in a city, to make poems and attempt to order the world through those poems, is to grow intimate with that city.
Chuck Palahniuk writes in Fugitives and Refugees that everyone in Portland leads three lives, works three jobs; yet watching Portlandia one might imagine that everyone in Portland retires by the age of twenty-five. I found these two notions, seemingly in opposition, to be entirely true. Before moving to Denver I was a milieu counselor at a residential rehab center for teens, I worked two nights a week at a restaurant, and tutored high school students at night and summer school. Somehow it all fit together, with ample time to write, play guitar in a band and host occasional poetry readings (things you might do when you retire). I can’t imagine a city more encouraging of this wide variety of life and art than Portland. Every friend I had did something artistic, while also doing something else. Not one friend owned a television.
To write poems inside the academy, I’m finding, is very different. I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it. Every poet I have met in Denver, myself now included, affiliates himself or herself with (i.e. depends on) a university. Some are tenured professors of creative writing. Many teach composition to barely eke out a living. One or two have administrative positions.
Unquestionably, the creative writing tradition in the greater Denver/Boulder/Fort Collins area is astounding, with three well-respected MFAs full of notable faculty (UC Boulder, Naropa University, Colorado State University) and the Creative Writing PhD at Denver University repeatedly ranked first in the nation. Nevertheless, I proffer that these programs overshadow another poetic that emerges from the server at the pub, from the barista, or the record shop. And while Denver is chock-full of these historically vibrant birthplaces of poems (think of Kerouac and Cassady watching jazz at El Chapultepec, few poets immersed in the academy bother with them. Or rather, the few consistent reading series around town that I frequent seem to always have the same poets from the same part of the same universities in attendance, and little to no one else.
Undoubtedly this has less to do with Denver itself (as in, I simply haven’t found events or met poets who have no interest in the academy—they must surely be here) than that I am, for the first time in eight years, inside an ivory tower. I’ve spent the last two weeks dealing with an arrogant undergraduate student instead of writing poems, for instance. I am as implicit as anyone. Though I wasn’t implicit in Portland. Or at least, I don’t remember being so. And maybe that, in the end, is why Portland hasn’t left me. The life I made there was my own. The easy difficulty of the city forced it on me. The life I’ve made here is, thus far, more common.
Finally, like anywhere, Portland has its problems. The homogeny is stultifying. And bumper stickers that read “Keep Portland Weird” embody an aesthetic that is anything but. Yet, in my perhaps too romantic mind, I remember the city much like a proper reading of a poem: multifarious, continuing. To leave Portland has been to ingrain the city to an astounding degree, to believe that poetry from the Northwest is poetry made of life.

 Jesse Morse

Though now pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Denver, Jesse Morse will always consider the Northwest one of his three homes. He’s had various pieces published in various places (most recently in Amerarcana and Golden Handcuffs Review), and Portland-based C_L Press put out a chapbook called Rotations, with a lot more Eric Chavez poems of a completely different nature. Jesse spends much of his time playing outdoors with his labradane Hank.
Jesse lived in Portland for six years and wrote “Eric Chavez in Portland” after seeing Eric Chavez play with the Sacramento Rivercats against the Portland Beavers. Unfortunately, the Portland Beavers no longer exist. Due to stadium concerns, the Beavers were forced to move when the Portland Timbers joined the MLS. Hopefully, Portland can one day land a professional baseball team.
“Eric Chavez in Portland,” is featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Portland edition. Both books are currently available from your favorite local bookshop or online retailer