Publishing heavyweights see light in growing 'light novel' market

November 30, 2011

While the publishing industry as a whole is mired in a slump, there is light at the end of the tunnel: The "light novel."

Light novels have flourished over the past decade. The term refers to entertainment novels targeting young adult readers.

The books began appearing around 2000. They are written in a reader-friendly style and rely on strong dialogue. Typically, illustrations adorn the covers and inside pages.

They deal with a broad range of themes. Some portray students and their everyday school lives, such as extracurricular activities and student council meetings. Others focus on fantasy-related themes or science fiction, often incorporating magical and supernatural elements.

"Suzumiya Haruhi no Kyogaku" (The dismay of Haruhi Suzumiya), the latest two-part volume of the popular series released in May, has a combined first-edition print run of more than 1 million copies, an exceptional figure.

Their popularity partly stems from the fact that many titles are written by young authors whose fan base is mainly junior and senior high school students.

These authors capture "moe," a term that describes strong feelings or fixation for fictional characters, particularly in anime and manga, and other elements of modern society.

Light novels have also been enjoying remarkable success outside Japan, with translated versions widely read mainly in Asian countries.

According to the All Japan Magazine and Book Publisher's and Editor's Association, sales of "bunko" paperbacks totaled 132.2 billion yen ($1.72 billion) in 2009. Of the figure, light novels accounted for 30.1 billion yen, or about 20 percent. That represented an increase of 13.6 percent since 2004. Sales of paperbacks, meantime, continue to shrink.

With the light novel market expected to keep growing, publisher Kodansha Ltd. will throw its hat in the ring in December by capitalizing on its accumulated expertise in manga content.

Along with Shueisha Inc., another industry leader known for the popular weekly Shonen Jump and other comic magazines, Kodansha is set to challenge Kadokawa Group Holdings Inc. which dominates the market.

As a starter, Kodansha will release the first lineup of light novels from the Kodansha Ranobe (short for light novel) Bunko imprint in December.

It is worth noting that the editorial department was set up inside the office in charge of Shonen Magazine and other manga publications.

"Light novels, which emphasize the charms of characters over story content, are closer to manga than literature," said Kyo Watanabe, the editor in chief.

One of the titles from the first lineup will be adapted into a manga series to be concurrently serialized in a comic magazine from Kodansha. A spin-off light novel adaptation of "Shingeki no Kyojin" (The advancing giants), a popular manga currently running in one of the company's comic magazines, will also be released.

Shueisha has a big collection of manga titles, giving it an edge over rival publishing companies in the light novel market.

The editorial department of the Super Dash Bunko imprint, which was established in 2000, launched the Super Dash & Go! bimonthly comic magazine in October. The magazine's content relies heavily on manga adaptations of light novels from the imprint that have also been made into animated TV series.

The comic magazine also features original manga titles, which will be considered for publication as light novels if they prove popular.

"Our goal is anime adaptations because we want to attract as many fans as possible," said Hiroshi Takahashi, associate editor of the imprint who has had worked on comic magazines for adult readers.

"We are at liberty to develop novel and manga adaptations from the same title because the same editorial department is responsible."

The nation's top publishing companies are increasingly focusing on light novels because they overlap with anime, videogames and other aspects of Japanese pop culture that have become a worldwide phenomenon.

The Kadokawa Group launched the Kadokawa Sneaker Bunko and Fujimi Fantasia Bunko imprints in 1988 and also adapted the "Slayers" light novel series, whose first volume came out in 1990, into anime and videogames. Those efforts bore fruit. The series has grown into a huge hit and sold more than 20 million copies.

"Light novels only consist of text and illustrations, so they can be easily adapted into various other media because there are no restrictions in doing so," said Shinichiro Inoue, president of Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co.

The Kadokawa Group has positioned itself so that it has access to a wide variety of light novels.

Applications in a contest for new talent hosted by Kadokawa's Dengeki Bunko imprint, which commands the largest market share in the light novel sector, has been growing year after year. In 2011, it received 5,862 applications. Overall, Kadokawa group companies receive more than 10,000 works from aspiring writers each year.

The company is also generous in providing training to young writers, much more so in fact than that provided to writers in traditional literary fields.

An editor is assigned to each writer making his or her commercial debut. Together, they draw up a "training plan" for the next three books. The training system is similar to ones offered by comic magazines.

In November, the Kadokawa Group put Media Factory Inc., a publisher whose MF Bunko J light novel imprint is reputed for portraying moe-type girl characters, under its umbrella. The Kadokawa Group now has about a 90-percent market share in the light novel market targeting male readers.

Light novel publishers are also making inroads overseas.

This year, the Kadokawa Group launched a light novel magazine in China, introducing Chinese writers. It also plans to "import" Chinese writers to Japan and "export" Japanese writers to China.

(This article was written by Yusuke Takatsu and Shigeyori Miyamoto.)

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The latest from the "Haruhi Suzumiya" light novel series (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The latest from the "Haruhi Suzumiya" light novel series (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • The latest from the "Haruhi Suzumiya" light novel series (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • The cover of "Full Metal Panic Another" (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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