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 wastaking with me in a thick-walled plastic bag courtesy of the duty-freezone at Dublin Airport. A late bus and worrisome crosswise gusts ofwindblown rain (which had all the charm of blundering under ashowerhead pointed at your cheek) didn’t turn me off, either. You can’tkeep a good fan down, especially when he’s headed into Manhattan tohobnob with the folks from Vertical, Inc. about the “light novel” explosion.
“VerticalVendesday”, as these quasi-monthly kaffee-klatsches are called, happensabout 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 onlookersalike on subjects of mutual concern typically gleaned from goodiesVertical has, or is, or will be publishing. I wasn’t able to attendprevious sessions—no thanks to my chronic inability to figure out whatI’m going to be doing even five minute into the future—but this timeout 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 KinokuniyaBookstore, slightly to the east of Bryant Park (not far from anotherwonderful hangout on the same vein, Book-Off). There’s nothing formalabout the get-togethers; the management brings in a circle of foldingchairs, and those invited sit, sip drinks and swap opinions. Ed parkedhimself in the middle of said circle and unpacked one stack ofuntranslated light novels after another from a Vertical-branded bag,the better to pass around and allow the uninitiated to get that muchmore initiated. Show-and-tell time, for sure. I had a few such items ofmy own to pass around in case it came to that, but sat tight andlistened instead.
We started by trying to nail down the term itself. Most people in that circle felt they knew a light novelwhen they see it: they’re short (40-50,000 words tops, no more than acouple hundred pages); intermittently illustrated; generally written toengage a younger audience but often have fair crossover potential; comein a small form factor (generally no bigger than 11 × 15 cm); and areon paper that’s generally only a grade or two above newsprint for thesake of minimal heft. The “light” doesn’t relate solely to subjectmatter, either—for each Aoitori Bunko series (a high-qualitylight-novel imprint aimed at ‘tween girls in Japan) with sunny,fresh-faced storytelling, there’s a Vampire Hunter D and a Guin Sagawith hefty doses of PG-13+ material to match it. Those two titles rightthere are classic examples of light novels that have made the jumpacross the Pacific to English-speaking territories; Tokyopopis—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’smost striking about light novels right now is how they’re majorbusiness, verging on a billion dollars a year in Japan. That’s heavysugar for literary publishing of any stripe, which has long sinceconsigned itself to minimal profit margins and flat sales. So whyexactly are we getting a book boom, especially in the middle of aworldwide economic implosion that’s taken the air out of everyone’stires? Two things: the saturation of the manga market, and an influx oftalent from other literary fields.
The first is easier todescribe since it’s self-evident. The Japanese manga market, withinJapan itself, has nowhere left to go. Every conceivable niche, marketsegment or subdivision of readership has been addressed multiple timesover. The Parking Lot, as they say, Is Full. It isn’t that the industryisn’t profitable; it’s that there’s no growth left in it, thatmagic business buzzword so beloved of shareholders and board membersalike. The only place left to go is ancillary markets—to coax the mangareaders into moving sideways into novels that are specifically craftedto allow them to make the jump (short, has pictures, easy read, oftenadaptations of beloved material).
The second reason requiressome backstory. Many of the current luminaries of the light novelworld—OtsuIchi, NISIOISIN, etc.—originally tried to get their BigBreaks in “straight” literary fiction. That field being stagnant, theyswitch to creating light novel material—and in NISIOISIN’s case, he hitit 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.
Howthis translates into success in the U.S. is a stickier wicket, if onlybecause there are no direct parallels to how any of this works overhere. 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-mouthrecommendation. And since there is just as much mediocrity and drossand paint-by-the-numbers hackwork in light novels as there is anywhereelse, it makes sense to go and bring over the best stuff no matter what its authorship or origins.
Thelack of a direct analogy for a light novel outside of Japan also posedits own problems. One of the members of the circle—ex-Tokyopop graphicartist May Young, if memory serves—described a thought experiment: ifyou handed a light novel (in English) to someone on the street, howwould they describe it? Odds are they’d classify it as young-adultfiction and be done with it, which puts it into a ghetto all of its ownonce 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—whorecognizes these today?). Such things have either gone upscale tofull-blown bestseller status (cf. Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels) orvanished 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 Potterto audiences outside the U.K. and clearly understand how to get kidsexcited about reading apart from sponsoring movie tie-ins. That tiedinto one of my own comments: the publishing industry doesn’t seem tounderstand how to market books apart from getting them made intofeature films, which is akin to getting kids to eat their vegetables byputting 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. Despiteeveryone’s efforts, it just sat there; it didn’t sell nearly wellenough to justify bringing out the rest of the series in English. Butlo and behold, here comes a Japanese TV series that adapts somethinglike the first sixteen books, and so when (not if) it’s releasedStateside, that provides another way for the books to get a boost. Suchthings, from everything I’ve seen, do not happen automatically, though;they have to be carefully orchestrated by all parties involved. I wasstunned to learn that there were light novels for the Slayers series already published in English—doublystunned 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?
Manyo ther 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.
Other Lives Of The Mind