in Akashi, Japan, in 1972, and raised there for 18 years,
Ioannis Mentzas is a Greek national who currently serves as
the Editorial Director of Vertical Inc., a New York-based
publisher of mostly English translations of popular Japanese
received his A.B. from Princeton University and his
Master's from Columbia University. His thesis was
entitled "Soseki in London" and it was completed
in 1996. He is fluent in Japanese, Greek and French.
March 1, 2005
We ask this question because every answer is different:
what brought you to focus on Japan?
thing, I was born and raised there, and my mother is Japanese.
Beyond that, I was a student of comparative literature. It
seemed a natural thing to do to join a publishing house with
a Japan focus.
you tell us a little about your role at Vertical Inc?
editorial director, so I select the titles, together with
Mr. Sakai. I also pick translators, supervise them, and edit
their works to the extent that thatís necessary. Iím the only
editor at the moment, unfortunately. I have to do absolutely
everything including proofreading. Were it not for the intern
Iíd be doing a lot of photocopying and a host of odd chores
gets your vote for best and worst book on Japan?
be very biased and tell you that Saying Yes to Japan
by Tim Clark and Carl Kay, our first non-translation, non-fiction
title, due out this April, is the most refreshing book on
Japan in a while. Itís a business book by entrepreneurs that
doesnít feel at all like other books about the Japanese economy
that Iíve read. Its stance toward Japan is exceptionally mature
and responsible. Worst book on Japan: itís not a book, but
I have long found the New York Timesí sketches of
life in Japan to be as disappointingly wrong-headed as their
coverage of the WMD issue in the run-up to the Iraq war.
are you reading right now? In general, what do you like to
read? Do you read for pleasure or is it work?
reading right now is A. O. Hirschmanís Exit, Voice, and
Loyalty, a great book by a great mind. In general, though,
I read for work, which in my case means a lot of genre fiction,
American as well as Japanese (sci-fi, horror, espionage, etc.).
I used to read a lot of those as a kid and am now taking them
very seriously again—funny how these things work out.
What Iíd really like to read right now is the Booker-nominated
novel Cloud Atlas, which I havenít been able to get around
to for the longest time. The author is David Mitchell, who
spent several years in Japan.
you tell us a little more about your current projects? What
are you working on now?
eight-volume Buddha has occupied a lot of my time;
itís Verticalís biggest ongoing project. The two
other series we do, Suzukiís Ring trilogy and The
Guin Saga by Kaoru Kurimoto, have naturally taken up
a lot of my energy too. All three have more volumes to go.
Itís such an honor to be overseeing the U.S. releases of these
books need to be written on Japan? Will you be writing it?
Or will you be publishing it?
I donít have the time to be writing my own books now, Iím
overworked enough editing othersí. But I canít speak highly
enough of Clark and Kayís Saying Yes to Japan. Itís
exactly the kind of business book that needed to be published
and Iím excited that Vertical is getting to do it.
us a little of how Vertical Inc was founded. Why
a publishing house dedicated to books from Japan? Tell us
a little about the business. . .What did you do before Vertical?
and I met in February 2001 when I was a Ph.D. candidate at
Columbia University with only my dissertation to go. At that
time, Mr. Sakai was the president of a literary agency, Magic
Works International. We decided that the company could
step up and become a publisher if someone like myself joined
as editor and funding was secured. Both of those things happened
and our first book, Ring, came out in April 2003,
two years after that first meeting. It seemed to us that manga
and anime imports had prepared the ground for a venture in
bringing over Japanís popular literature, something that,
for understandable reasons, college profs by and large werenít
about to undertake despite their linguistic expertise and
despite emerging demand. Films like ďLost in TranslationĒ
and Kill Bill and the remakes of J-Horror seem to
have vindicated our prognosis that a different Japan can be
is it different from other publishing houses? What wasnít
getting published in the other houses? Why a whole new publishing
big admirer of what Kodanshaís international division
and U.S. publishers have accomplished in the way of making
a swath of Japanese writers fairly well-known in a country
that is so averse to reading works in translation. From Kawabata,
Tanizaki, and Mishima to Oe and Endo, on to Banana and Haruki
Murakami, the record is actually quite impressive. Not just
literary fiction but a significant amount of mystery writing—from
Seicho Matsumoto and on—has been made available in English,
though with less success until recently with Natsuo Kirino.
Yet, genres perceived as too lowbrow (horror, fantasy) and
works considered too edgy (e.g. Sayonara, Gangsters by Genichiro
Takahashi) were getting systematically cold-shouldered in
spite of their global competitiveness and appeal. It would
have been very difficult even to sell Suzukiís Ring
to a U.S. publisher before the remake actually hit the theaters
and became a blockbuster (we acquired rights to the book well
before this happened). We wouldnít have been able to sell
Ring if we were a literary agency—but as a
publisher we could just go ahead and publish it!
is Vertical Inc looking for? What sort of books do you publish?
How do you find manuscripts?
criterion is that the book be appealing to American readers,
preferably a mass readership. Superior works that belong to
clearly defined genres with large readerships, like mystery,
are ideal. In other words, potential bestsellers. (Itís very
difficult for a small house like ours to market literary fiction
successfully.) A second, very important criterion is that
the book be an obvious candidate for a screen adaptation.
This tends to mean: unique concept, strong story, solid character
development. Being a publisher specializing in translations,
we donít solicit manuscripts; we pick our titles from already
published books by proven masters of storytelling. We prefer
authors with a long string of successes because that means
we can immediately follow up a stateside hit with another
do you choose translators? Tell us a bit about the ďartĒ of
literature translation. . .What makes a good translator?
to us, some we go after. The typical Vertical translator
is a graduate student in one of Americaís larger East Asian
Studies departments. They need the opportunity and the cash,
while we depend on their curiosity, enthusiasm, and talent.
In the case of Vertical books, translation is not
so much an art but a craft. What matters most is readability.
Thatís actually a challenge if youíve been trained as a scholar.
Accuracy is a must, but the Vertical translator must
achieve full accuracy without sounding clunky.
that you publish over such a wide array of genres, is there
such thing as ďJapanese literatureĒ that unites them?
purposes, if itís written in Japanese, itís Japanese literature.
It doesnít matter whether youíre Korean, Indian, or Caucasian.
On the other hand, no matter how ďJapaneseĒ the author or
content, if itís in, say, Chinese, then it falls outside our
companyís realm of competence. From Verticalís standpoint,
there is such a thing as Japanese literature and it comes
down basically to that question of language, not because of
any philosophical reason but in terms of sound business practice.
Selecting and translating contemporary Japanese books is what
weíre streamlined to do. Of course, in unique cases like the
eye-opening Saying Yes to Japan, we publish works
that arenít translated from Japanese; I think this sort of
exception will be made more for non-fiction than fiction.
Fiction thatís originally in English, published by Vertical,
wonít make much sense for booksellers and publicity contacts
at this stage.
is the market like for books on Japan? Who is buying? What
are people interested in? Is it a specialist house? What was
the most popular book? Can you tell us a bit about reader
of all, we arenít really a publisher of ďbooks on JapanĒ but
rather ďbooks from JapanĒ (i.e. translations). Our readers
tend to be young and curious and to have a predilection for
ďcoolĒ pop stuff. Some of our authors, however—Kenzo
Kitakata is probably the best example—write for older
readers and have indeed won kudos from seasoned veterans of
life. Our bestselling titles have been the ones that have
appealed to both types of readers: Suzukiís Ring
series and Tezukaís Buddha, rollicking great yarns
for teens and grown-ups alike. Reader feedback has been overwhelmingly
positive, but weíre a small press and I guess people tend
not to write mean letters to folks like us; those who like
us make it known, those who donít (if theyíre out there) find
better things to do than berate us.
popular interest in Japan growing? If so, what is it based
on? Or is it a fad?
the growth is undeniable and that it isnít just a fad, though
some drop-off from the current level of interest is possible.
I donít see manga ever going away. The number one reason for
all the interest is, in my opinion, the genuinely high quality
of the best Japanese pop culture. People have found out that
thereís good stuff there and wonít easily forget such a vast
and multifarious treasure trove. Globalization doesnít equal
Americanization: thatís something many of us wish is true,
and perhaps here is a happy instance.
authors such as Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, and UK
author J. K. Rowling have avid followings in Japan. Do you
think that there is a difference on what is popular in Japan
and what will be popular in the US? Will a best seller in
Japan be a best seller in the US? Why do you think American
pop lit sells in Japan?
narratives have universal appeal, I think. For historical
reasons, though, itís much easier to import Western culture
(including American pop culture) into the East than vice versa.
Thatís a fact that has at least as much to do with the way
modernization has equaled Westernization as with the merits
of those big name authors (all of whom I do respect). Itís
just not the case that a Japanese bestseller becomes an instant
U.S. bestseller, whereas practically any American mega-hit
is bound to be a moneymaker in Japan so long as its having
done well in its country of origin is properly touted in advertisements.
What should be said about American pop culture, however, is
that its producers have always had to face a market that is
highly diverse (immigrants in movie theaters since almost
the dawn of cinema). That has led, I think, to a built-in
tendency toward a kind of universal style that would have
at least some appeal to foreigners as well. The typical Hollywood
movie and its features (action, heroism, ďcorninessĒ and so
on) are the outcome of servicing aónot just ethnicallyódiverse
domestic audience. None of that hurt as American pop culture
went global. I think itís no accident that a lot of the Japanese
artists whoíre winning large numbers of fans worldwide (Haruki
Murakami, Koji Suzuki, etc.) almost invariably cite American
culture as a formative influence.
us a little about Verticalís amazing cover art. .
all designed by Chip Kidd, the most famous book jacket designer
in the U.S., and perhaps the world. He works full-time at
Alfred Knopf, Americaís premier literary publisher, but also
kindly moonlights as Verticalís Art Director. And not because
heís poor. Mr. Kidd, a big comics fan, was so delighted that
we were going to publish Tezukaís Buddha that he agreed to
oversee our entire visual direction, name-cards included.
you tell us whatís in the pipeline at Vertical Inc?
What will Vertical Inc be like in ten years?
weíll be publishing a work of popular history by Nanami Shiono
called The Fall of Constantinople. Itíll be only
our second nonfiction title. Itís an amazingly engrossing
account of that cityís surrender to the Ottoman Turks, from
the grand dame of Japanese letters. Ten years from now—well,
I wonít speculate. Not even our business plan pretends to
such prophetic powers.
the future of book publishing?
ten years later, or ask someone with more experience. Iím
still a tyro in the book world. I donít doubt, however, that
it has a future if thatís what youíre getting at.