The light novel experience is seemingly exploding in the West, so let's take a look at the market with people that know about LNs.
It’s been about two years since Yen Press announced at Sakuracon that they’d be making a push to bring more light novels to the West. The history of LNs was poor when they announced it, and it seemed unlikely that there would actually be a growing market once TOKYOPOP went kaput.
Times have changed a lot. Once an unknown, with light novels being adapted into anime more of us are now familiar with them. So, what is the current state of LNs today? I reached out to 5 people that have been covering LNs since its big push: Sean Gaffney (A Case Suitable For Treatment), Cho (English Light Novels), Matt and Michael (Taykobon), and Justus Stone (Author of The Bleeding Worlds series) and ask how they see the LN market so far.
So, the big light novel push in the West started a few years ago: how do you think the market has looked since then?
Sean Gaffney: I think it’s still going; it’s hard to judge when companies don’t release sales figures. Certainly judging by the spinoffs released, Sword Art Online and DanMachi have been big hits. I do think it may be a bit overglutted, not in terms of less sales but rushed translators – several series had release dates pushed back recently, and I suspect a grueling production schedule may have something to do with it.
Cho: I’d perhaps term this the second big light novel push in the West, but I think the circumstances are a lot more favorable this time around than they were back when TOKYOPOP and others were releasing a bunch of different series. Most of the light novels releasing now already have pretty large fanbases thanks to popular anime adaptations, but even then it seems some series are selling better than the publishers expected.
Quick example: From the sound of things, Kizumonogatari has been having trouble keeping up with demand, and the quick follow-up announcement of Bakemonogatari English releases shows Vertical will want to keep moving forward with this. It’s great to see another publisher look into light novels more, following Yen Press.
Matt: It’s been heartening to see the market for light novels growing over the past couple years. I’d credit this in large part towards Yen Press’ efforts to capitalize on the current popularity of light novel anime adaptions – it’s been telling to see the series doing the best in the market are those with popular anime adaptions.
If I had to pinpoint the moment when light novels really “arrived”, I’d have to point to the release of Sword Art Online‘s first volume in English – I think that drew a lot of interest and introduced many readers to the format as a physical and tangible product. The results there sales-wise speak for themselves, and if the market continues its growth I think we may look back on that release as the single most important volume in terms of putting light novels on the map for retailers as its own distinct category.
Since then, the market has seemed to be in a really healthy place: the number of series that Yen Press has licensed continues to grow and I’m amazed at some of the risks they are taking. I know that My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Not As I Expected was highly requested, but as a slice of life (and a Shogakukan title) I was completely surprised by this license and I think it speaks to how strongly Yen Press believes in this marketplace.
Additionally, it’s also telling that other publishers such as Vertical and Viz are getting in on the game – Vertical’s recent license of Bakemonogatari so soon after their release of Kizumonogatari seems to signal the demand this market continues to have.
I think in terms of future outlook we’ll continue to see growth – maybe not so much in terms of the number of licenses that we’ve seen but in terms of bookstore presence as retailers adapt to the market demand. Yen Press’ licensing strategy will be interesting to watch especially as some of their tent pole series such as Spice and Wolf begin to end.
Michael: Over the past couple of years, the Japanese light novel market in the U.S has gone from basically nothing to dozens of volumes being released a year. While the sheer increase in releases is a positive sign in and of itself, the increasing involvement of multiple publishers such as Yen Press and Vertical seems to bode well. I think this next year will be important for the industry, as we will see if sales manage to stay on pace with the exponentially increased output from publishers. The key, as with any market, will be for the publishers to find out what and how much of a demand there is in the Western market for light novels.
Justus Stone: The market is still mostly one big player, Yen Press (Yen On being their LN imprint). Of the 18 English LN series I own, only 4 are from companies other than Yen. It seems most other companies who release LNs are sticking with one off items (such as Viz). One Peace Books is publishing The Rising of the Shield Hero and Vertical has released the one off Attack on Titan LNs & the Seraph of the End LNs. Though Vertical has somewhat entered the larger series game with their publication of the Monogatari novels.
It strikes me that light novels are still something of a risk for most of these companies. They seem far more interested in manga. Even Yen Press releases more manga titles a month than light novels. The average month sees about 4-7 LN titles released. Compare that with Japan where there can be up to 80 per month! (Note: as Kuuderes points out, the average can be even higher than just that.)
Also, we are still mostly getting series AFTER they have been released here as anime (or are very soon slated to be released). Again, this seems to demonstrate the companies are trying to avoid risk by gauging the popularity of an anime/manga here before licensing the light novel series.
But is it better than a few years ago? Yes, most definitely. TOKYOPOP had a few LNs back when they were in business (Crest of the Stars for instance), but they published them in such a similar manner to their manga, that I think fans were confused. Plus the public themselves weren’t as aware of light novels. Now, we are getting sturdy, trade-paperback releases of LNs, not just shelved with manga, but also in the normal Fiction/Sci-Fi areas. Yen has even released Kawahara’s latest, The Isolator, in hardcover!
Just the mere fact it’s getting hard for me to keep up with the series in release says something. Just three years ago I would be hard pressed to find more than 2-3 series, and not on the shelves of my local bookstore. Now they stock numerous titles. It helps that Yen has a large backing company in Hachette. Maybe that’s why they’re willing to put more money into the project?
It’s a long answer, I know, but as a reader who loves this style, I’m overjoyed that I can read professionally translated and edited works and display them on my shelves. Part of the reason I only review official releases is to try and support the industry and to see it grow. Though I’m making the job of reviewing almost every release per month pretty darn hard! I think if we keep supporting the industry, it’s my hope we’ll see companies start looking at the bestseller lists in Japan and bring us titles that are popular there in print, but might not yet be anime. We’ve gotten to the point of simulcast anime & manga releases, it would be amazing to get even slightly close in the LN market as well.
What do you think makes, as I would term it, a “great light novel experience?”
Sean: It needs to have interesting (not necessarily original) plotting and have good characterization. To take two series at random, I enjoy No Game No Life more than Strike the Blood because, even though NGNL panders to otaku and siscon fans shamelessly, it has fascinating ideas and its characters are vibrant. Strike the Blood is smooth, with excellent action scenes, yet you can feel it’s written to sell as an anime rather than as a book series on its own, and its characters are flat.
Cho: I think Hachiman from Oregairu said all that really matters in light novels are the illustrations, right? I don’t feel what makes a good light novel is all that different from what makes a good novel in general though. Readers like an engaging story, memorable characters, and (depending on the genre) an interesting setting. Different books aim to achieve different things, and thus capture the attention of different kinds of readers. There’s a good variety of stories out there to check out, and each series has something unique to offer.
Matthew: Story and characters tend to be the number one priority in my mind. I’d say that in titles that I’ve reviewed more harshly, the cause is almost always a failure to establish the characters in an interesting way with personalities that don’t feel like they serve merely to get to the next plot point. There are a number of titles that seem to take their protagonists completely for granted by failing to instill any personality traits into them. This is a massive missed opportunity especially with the number of series that use the first-person, and generally makes the story feel flat.
Additionally, the overuse of tropes in series is something that I’ve found particularly grating. I’ve begun to call this “light-novel silliness” even though it’s present in manga too, but it tends to refer to certain situations which are used for cheap laughs or to pander to the audience. The “protagonist accidentally walks in on female character changing” type gags was never funny to begin with, and when series start including moments in that category in each volume it’s really ruins the narrative flow.
Clarity is also a big factor, especially in action series. The clarity with which an author writes is a big factor in how readable to text becomes, and can often turn a series that might be quite good into a slog to read through – Black Bullet is definitely one that immediately comes to mind here.
Translation is also important in making for a great experience, naturally we as readers don’t want to feel like we are missing out on anything from the original work. This is actually an area that I think this North American light novel market hasn’t had too many problems with, as all the translations I’ve read have generally been very good. However, a great translation that clearly captures and conveys the narrative voice of a series is a joy to read – Stephen Paul’s work with Sword Art Online and Durarara!!, and Kevin Gifford’s work on The Devil is a Part-Timer! stick out to me as tremendous adaptions.
Michael: To me, a fictional story is an implicit agreement from the author to attempt to provide an engaging experience for the reader. A good book is one that is able to draw the target audience in and maintain their interest. Light novels in particular focus on providing relatively brief stories that feature occasional illustrations. Because of this, I feel that a good light novel experience is one where the images and style of storytelling as well as the actual plot itself complement each other to provide a quick but immersive experience for readers.
Justus: Good translation, good editing, and for physical copies, quality binding and cover. In other words, the same thing I expect from an English published book on the NYT bestseller list. The book shouldn’t be filled with typos, the grammar should make sense, and the story should flow.
Great Experience – Vertical’s release of Kizumonogatari. Beautiful cover, nicely bound, and the translation kept the lyrical style the series is famed for. I can’t recall a single typo or grammar flub that took me out of the story.
Less than Great – One Peace Books’ release of Shield Hero. I really like the story, but in terms of the release, they allow more typos and grammar slips than either Vertical or Yen. And I’m not a huge fan of the size of the book. Their print editions are about an inch-and-a-half smaller than Yen’s which increases the page count and makes them less comfortable to hold. A small thing, but still matters to enjoyment.
Considering how many more books Yen puts out, I have to give them credit. Their releases are consistent in both translation, editing, and packaging.
Is there a title you would recommend people read right now?
Sean: It’s not out until May, can I cheat and say Baccano!? Because yes, Baccano!. Assuming I should stick with titles actually released, I continue to be pleasantly surprised by Is It Wrong To Try To Pick Up Girls In a Dungeon?, which is a great example of a series that has lots of cliched characters and some otaku pandering but it’s irrelevant because the characters are believable and react well with each other, the action scenes are mostly well done, and the author clearly has a consistent worldview. I’m also very fond of Nisioisin in general, and Kizumonogatari is excellent if you can accept the fact that the narrator is a bit of a teenage pervert – and if you can’t, may I advise you stop reading light novels?
Cho: I generally try to suggest titles based on the sort of genre people are interested in. If you just want my favorite series though, it’s Book Girl by Mizuki Nomura, a high school drama with mystery and romance. If you need something with a little more action, I’ll go ahead and recommend Durarara!! It’s great.
Matthew: Sword Art Online Progressive is the best action series on the market today – it’s amazing to see the jump in writing quality in that series compared to author Reki Kawahara’s other work in the original Sword Art Online as well as Accel World. The visuals are crisp, the characters are memorable, and it feels like he is trying different things with his stories that make for some excellent action scenes. Durarara!! is also excellent – I hadn’t watched the anime so the book was my first experience with the series, and I’ve been blown away so far with how delightfully weird yet thoughtful it is in its storytelling.
Michael: I’m particularly enjoying my time lately with A Certain Magical Index. Kazuma Kamachi’s prose works well in its English translated form, and the interesting concept of futuristic science mingled with ancient magic has been very entertaining so far. The relatively episodic structure of the plot makes each volume feel like its own independent story, and the consistent quality has been nice to look forward to every few months.
Justus: Kizumonogatari. Translation and packaging are top-notch. Story features vampires, which Western audiences will connect with, but will also see how it’s treated very differently and how that makes it awesome! Also, great characters with stunning dialogue just make it a great reading experience, light novel or not!
Finally, do you know of a JP title that U.S publishers should be taking a look at for here?
Sean: Anything without fantasy elements! Seriously, I was amazed that there is only one light novel title currently licensed that does not have some element of fantasy – and it’s not out till June (My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong As I Expected). I’d like to see some of the Yuyuko Takemiya novels we’ve seen manga for over here, such as Toradora! or Golden Time. I’d also like Maria-sama Ga Miteru. And a billion dollars. And a pony. Those last three are equally likely.
Cho: I would like to see publishers bring over more works that don’t have anime adaptations. The top-rated series on MAL is The Empty Box and the Zeroth Maria, which I think would be a smart one to license. I’ve only read the first volume so far, but it was well-written and played with conventions of the supernatural-thriller high school subgenre in clever ways. I think it could win a lot more fans through a solid official release.
Matthew: I’m a big slice of life and romantic comedy fan, so I’d love to see Yen Press take a chance and license Golden Time. I enjoyed the anime adaption quite a bit, and as a shorter series with only 8 volumes I’d love to see them take a chance on that series.
Michael: Just to go out on a bit of a limb here, I’d recommend Hai to Gensou no Grimgar. While the fantasy MMORPG-style sub-genre already has several series coming to the West such as Sword Art Online, Log Horizon, and soon Overlord, there is a great appeal in the general concept (there’s a reason so many of them are coming West), and many of these big titles have differentiated themselves significantly from each other. Grimgar has a slower and deeper character progression than other stories in the genre, but still maintains some of the high emotional stakes that characterize popular series such as Sword Art Online. To me, the concept of the ironically realistic day-to-day experiences of the characters in Grimgar as well as the deep, natural-feeling progression they have makes for a great story that would likely appeal to Western audiences. Additionally, the recent anime adaptation would likely help with initial anticipation and visibility for the series.
Justus: Nejimaki Seirei Senki: Tenkyou no Alderamin (Alderamin on the Sky) – also as a plus, it has a manga & an anime is coming this year, so it meets what most other LNs have accomplished before getting an English release.
Eirun Last Code – because… MECHA!! That’s one genre we really don’t have in LNs in English yet, and I do love me some big robots. Plus, again, another big seller in Japan which bodes well for its future. And there’s only 3 volumes, which means we wouldn’t be far behind in the release schedule.