Two sisters in Japan, working under the name Aranzi Aronzo, have taken the craft and DIY world by storm—a really cute storm. Now they're doing the same to five-year-old Vertical Inc., a New York City—based publisher of genre books translated from Japanese that range from J-horror like Koji Suzuki's Ring (the press's very first book) to its multiple Eisner and Harvey Award—winning eight-volume Buddha biography by Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of manga.
To understand Aranzi Aronzo's appeal, think Hello Kitty with attitude and a posse that includes White Rabbit, Bad Guy and Alien. In fact, the sisters' handmade mascots, bags and baby things are so popular that they can't keep up with demand at their stores or on their Caravan tour, a moving shop. Instead, they started writing how-to books seasoned with comics and manga so their fans could make their own cute things. That was before the sisters were asked to design the mascots for the global EXPO 2005 in Aichi, Japan, which kicked their popularity into high gear.
Since 2007, Vertical has published eight Aranzi Aronzo craft/humor titles, designed and hand-lettered by the sisters, which have sold more than 100,000 copies combined. The Cute Book is not only the most popular of the sisters' books in the U.S., it's also Vertical's bestseller and in its sixth printing, according to editorial director and executive v-p Ioannis Mentzas, who cofounded the company. More books by the sisters are on the way, including The Complete Aranzi Hour (Oct.).
“There's a cult of cuteness in Japan,” said Mentzas. “Women don't outgrow it. It's okay to have a room of cute things past 20. But here it skews younger.” In the U.S. the books have sold well at retailers like Urban Outfitters and Barnes & Noble, which is doing a nationwide promotion in July for both The Cute Book and Cute Stuff. Recently, crafting giant Michaels began to show its cute side by testing Cute Stuff while it considers rolling out other Aranzi Aronzo books.
At Green Apple Books and Music in San Francisco, said buyer Nick Buzanski, “Craft books are tough in general, because we have a big used section. There's lots of trading because craft books are so expensive and go out-of-print so fast. But The Cute Book and Cute Stuff are selling in new.” Japanophile Michael Link, director of publisher relations and events at the Joseph-Beth Group, said that he's been a big supporter of Vertical since it started, and particularly admires the look and feel of the books. Initially, Vertical's books were designed by Chip Kidd, but now that the list has grown, Kidd's Knopf colleague Peter Mendelsund has taken over as art director. However, the sisters control the look of all their books, which are exactly like the Japanese editions down to the hand-lettering on the covers.
Getting cute has been part of Vertical's calculated effort to broaden its list by adding nonfiction. At the same time, the company increased the number of titles it publishes, from 10 to 30. As recently as last year, Vertical was considering upping the number to 50 and adding a manga imprint. Although that plan was put on hold, Vertical remains committed to publishing contemporary manga and manga classics like Osamu Tezuka's 17-volume Black Jack, which it will launch this fall. “It happens to be my all-time favorite,” said Mentzas. “I like it more than the combined works of Nietzsche and Tolstoy.”
In addition, Vertical has added more general nonfiction: weight-loss books like Toshio Okada's Sayonara, Mr. Fatty (Nov.), on how he lost 110 pounds without a special diet or exercise, and cookbooks like the original Iron Chef Chen Kenishi's Iron Chef Chen's Knockout Chinese (Feb., 2009). Next year it will even release a memoir by the mother of the 13-year-old Japanese girl kidnapped by North Korea 30 years ago, Sakie Yokota.
What's driving the change is the fact that despite Vertical's success and the growth of its revenue, it's still not profitable. “It's not that we're doing fewer novels,” explained Mentzas. “We're filling in the other slots with other books.” He is convinced that this will make the difference. Fortunately, he noted, “We have committed investors.” For him, the fact that Vertical is still here five years later, with a backlist of nearly 100 books, is cause enough for celebration.