July 30, 2009
by: Serdar Yegulalp
Why a corner of Japan's literary market may be a new publishing sensation here, too.
July 29, 2009. Wednesday. New York City. Forecast: Rain, lots of it. That’s not going to stop me, I mused, and packed everything I was taking with me in a thick-walled plastic bag courtesy of the duty-free zone at Dublin Airport. A late bus and worrisome crosswise gusts of windblown rain (which had all the charm of blundering under a showerhead pointed at your cheek) didn’t turn me off, either. You can’t keep a good fan down, especially when he’s headed into Manhattan to hobnob with the folks from Vertical, Inc. about the “light novel” explosion.
“Vertical Vendesday”, as these quasi-monthly kaffee-klatsches are called, happens about once every five weeks. Said gatherings feature the V People (Ioannis Mentzas, Head Honcho and Ed Chavez, Marketing Director) holding court with a gang of fans, pros, ams, and curious onlookers alike on subjects of mutual concern typically gleaned from goodies Vertical has, or is, or will be publishing. I wasn’t able to attend previous sessions—no thanks to my chronic inability to figure out what I’m going to be doing even five minute into the future—but this time out I just set my jaw, pushed everything else aside, went, and promised myself I’d be back next time, too.
VV is typically held on the second floor of the Kinokuniya Bookstore, slightly to the east of Bryant Park (not far from another wonderful hangout on the same vein, Book-Off). There’s nothing formal about the get-togethers; the management brings in a circle of folding chairs, and those invited sit, sip drinks and swap opinions. Ed parked himself in the middle of said circle and unpacked one stack of untranslated light novels after another from a Vertical-branded bag, the better to pass around and allow the uninitiated to get that much more initiated. Show-and-tell time, for sure. I had a few such items of my own to pass around in case it came to that, but sat tight and listened instead.
We started by trying to nail down the term itself. Most people in that circle felt they knew a light novel when they see it: they’re short (40-50,000 words tops, no more than a couple hundred pages); intermittently illustrated; generally written to engage a younger audience but often have fair crossover potential; come in a small form factor (generally no bigger than 11 × 15 cm); and are on paper that’s generally only a grade or two above newsprint for the sake of minimal heft. The “light” doesn’t relate solely to subject matter, either—for each Aoitori Bunko series (a high-quality light-novel imprint aimed at ‘tween girls in Japan) with sunny, fresh-faced storytelling, there’s a Vampire Hunter D and a Guin Saga with hefty doses of PG-13+ material to match it. Those two titles right there are classic examples of light novels that have made the jump across the Pacific to English-speaking territories; Tokyopop is—was—another publisher of same with titles like Scrapped Princess and the now-defunct Chibi Vampire books.
Tokyopop’s deep-sixing of Chibi Vampire by itself sparked a whole discussion: what is it about something like Chibi Vampire / Karin that the manga can sell well but the novelizations [which aren’t redundant with the manga or the TV series; they’re gaiden / side stories] can just crater? Possibly because in the eyes of both the publisher and the reader, they’re not the same thing, even if they share a common source material. Nobody here thinks the Batman Begins or Iron Man novelization tie-ins are interchangeable with their movie counterparts, either. (Side note: Tokyopop made an effort to market Scrapped Princess to non-manga fans, in part by using more generic cover art; see above for an example of same.)
What’s most striking about light novels right now is how they’re major business, verging on a billion dollars a year in Japan. That’s heavy sugar for literary publishing of any stripe, which has long since consigned itself to minimal profit margins and flat sales. So why exactly are we getting a book boom, especially in the middle of a worldwide economic implosion that’s taken the air out of everyone’s tires? Two things: the saturation of the manga market, and an influx of talent from other literary fields.
The first is easier to describe since it’s self-evident. The Japanese manga market, within Japan itself, has nowhere left to go. Every conceivable niche, market segment or subdivision of readership has been addressed multiple times over. The Parking Lot, as they say, Is Full. It isn’t that the industry isn’t profitable; it’s that there’s no growth left in it, that magic business buzzword so beloved of shareholders and board members alike. The only place left to go is ancillary markets—to coax the manga readers into moving sideways into novels that are specifically crafted to allow them to make the jump (short, has pictures, easy read, often adaptations of beloved material).
The second reason requires some backstory. Many of the current luminaries of the light novel world—OtsuIchi, NISIOISIN, etc.—originally tried to get their Big Breaks in “straight” literary fiction. That field being stagnant, they switch to creating light novel material—and in NISIOISIN’s case, he hit it big when he wrote one of the Death Note tie-in novels (The Los Angeles BB Murder Case, now in English thanks to VIZ). Name recognition is often best achieved in conjunction with other name recognition, it seems.
How this translates into success in the U.S. is a stickier wicket, if only because there are no direct parallels to how any of this works over here. For openers, most people aren’t going to seek out light novels because they’re from Japan, for the same reason most people—even many literary mavens—don’t seek out literature because it’s been translated. The provenance, the origin, isn’t important. What’s important is that it’s a good read, which comes in the form of a trusted co-reader making a word-of-mouth recommendation. And since there is just as much mediocrity and dross and paint-by-the-numbers hackwork in light novels as there is anywhere else, it makes sense to go and bring over the best stuff no matter what its authorship or origins.
The lack of a direct analogy for a light novel outside of Japan also posed its own problems. One of the members of the circle—ex-Tokyopop graphic artist May Young, if memory serves—described a thought experiment: if you handed a light novel (in English) to someone on the street, how would they describe it? Odds are they’d classify it as young-adult fiction and be done with it, which puts it into a ghetto all of its own once again. My friend James Leung commented to me, after the session, that another halfway analogy would be the old-school pulp market (Doc Savage, Perry Rhodan, Lensman—who recognizes these today?). Such things have either gone upscale to full-blown bestseller status (cf. Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels) or vanished entirely, so again direct analogies are hard to come by.
We agreed that it in fact might be best not to bank on light novels from established properties. Two examples that bucked that trend to some degree: Haruhi Suzumiya or Seriei no Moribito. In both cases, the English translations of the novels have been released to appeal more directly to readers, not fans: Suzumiya was marketed through the YA division of Little, Brown (even if the imprint on the back still reads “Yen Press”). Moribito has even less of a direct tie-in: there’s no mention of the anime at all on the dust jacket and its publishing imprint is Arthur A. Levine, a division of Scholastic. That’s the same folks who brought Harry Potter to audiences outside the U.K. and clearly understand how to get kids excited about reading apart from sponsoring movie tie-ins. That tied into one of my own comments: the publishing industry doesn’t seem to understand how to market books apart from getting them made into feature films, which is akin to getting kids to eat their vegetables by putting candy corn on their plates.
Sometimes the fact that a novel ties in with other media can be a boon. Case in point: Vertical’s own Guin Saga. Despite everyone’s efforts, it just sat there; it didn’t sell nearly well enough to justify bringing out the rest of the series in English. But lo and behold, here comes a Japanese TV series that adapts something like the first sixteen books, and so when (not if) it’s released Stateside, that provides another way for the books to get a boost. Such things, from everything I’ve seen, do not happen automatically, though; they have to be carefully orchestrated by all parties involved. I was stunned to learn that there were light novels for the Slayers series already published in English—doubly stunned since a) I’d been a fan of the series, b) I’d seen most of it, and c) at no time had I ever heard from anyone involved, including the American licensors of the anime, that said material had been released here. Who do you blame?
Many other conclusions bubbled to the surface during the talk. There’s little question that light novels have a future in English. The big questions are which books, and how they are to be delivered into the hands of people looking for a Good Read. The old narrow-channel marketing of by-fans-for-fans-and-to-fans doesn’t open things up nearly wide enough to make the whole enterprise worth the effort. Literary-level translation is expensive and time-consuming, easily an order of magnitude harder than assembling subtitles or relettering manga.
But the most consistent thing that came up was: More? Yes. Please. At least such was the staunch opinion of a small collection of fans and bloggers—and a couple of publishers—on the second floor of Kinokuniya that rain-splattered evening.