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.