The Failure of the Light Novel in America

And suggestions for solutions.

With my utter enjoyment of Shiki and the knowledge of its origination in ‘light’ novel form, I have spent a good deal of time lately mulling over the matter of light novels and their utter failure within the American market. It also seems a bit fitting to consider the issue given the coming of the Gosick anime adaptation – once upon a time, after all, TokyoPop was releasing the Gosick light novel series. However, it was one of the titles dropped when TokyoPop had all that trouble a couple years back, only to finally have a second volume see the light of day early last year… before TokyoPop gave up the ghost altogether.

Light novels first started popping up on licensing lists during the heady heyday of manga in America. Companies were throwing everything out there already, and were beginning to grasp for new ideas on how to get ahead in the market. The genesis of the light novel as a common form from which to adapt anime from synced up with this thirst for other material quite nicely, and so suddenly things like CLAMP Paranormal Detective Agency and The Twelve Kingdoms were showing up on the manga shelves in bookstores across America.

However, as it turned out, light novels just simply did not sell. That the manga market essentially crashed very soon after the coming of light novel translations to our shores didn’t do it any favors, either. So we have now arrived at the point where there are only two publishers who show an interest in licensing and releasing more light novels (Yen Press and DMP), with two other publishers who hold the licenses and are releasing one series apiece (Little Brown has Haruhi Suzumiya and Viz has the aforementioned Twelve Kingdoms). While some other companies do retain licenses for light novels, they are either no longer translating or releasing them (TokyoPop), or are only printing omnibus editions to squeeze some last dollars out of the venture (Seven Seas never released the third Strawberry Panic light novel and are instead bundling it with the first two for an omnibus this coming June).

So! The light novel didn’t really pan out in America. While a couple of companies are still willing to take some chances with it, the big wolves of the business aren’t really bothering with it any more (Twelve Kingdoms being the exception). Especially when compared with the amount of manga being released in America, the light novel makes up an incredibly miniscule portion of the entire market. Which, of course, means that you probably shouldn’t bother getting your hopes up for the likes of MariMite, Mirage of Blaze, or Toradora!. And it also means I should go buy a bunch of lottery tickets and cross my fingers really hard if I’m really dedicated to getting a domestic release of Shiki… ’cause the only way that’ll happen is if I pay for it myself.

But I don’t wish to be merely doom and gloom-y about the entire enterprise. Because now that I’ve pointed out that it hasn’t panned out so well, I’d also like to address the potential why’s and make some suggestions for how one could go about making a working model out of licensing and releasing light novels. I honestly don’t think this has to be the end, and I also would even carefully suggest that the light novel, in fact, could end up being quite profitable stateside. We just need to set up the equation a little differently.

The number one problem with light novels in the American market place lies in the way these titles were marketed. It really is that simple. Most manga readers in America are casual fans; they are not us crazy devotees smashing away at our keyboards out of love day in and day out. They are the folks who drive the sales of popular series like Vampire Knight and Bleach. They are the ones who don’t recognize who the cosplayers dressed as  Utena are. They are the ones who will probably put the manga down by the end of high school or college and walk away from it completely.

They are also not looking at the manga shelves to read “books”.

And so this is the real problem: shelving light novels with manga seriously reduces the potential market for light novels. The light novels that have been released in America have not had anything to do with the popular titles which bring in the profits for the companies. So, while the casual fans surely do look over other titles, too, their eyes are unlikely to rest upon the spine of something such as Book Girl. And, even when they do, nine times out of ten when that person picks up the book, and then sees the ‘novel’ designation? Back on the shelf it goes.

Succinctly, light novels are marketed all wrong.

So, how to market them correctly?

Firstly, get the bookstores to stop shelving light novels with manga. This is the biggest issue. Secondly, stop marketing light novels solely to anime and manga fans – this means not limiting advertisement to volumes of manga or to outlets such as the Anime News Network. Don’t cease this directed marketing entirely; just don’t see it as the be-all to end-all. Thirdly, avoid visuals which mark a light novel as being “one of those Japanese cartoon things”.

This last one is potentially the most controversial, as it very well could alienate a slice of the manga fan market. Going along with that, though, ditch the dedication to Japanese terms and suffixes. Which will really piss some folks off, but the potential audience gained by making these changes versus the one which will be lost is worth it. There are more readers of books in general in this country than there are readers of manga. And there are a LOT more readers of books in this country than there are readers of manga who demand that every last -sama and shuriken is included.

I feel as if this is the point in the post where people start screaming and throwing things. But I’m advocating for a way to make the light novel profitable, not trying to make people like me 100% happy. Because, honestly? I don’t like the idea of getting Shiki with ‘waka-sensei’ rendered as ‘Ozaki’ or ‘doctor’. But I like the idea of not having it in English even less.

Actually, Shiki makes for a very good jumping off point into the land of larger examples. Shall we?

Shiki would be a decent investment for a company. It has vampires! While the vampires of Shiki are much more in the vein of “true” horror than the currently popular vampires (e.g. Twilight and True Blood), they are still vampires, nevertheless, and so this could be traded on in its favor.

However, I do think that it would be better to stick Shiki on the horror shelves and market it more in line with the content there. There is also a big thing to consider with Shiki, too: Fuyumi Ono has specifically stated that she wrote the books as an homage to Stephen King’s ‘salem’s Lot. This is a HUGE angle that could be exploited to help market the books. King is one of the best-selling authors ever, and also performs very well outside of the target audience for his genre. So play up this connection.

It would also be worth it to approach King himself and ask him if he would be willing to read the book and write a cover blurb for it himself, maybe even mention it on his own blog. For King, there would be no real downside to agreeing to it – ‘salem’s Lot has been out since 1975, so its sales aren’t exactly amazing these days. By putting his own name on the Shiki releases, he’d be creating a chance for newer readers to pick up Shiki, read it, and then decide to go check out ‘salem’s Lot. And if these readers, in turn, enjoy ‘salem’s Lot, that then creates a potential that they will start buying some of King’s other books. It’s a win-win situation for King and the would-be publisher of Shiki.

However, Shiki is hardly the only title which has the potential to do well in the American market. Get the volumes of Toradora! onto the Young Adult shelves, and it could probably move a decent amount of copies as well – high school drama and romance sells very well. Slip all those BL light novels into the Romance or LGBT section, and they would certainly do better than they currently are (believe me, I know this market!). And Battle Royale? Well, does the enduring popularity of Lord of the Flies and the recent fever-pitch of interest in The Hunger Games tell us nothing?

And this is simply just the tip of the iceberg. There are literally thousands of light novels and light novel series in Japan, enough to have a different stroke for every folk. Which obviously wouldn’t be wise for a company in America to attempt, but my point is is that it isn’t difficult to find one which is suited to a particular demographic of readers. The light novel doesn’t have to have been a largely failed experiment in American publishing.

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43 Responses to The Failure of the Light Novel in America

  1. Scamp says:

    Didn’t they try this with Spice and Wolf but the fans went ape-shit for changing the cover to a live-action Horo instead of their cartoon goddess?

    • adaywithoutme says:

      I’m not surprised to hear that, but, again, if one goes with all the stuff I’m suggesting, then the potential pick-up dwarfs the folks who will get pissed about it. I also think Spice and Wolf has fairly limited appeal to begin with, given how much it focuses on medieval economics, so I don’t think it would be a good title to try crossover appeal with. I view the whole licensing and release of it more as an act of love than as an actual attempt to turn a profit, honestly.

      • mefloraine says:

        Yes, that did happen. But the problem was a) they were taking the original cover away forever, and we’d never be able to see/get it anywhere and b) she was naked. So their reason for making it that way was taking it away in a different direction, hehe.

        I do think that if companies kept to the original aspects more, they’d get the dedicated anime audience…the ones that want the light novels. Can’t totally agree with you there. I have seen people say, “I’m not buying this because it’s not like the original” multiple times. And I’ll admit, even I’m disappointed that the Haruhi novels are so weird if you buy them in paperback. Or that my first volume of Spice and Wolf isn’t like the others.
        Not to mention, the publishers seem to be pretty bad at selecting new cover designs to use. The Book Girl covers are ugly.

        And if they’re not going to do that, they should stock them in the teen or even general fiction section instead of the manga section, like you said. The manga fans who care anyway are the ones who will be willing to go look for them.

        I also hate suffixes and agree with that, urg. But I don’t care for them in my fansubs, etc either, so eh.

        Also, you are a marketing genius. Though I wonder what King would actually think of something like that, hurr.

      • utilsabound says:

        >I have seen people say, “I’m not buying this because it’s not like the original” multiple times.

        I’m a big fan of S&W and I still haven’t bought the 1st light novel volume. It would just cause me too much stomach bile to have it sitting on my shelves. I’ll wait until they reprint it with the proper cover artwork, and the new artwork on the slipcover.

      • adaywithoutme says:

        It would be interesting to see what King would think of it. I wonder if he even knows that his book inspired someone that much? After all, he’s published in dozens of languages and is quite famous, but Ono surely isn’t (sadly).
        Also, I have to be honest – I think its stupid to not buy something over something such as the cover. I’ve hated the covers for literally dozens of manga and bought them anyway. And I do know that some people will be like that, but I also think that the gained audience would outweigh these folks, so from a publishers’ perspective? Makes more sense to swap the cover.

  2. Corti says:

    I just got into light novels from reading at Baka-tsuki and went out to buy whatever I could get my hands on. It’s so depressing to see that Seven Seas dropped Boogiepop, but I guess the only way I’ll ever finish that series is by learning Japanese myself.

    I never really thought of the fact that it’s poor marketing that drove the light novel market into the ground, but it’s a great point. When you brought up the fact that it may have been better to not use anime-styled covers, it reminded me of what happened with the Spice and Wolf light novels that were brought over recently. Dropping the anime cover for a more fantasy-themed one is precisely what you’re after, right? I don’t recall how much of a difference that made in sales though.

    Right now, I’m happy just to see ANY light novels make it over here. I’m pretty much buying any light novel I see (Spice and Wolf, Haruhi, Book Girl, Zaregoto [I don’t know if there’s been any news of a third one yet though], and then there are the sci-fi novels that Haikasoru has been bringing over [I’m loving Otsuichi]) and who knows – maybe one day a publisher will try the light novel market again. I know I’d like to read Bakemonogatari in addition to Shiki and Boogiepop, but one can only hope, right?

    • adaywithoutme says:

      I feel like Spice and Wolf is a bad example since, honestly, I don’t think it has a ton of appeal to begin with for most people – how many folks are dying to read about medieval market economics? I also think you can’t just swap out covers and still shelve it with the manga and expect to see any difference in sales figures. If anything, my guess is that taking that route actually hurt sales, since the diehards got mad about the different artwork.
      I feel guilty for never having bought Boogiepop in the first place. I actually ended up buying the second and third volumes of Twelve Kingdoms after this out of sheer guilt; I really enjoyed the first book, but the price-point was discouraging to me for a while since I usually borrow books from the library or buy them used, and so am not accustomed to paying that much.

      • Anon says:

        I think you have some great marketing suggestions in here actually, and I’ve had most of the same thoughts myself regarding having non-anime covers and positioning the light novels towards a broader readership.

        Admittedly I did not follow it, but the S&W fiasco sounds like a small but extremely vocal minority making life difficult for everyone. I cannot for the love of god (or allah or buddha) comprehend why people get their panties in a bunch when the cover changes or when honorifics are omitted. If you want to see the cover so much, buy the Japanese version. If you want to read honorifics all day, learn Japanese. These kind of changes are necessary to make these novels financially viable in the English-speaking market, so learn to deal with it. But instead of supporting publishers, people would rather cry and moan and boycott the series, ensuring that far fewer light novels will see the light of day over here.

        I still haven’t read S&W myself simply because, from seeing the anime, it was mostly “fantasy economics” – the economics and the settings were really contrived, and mostly took modern trade concepts into a medieval fantasy setting instead of properly doing research on economics back then. If this was actually a series about medieval economics, as people seem to like fooling themselves into thinking, I’d be the first to read it.

  3. Or you could just go digital. In fact, for people self-publishing, hitting the Kindle stores just may be the way to go.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      This is an interesting idea; I was focusing in on the traditional publishing aspect as I myself have a bias toward the physical format. I will admit, however, that the notion of digital publishing has crossed my mind quite a bit lately, as I desire items which have little to no chance of getting licensed and translated. I’ve been pipe-dreaming about it particularly in relation to Shiki… but I’m very cautious with money, so I doubt anything’ll ever come of that personally…

  4. Baka-Raptor says:

    Hey, I bought Strawberry Panic and Spice and Wolf. Imagine that, one of the few things I actually spent money on failed. Maybe I should go back to hoarding my wealth in the best interests of the industries I care about.

    • utilsabound says:

      Well, the 3rd and final volume of Strawberry Panic is being printed, and S&W is still going strong. So nothing you spent money directly on failed.

      • adaywithoutme says:

        Spice and Wolf is selling strongly enough that I don’t see it failing. The third volume of StoPani actually isn’t being published by itself; its getting bundled in with the first two in an omnibus edition. So, StoPani didn’t exactly succeed… but you’ll still be able to finish it if you’re willing to fork over money that will in part pay for material you already have.

  5. daRAT says:

    I do not know if I would call The Twelve Kingdoms ‘light novels’. To me a light novel is a quickly and easily read short book, 12K was around be fore the anime and in my opinion quite well done.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Yeah, it seems strange to call them that, but that’s their official designation by the original publisher. I wouldn’t really call the Shiki novels ‘light’, but the same goes for them, too.

      • Yuki says:

        well I haven’t actually read them so I wouldn’t know about these. but if I remember correctly the “light ” in light novel refers not to “light reading” but to “easy(er to read; less kanji and difficult vocabulary)”

  6. Joe says:

    I haven’t read it (them?) yet, but I really like the cover design on the Kino no Tabi light novels. Unmistakably Kino, but also wouldn’t scare off potential non-manga readers.

    Hopefully there’s a future for these in ebook form, at least. I don’t know how much it costs to license these things, but despite the small market for these things, surely there’s still some money to be made off of them at the end of the day. I hope.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      In the digital format there may be enough of a market to at least break even… its hard to say, though, because going digital-only severely cuts down on the potential audience. But it also slices the costs down quite a bit, too. So many factors to consider! I may have to do some more research on all of this…

  7. Niko says:

    I always thought fantasy light novels (like Twelve Kingdoms) would do really well if marketed to fantasy fans, and SF novels to SF fans. More and more genre fans are becoming interested in work from outside the English-speaking areas, so it seems silly not to market to them. And genre fans read a lot.

    • hayase says:

      I second the motion.

      Wider reach potentially increases sales, which should be good for them (and fans too). I guess they’re probably just not that open-minded and are only concerned with quick profits.

      • adaywithoutme says:

        I think its more a matter of getting stuck within a certain way of thinking. And that way of thinking has lead to poor sales, so, at this point, they just are leery of the format altogether.

    • I think Haikasoru might be taking this approach. Some of their titles (like Housuke Nojiri’s Rocket Girls) are considered light novels and some are not, but they are all marketed together as generally-hard science fiction.

      A pair of publishers not mentioned above seem to be following the same or similar advice. Vertical has done the first five volumes of the Guin Saga, though I don’t know how well they sold. I do know that the Vampire Hunter D series has sold well for Dark Horse, if only because they’ve done over ten volumes in the last five years. Dark Horse is, I believe, marketing the series through the manga section of bookstores but also selling it in regular comics shops to people who read comics (not manga) and/or play RPG’s.

      • adaywithoutme says:

        I actually looked into the Guin Saga after posting this, as it occurred to me that there was a decent chance that Vertical was publishing at least some light novels; they seem like such a natural one to do that.
        I did know about Dark Horse, although I didn’t mention them since they aren’t licensing any other light novels and they finished releasing Vampire Hunter D. I like Dark Horse; I think they’re a very smart publisher. They seem to be the counter-example to DC’s approach with CMX. They didn’t get in over their heads, thinking this was some easy money to be had, and they’ve shored up their profits by picking up lapsed licenses for CLAMP. They’ve also been willing to do things like you’ve said, putting VHD into “regular” comics stores in addition to having it shelved with manga.
        That Haikasoru is why I always accidentally mis-attribute Twelve Kingdoms to Viz these days… -_-

  8. hikaru says:

    Ah yes, Spice and Wolf and the uproar over the covers. But I think that through their trial and error they have stumbled upon the best solution: ie the ‘manga’ cover with a ‘realistic’ slip cover. That way the hardcore fans are happy and the novel gets more exposure in bookstores.

    I currently own 3 light novel series: Haruhi, S&W and Zaregoto. I think Zaregoto has the biggest potential out of the three to sell to a general readers (like you replied to my post about Spiral, the mystery genre is easily accessible to casual fans) but it has a very anime-ish cover and has honourifics. Being an anime fan the honourifics really work for me, but it definitely reduces its chance to appeal to the casual market. And I know I would still buy it if they dropped the honourifics.

    I think also, in order to promote light novels, publishers should send out more review copies. They do it heaps with manga, why not light novels? I rarely come across reviews of light novels. I really want light novels to succeed! They are the only novels I read nowadays!

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Yeah, hide that manga cover under the other one, don’t scare the non-anime/manga freaks off 😉
      Its a good idea to send out more review copies. And I’d shy away from ID’ing them as being of relation to manga with that stuff, as I think doing so makes reviewers less inclined to take the material seriously, unfortunately enough.
      But, hell, I know that if a publisher sent ME a review copy, I’d probably go buy it anyway if I thought it was good! And I’d definitely review it here (acknowledging that I’d gotten a review copy, of course), and try to get folks interested in it if it was good.

  9. Allt says:

    the twelve kingdoms is released by tokyopop not viz. Also tokyopop have recently released some more of the chibi vampire light novels as well so they haven’t entirely given up on the light novel.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Thanks for the correction; for some reason, I always make that mistake. I think its because Viz did just start up that Haika Soru line.
      As for the release of the Chibi Vampires novels… I wouldn’t chalk that up as not giving up on the format. The series went on a two year hiatus, after all. To TokyoPop, it probably ended up making sense to release the final two last year since it is fairly cheap to do so and it makes sense to try to squeeze some more dollars out when they already own the license. They haven’t licensed any light novels since 2008, so I’d say they’ve given up that ghost.

  10. utilsabound says:

    Yen Press needs to publish the Strike Witches novels. With the original covers. That will solve everything.

  11. Ducky says:

    I agree that marketing is part of the problem, but you’re missing what I think is the biggest sticking point of all: the generally terrible translations. I am that fan that hangs out at my keyboard and knows when everything is coming out, and I can’t stand light novels because they are painful to read. You can tell right off that they weren’t originally written in English, not because of the honorifics and Japanese words (and honestly, for young adults, anything foriegn is a plus), but because the sentences are stilted, the tenses are off, there is little variance in sentence structure, and so on.

    The only reason this doesn’t come up as often for manga (they use the same, largely terrible translators – and if you think I’m exaggerating, just read some of the blog posts I do in which people working for, say, Tokyopop talk about how it took them years of working in the field to realize proofreading their work once might be a good idea) is because manga is largely about dialog, and the pictures fill in the background. It’s much easier to translate “Hello, I’m home,” into something readable in a manga than it is to come up with a smooth-flowing version of “As I opened the door, I called out ‘Hello, I’m home,'” or whatever. The common use of first person in light novels doesn’t help readability, either.

    Fix the English, then worry about the marketing.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      I think there is a very wide variance in terms of translation. Twelve Kingdoms had a good translation. CLAMP Paranormal Detective Agency? Not so much.
      I don’t think using the same translators for light novels as are used for manga just doesn’t make any sense, honestly. Its similar to only putting light novels on the manga shelves and marketing them to manga readers – the two mediums are *not* the same. Vertical uses its regular translators to work on the Guin Saga releases they’ve done. Makes a lot more sense.

  12. I have never agreed with anything as much as I have agreed with this post. Especially on the light BL novels. There’s a reason I write queer YA fiction–there’s not enough of it. The light BL novels would do INCREDIBLY well in the market.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      I have found their quality to be a bit dubious, though. I would argue that the BL manga available in this country thus far has totally outclassed the light novels that have been available. However, this isn’t to say that there aren’t any good ones – the folks licensing just need to dig a little deeper, I think, get away from the usual storylines that crop up.
      As a person who chewed my way through a metric ton of queer YA fiction as a teenager, I would fully agree that there isn’t enough of it out there. I think its gotten better every year, but I still think there needs to be more.

  13. Nemo says:

    For what it’s worth, you’re forgetting a couple other publishers with one or two relatively obscure light-novel franchises, like Del Rey and NisioisiN… and a couple others whose names escape me at the moment.

    It’s easy to blame the marketing, but I think perhaps light novels are ill-suited for mass consumption in a society that wants to pigeonhole things and label them. Light novels tend to blur or outright defy genre boundaries, which doesn’t make the bookstores’ jobs any easier. B&N considers the “Book Girl” series “teen fantasy”, for instance, which must confuse the bejeesus out of people expecting anything remotely Tolkien-esque or Harry Potter-ish, or even, less of a stretch, in the vein of Diane Duane’s ‘Young Wizards’ series.

    People who do actually read light novels seem to stray widely outside of any one genre (the “people who bought this also bought…” list on B&N for Zaregoto includes the Count of Monte Cristo, House of Leaves, and a bodice-ripper romance…) but my decade of retail book-sales experience suggests that such people are regrettably few and far between, alas.

    Also, with specific regard to Toradora!… I honestly cannot see it selling well here, regardless of where it gets shelved. I love the series, it’s a great story, but it’s doomed to failure in America and probably the rest of the English-speaking world. It’s too long (it’d be, what War and Peace size as an omnibus edition?), has insufficient appeal to young adult males, and its charming slice-of-life-ishness is probably too mundane for a generation weaned on teenaged wizards and sparkly vampires, more’s the pity.

  14. Kelly says:

    I 100% agree with this post. I’ve actually made several posts on my own personal blogs about light novels and how they can sell better. It’s nice to see people with the same thoughts! =D I just don’t know why the publishers haven’t tried it yet.

    I think Yen Press (and Little Brown) actually have the right idea with their book covers (for the most part) – changing them to appeal to a wider audience (in theory, anyway). I couldn’t help but applaud them over the Haruhi Suzumiya paperback covers, the Kieli covers, and the Spice & Wolf covers. The changes really seem like they would appeal to a more massive market (ESPECIALLY the Haruhi covers – they look like a bunch of other teen novel covers I’ve seen. There’s one in particular, but I can’t remember the title…).

    Of course, bookstores misplacing them in the manga section doesn’t help. I’ve been tempted to write letters to some of the major bookstore chains and ask them to correct it and as to why they need to, but I keep on postponing it because I don’t think it’ll do anything or they might think “it has manga-style drawings so it is manga” (last time I checked, manga didn’t have walls of text =P).

    I think eliminating the manga-styled drawings inside light novels would actually help them sell as well, but I feel like that would almost defeat what a light novel is in a way. I know hardcore fans wouldn’t be happy about that, but it’s more of a marketing kind of thing. I can’t really think of a way around getting rid of the manga-styled pictures without a second edition (kind of like how the Haruhi Suzumiya novels have the hardcover editions with the original covers and the paperback with the redesigned ones). Or they could always shove them in the back of the book to possibly be overlooked. *shrugs*

    I pretty much buy any light novel release (even if they don’t really seem to be light novels – like My Girlfriend’s a Geek and Chain Mail) that comes out in attempt to support the industry. There’s a load of light novels I would love to see license, though I doubt most of them will. I’m one of those people who like to see the original media form before seeing its other media adaptations (like if there’s a light novel, anime, and manga for a series and the light novel came first, I want to read the light novel before reading/watching the rest of the adaptations), so it’s quite annoying when the series is a light novel and not licensed (OreImo and Durarara!! are coming to mind right now, though I know there’s a bunch more).

    On a side note that is still related to light novels, DMP’s BL novel line has such crappy adaptions for the most part. =P They’re painful for me to read most of the time. I don’t really know if they’ve gotten any better from their first releases, but man. The ones I read (with the exception to Lonely Egotist – that one was a pleasant read) all seemed to be more based on a direct translation and a bit…choppy. As if the person adapting it didn’t know how to write well. I still buy them regardless though.

  15. sensualaoi says:

    I thought Yen Press owned Little Brown…

  16. Nikodemos Eldred says:

    An interesting post. I realize it’s been a while since you wrote this entry, but would you mind contacting me through my email? There’s something I’d like to discuss with you.

  17. Sensualaoi says:

    Perhaps you should update this post and flesh it out more.

    I now think light novels failed, not because of marketing or economic changes in the marketplace. Nor do I feel they fail because the translations were awful. Instead they failed because most light novels are garbage…and somewhere in our subconscious the audience woke up to that and refused to pay for the Japanese equivalent of Goosebumps (or at best the Twilight series.)

    I’ll be frank and disclaim that I haven’t fully read too many light novels. But I have a sizable collection and have tried. If I must name some popular titles, I have tried to read pieces of Haruhi, Kino’s journey, Shana, and Ore no Imouto in Japanese. Usually when I realized I was getting increasingly bored even if I managed to get through a chapter or two, I would check out the English translations hoping for more depth, realized that the series simply was not that interesting, (compared to the classic Hugo-winning science fiction/fantasy short stories and novels I’ve consumed in English.) Haruhi was the best of them, in english or Japanese, but there’s no way I would be willing to sit through that entire series, again, after already watching the anime a few times, Even Haruhi has its share of amateurish writing in the form of loose ends, and meandering side-plots.

    I won’t bash the light novels much here, but they usually have wish fulfillment plots, unrealistic or flat (stock) characters, boring school settings, and if there’s a tsundere or love triangle they frequently run for ten or 20 volumes. They catch my eye at bookstores because of their insane titles, catchy cute/erotic illustrations, and weird synopses, and they usually try too hard to hook you with a gimmick in the first chapter. However. without “meat” food coloring alone can’t keep my interest for long. Once you realize the secret, that even if you translate them faithfully they’re just trash, you probably won’t want to pay the especially high book fees you mentioned. Certainly, if you don’t know the series you probably won’t bother to give it a chance.

    Now look at it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know any Japanese. You would have to be a hardcore fan of any of those series to pay good money to collect translations, usually with ugly book covers, and littered with cheap translations. The reason the Haruhi localization by Yen Press was so good was it used a Haruhi fansubber (i.e. Hobbyist) who had started working on the novel translation in his free time. I won’t point figures at any companies, but hiring a cheap off the shelf translator won’t result in the passion necessary to rewrite a story in another language well.

    Frustrated by the idiosyncrasies and delays of certain companies, and the death of bookstore chains in the west, those hardcore fans have turned to bakatsuki (mainly) for free translations of their favorite series. With the hardcore niche filled, I don’t even see a reason for the man in the middle official translators to continue to exist, or to take risks on new publications. Especially when the casual otaku audience has never showed much interest in light novels, and the outside audience who enjoy reading novels, if introduced to these translations, generally turn their nose upwards and treat them with utter contempt. If forced to consume cotton candy or popcorn, the later crowd would understandably rather read junk that originated in and is fully expressed by English, rather than always feeling like something is missing or characters inexplicably don’t behave in line with Western norms…as happens within a translation,

    • Nemo says:

      Not all the light novels are quite as badly-written (and/or translated) as Oreimo, thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Zaregoto was comparatively decent, and S&W is a, uh, nose ahead of the pack, as it were.

      Also, as much as it pains me to say this, to judge from the video game/app market, very few people anymore seem to really care much about even the most godawful translations. Hell, even otaku are astonishingly accepting of absolutely terrible manga translations, like the incompetent way One Peace butchered Whispered Words. I can only infer that some of the really awful fansubs have set the bar really, really, really, really low, in terms of expectations. 😦

  18. At last, a human with common sense. Thanx so much for writing this. Essentially, I read my own thoughts here, those that I am unable to express in words. I happened to be looking for the English translation of Shiki, but of course, there is nowhere to be found. I am utterly disappointed at companies, I see books like Twilight and Vampire Diaries getting translated in a gazillion of languages, and in all honesty without deserving their sales and reputation, while novels like Shiki don’t get translated because they made no profit overseas. I wonder how companies can fail so much sometimes with unsuccessful marketing, even though it is quite simple how one can sell a product simply by marketing it in a more clever manner. I am sure that a lot of people would be more than pleased to read a REAL vampire story. Shiki is perhaps the closest “dupe” to Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ and I feel that with all this Vampire trend lately (although it is tained with sparkles, soft whiny characters, sex and other s***t) stories that are less refined to please a love-deprived, daydreaming audience like Shiki would sell very well. I feel like I have said a lot, but meh, it’s a real shame that I may never be able to get to read this unique masterpiece.

  19. chrysthopes says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I’m a Book Publishing student, and what brought me in this industry is the Light Novel. Things are changing. A new category of readership has been created : The Young Adults. And this readership is the same that read both Light Novels, Seinen and Dystopia. That’s how SAO became so huge. This is not just the anime. This is the power of this device. The balance between image and text, the readership targeted. Light Novel is not for kids.

    I’m still looking for a huge corporation where I could learn more about brand new marketing strategies for this very special format. By the way, allow me to ask you a couple questions.

    1) I’m French and in French a Light Novel is a Roman Graphique (literally Graphic Novel) but what is the true meaning in English?
    2) Do you know big Publishing houses which publish regularly Light Novel?
    3) Do you think we could take the device, separate it from the Japanese Culture and apply it to American Pop Culture?

    Again, thank you so much for this article.

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