HERE'S A STATISTIC Hiroki Sakai and Ioannis Mentzas would like to change: for every 20 translations of foreign books published in Japan, just one Japanese book is translated into a foreign language. Sakai, founder of Vertical, a four-year-old publisher of translations of Japanese commercial fiction, and Mentzas, Vertical's editorial director, are betting that the time is right to get a western audience hooked on Japanese books. In the past few years, Americans, in particular, have become big consumers of Japanese pop culture, from food to film. The popularity of manga comics has been a driving force. Last year, US sales of graphic novels exceeded US$200 million, according to Publishers Weekly. Since 2001, Vertical has been trying to harness that hip factor, bringing out a total of 20 titles, five of which are manga. 'Given how well manga was doing,' Mentzas says, 'we thought that meant there was a readership among young people who weren't turned off by Japanese culture and who felt comfortable with Japanese place names and people's names. I guess it means globalisation isn't just the Americanisation of the world.' Sakai, a former book editor for the Japanese media giant Nikkei, came to the US in 1999 to start a literary agency dedicated to bringing Japanese works to US publishers. He recruited Mentzas, then an English master's student at Columbia University. The son of a Greek father and Japanese mother, Mentzas grew up in Kobe and is bilingual, in English and Japanese. But there was little interest from publishers. Sakai soon realised that the best way to get the books published was to do it himself. He secured financial backing from Nikkei and investment company Itochu International and set up an office in Manhattan. The name Vertical alludes to the way Japanese text is written. The company now has a third full-time employee, who handles marketing. In a coup for the publisher, celebrity book designer Chip Kidd, a fan of the colourful Japanese animation style called anime, agreed to design its jacket covers. Vertical's focus on mainstream commercial fiction distinguishes it from other US publishers of Japanese translations, which tend to stick to literary works. In selecting titles, Mentzas takes into account the way western literary tastes differ from those of the Japanese. 'We like stories with strong plot lines and character development,' Mentzas says. 'We don't think the more essayistic stuff that's popular in Japanese novels would do well here. We look for works that belong to a recognised genre - like horror, science fiction, fantasy or mystery. There are readers in the US who are familiar with those genres and are always looking for good works, and maybe have read the good ones already in English. They're open to translated works that are excellent in that genre.' In general, he says, Japanese books have 'a more Zen-like sensibility', whereas American authors try 'to display their verbal virtuosity with bravura sentences'. The company's most successful title is its hardcover version of Koji Suzuki's The Ring, which became a hit horror movie in both Japan and the US. Vertical has printed a respectable 16,000 hardcovers and 15,000 paperbacks (it doesn't give out its sales figures). The third book in The Ring series, Loop, was published in May. 'Suzuki's books are our breadwinner,' Mentzas says. Another top seller is Vertical's five-volume Buddha series, a manga biography by Osamu Tezuka with 35,000 copies in print. There are three more Buddha volumes in the works, all due out this year. The company also has high hopes for The Guin Saga, a planned 100-volume fantasy series whose 86 titles so far have sold 25 million copies in Japan. Vertical has published three Guin books and has two more planned for spring and autumn. But the average Vertical title sells just 2,000 to 3,000 copies, 'which isn't good', Mentzas says 'Publishers usually say if they can't sell 5,000, they won't do the book.' The major hurdle has been getting US distribution outlets interested in Japanese translations. 'When I started at Vertical, I thought the hardest thing to do would be to get major media to write about us,' Mentzas says. 'That turned out not to be the case. The media, both mainstream and independent, have been very good about covering us and reviewing our books. What's been the hardest has been getting our books distributed and into retail bookstores.' That's partly because Vertical is a small publisher with an equally small marketing budget. But the US mindset regarding translated work also is partly to blame. 'American readers are notoriously reluctant to pick up translated fiction,' Mentzas says. 'They say they feel like they're not accessing the real work, whereas if you read something written in English, you can enjoy the texture as the author intended. But I don't think that's the real reason - I think it has to do with perverse parochialism on the part of the global empire.' Only a select few Japanese authors have a following in the US, much less name recognition. Along with Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe - whose books sell modestly in the US - these include Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami, both of whom have made US best-seller lists. That success, as well as the enormous popularity of manga, has resulted in more competition for Vertical. In 2003, Random House teamed up with Japanese publisher Kodansha International to bring translations of best-selling Japanese works to the US market. Other mainstream houses also are dabbling in translations. Penguin, for instance, bought the paperback rights to In the Miso Soup, a thriller set in the Tokyo underworld by Ryu Murakami, and plans to publish it sometime this summer. Vertical is trying to meet the challenge by being flexible. Last month, it published its first non-fiction book, an English original titled Saying Yes to Japan: How Outsiders Are Reviving a Trillion Dollar Services Market by Tim Clark and Carl Kay. 'As long as a good project comes along, we'll do it,' Mentzas says. The company also is trying to land film deals and has been receiving 'pretty massive attention from Hollywood' - particularly for Taichi Yamada's Strangers (2003), which Mentzas calls 'a thinking man's ghost story'. He says Vertical's mainstream mix will give it staying power, as long as it can attract the investment to fuel its growth. 'The interest in manga and anime is here to stay,' he says.