It’s been nine years since the publication of a mysterious Japanese picture book called “Take Ivy.” The following is our 2010 interview with Wes Del Val, vice president and associate publisher at powerHouse Books, on how the viral phenomenon came about.
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IS: “Take Ivy” isn’t due to come out for another month, and yet you’ve already pre-sold the first printing. How many copies have you sold in advance of publication?
WDV: Let’s just say we’ve already had to go back to print, which is very rare, especially for an illustrated book. It’s really taken off because of the blogosphere. You guys are just taking the information and running with it. It’s just viral, which is the dream of every publisher.
IS: The book’s original hype was also driven mostly by the Internet.
WDV: Absolutely. I found the book via new media. I saw the Times write about it, and saw it on either A Continuous Lean or The Trad. The Trad had scanned the whole book, so I saw it and thought, “We have got to do this.” Over several weeks I was on the phone at 10 at night trying to find the Japanese publisher, trying to track down who holds the rights to this thing. We finally found them, and were just elated that we got the rights. So many people had been talking about it online that we thought we might be too late, but we weren’t.
All of us here saw scans and knew we loved it: none of us had seen a copy. Very few people have actually held a copy, so we were all just going crazy for scans, which really says something about the material. And now we’re seeing that a large group of people are really into this. But the timing is perfect, too, right in the thick of the American Craft movement, as some people call it, or a celebration of all things American.
IS: Has the number of pre-orders surprised you?
WDV: We thought it would target a pretty niche audience, namely the die-hard prep fans. And I knew that was sizable, I just didn’t know how sizable it was. We’re seeing that it’s going out much farther than just the niche: the historians, fanatics and collectors. And that’s what any publisher hopes, that it transcends the obvious audience. The comments we’re seeing online, people are just so excited for it, and we’re thrilled.
IS: Was Hachette, the Japanese publisher, aware of the book’s cult status in the US?
WDV: It was on their radar, but they didn’t know how big it was. They didn’t realize what the blogs had done with scans. When I sent them some links, they said, “Wow, this is amazing.” They could have seen them if they’d just googled “Take Ivy,” but they just hadn’t. To me it just screamed that it had to be reissued. If anybody had done some googling it would have led some editors to say, “You mean this thing is going for over $1,000 and nobody can read the text?”
Hachette said some US publishers had shown interest around the time of the New York Times article, but they didn’t feel it was the right fit. And then we came along wiht our proposal, and they thought it would work well with our publishing program.
IS: How did you finally secure the rights?
WDV: It was calls and emails for about a month last year. It wasn’t every day, but I’d try to find links to Hachette and email the corporate office, and they might get back to me or not. One thing led to another and finally with the help of a Japanese intern we tracked them down.
IS: Why does Hachette still hold the rights after all these years?
WDV: That I don’t know. The third printing came out in 2006, and they still held the rights: they had not reverted back to the authors.
IS: What rights do you hold?
WDV: English-language rights. So we can do Australia, the UK and North America. And the countries where we do most of our business — France, Germany, Japan — we’re allowed to sell the book into those territories. And as new territories find out about it and want to order, I just have to ask the Japanese publisher for the rights to sell it in that territory. They’ve been very helpful because they know it benefits them as well to have it widely available. I’ve already asked them about a dozen other countries that have shown interest, and they’ve said yes to all of them. Anybody can go on Amazon and get the book, this is just if they want to get it from one of our distributors.
IS: What about translations into other languages?
WDV: Every book that powerHouse publishes will be in English. But if someone wants to publish it in another language, I can put them in touch with the Japanese publishers.
IS: What’s the nature of the deal? They get a percentage of your sales?
IS: What do you think accounts for the book’s popularity? Is it partly because of the book’s rarity and mystique?
WDV: That’s part of it, and just that it’s timeless style. And the fact that it came along at this time. Prep goes in and out, and we’re right in the thick again of its popularity. Prep style will wane and something else will come along, but it is so endudring and will always have its die-hard niche. And at other times it will be bigger than a niche.
IS: What do you find special about the book?
WDV: Just the effortless style of these 18-21 year olds. Here they are just getting up and going to class. They’re not putting thought into what they’re wearing. They were just wearing the style of the day, and it just so happens that it’s effortless, timeless style. And the fact that the clothes fit, I just love. So many people wear ill-fitting clothes today. That’s the most striking thing: everybody’s wearing clothes that fit him. The seams on the shoulders fit, everyone’s wearing the right-sized pant. Now they’re wearing short, Thom Browne pants, but they’re not thinking about it. They’re just things they got at J. Press or the local store. I don’t think there’s anything contrived abou it. Now people go for the prep thing and they can really overdo it.
They wear things with a nonchalance. Comfort seems to be first and foremost. They’re just going to and fro on the campus, slipping on their Weejuns, or putting on their Converse and pushing down their socks to go rowing, and everything they do looks great. But that’s also because we’re removed from it.
Then there’s the great part that the Japanese did it, almost like it was anthropological. And they did this study and brought it back to Japan, and everyone knows the Japanese are so great at creatively twisting things. You give them something and the way they run with it is just astounding. And then we copy their copies of our originals. I love the fact that they did it, that it wasn’t a fellow student taking these pictures and making these comments.
IS: Are the authors still alive?
WDV: They are, and a lot of people don’t know that. The photographer and the three writers are all alive. They’re quite elderly now, my contact at the publisher says. Every time I send her updates she passes them on to them. Only one of them speaks a little English. They’re just so pleased that a new generation has gotten on to it.
IS: What do you know about how the original project came about?
WDV: Unfortunately the publisher couldn’t give us any information beyond the book and the text translated into English. Whatever is in the text is all we know about it. They’re so far removed from the original, and there’s nobody around there who worked on the original.
I think the clothing company [VAN Jacket] that the writers work for wanted to come to get an authentic look book, but I don’t know that for sure. However they would have come across Ivy style at that time — record covers and movies — I think they wanted a look book for their own purposes. So why not just go to the source?
IS: Who commissioned the translation?
WDV: They provided us with a translated manuscript.
IS: Did you then edit it for things like clothing terminology that may not have sounded right?
WDV: Yes, our editor worked closely with the Japanese publisher. If something stood out, we’d say, “Are you sure about this?” They’d either say, “Yes, that’s correct,” or they’d go back and rework it a little bit.
IS: On the opening page there’s a disclaimer that any errors in the original text have not been corrected.
WDV: They added that just in case some of the die-hards. This was made by a trade publisher, not a historian or collector. So that was added just in case some expert says, “No, I don’t think that’s right.”
IS: In addition to the stellar advance sales, you must be pleased with the media attention.
WDV: It’s a dream come true when it becomes viral. When you’re making a book, you want people to come to you, as opposed to “Can you please feature this?” The people I’ve gone to have all said, “I know about it and I’d love to do something with you.”
IS: Does that mean you don’t need a marketing budget?
WDV: Right, but we also don’t because we’re a small independent publisher. We put our money into the production of the book.
— CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD