Most people outside of Japan have only heard of light novels in hushed tones, those elusive books that so often gain anime adaptions which can be either excellent or emotionally scarring. However, I gather from other otaku I have met and discussed this topic with; that they have never read, nor know that much about light novels. This is not because they don’t read; hell, they (hopefully) read subtitles every time they sit down to enjoy our shared favorite past time! No, it’s because light novels are still mainly Japanese, with few official translations and are often very hard to find. There is also another hurdle to overcome. Most translations are unofficial and poorly translated which makes for a difficult read. Well, being a book worm and also someone who likes to see the original in order to compare it to an adaption I began to do some digging.
The term ライトノベル or light novel is a wasei-eigo word coined about 20 years ago online that is used to define a genre of literature targeted towards middle and high school students. Abbreviated to ラノベ or simply LN, these works are usually 40,000 – 50,000 words, rarely exceeding 200 pages and have dense publishing schedules. During NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) I write a 50,000 word novel in increments of about 1600 words a day. That gives you an idea of how fast these novels are churned out. Often the novels contain artwork and other illustrations about every 20 pages and are published in a bunkobon size, 4.1” x 5.8” with a paperback cover.
Light Novels are serialized part by part in literature magazines such as Faust, The Sneaker, or other media franchise magazines like Comptiq. When complete, the parts are gathered together to form the final product. From there they are placed on the shelf at a price of about $6 – $7 not including tax. For 2011 the top 50 light novels had a cumulative sales number of 7,203,828 books with the top three being Suzumiya Haruhi no Kyougaku (435,124), Baka to Test Summon the Beast 9 (253,748) and Shinyaku Toaru Majutsu no Index (251,287). The market for light novels has continued to grow with 20% of the market of bunkobon style books.
In order to find great new talent in the light novel field, many publishing companies hold writing contests for aspiring novelists that usually boast cash incentives and the publication of the light novel as the prize. The largest of these is the Dengeki Novel Prize put on by publisher ASCII Media Works. The competition boasts a million yen grand prize, a gold prize, a silver prize, the Media Works Bunko Prize, the Dengeki Bunko Magazine Prize, and an Honorable Mention. In addition, AMW promises publications of the finalists’ novels. As of 2012 the Dengeki Novel Prize has been running for 18 years with 5,293 competitors in 2011. Last years winners were:
Escape Seed by Nozomu Kuoka
Anata no Machi no Toshi Denki! By Shibai Kineko
Kizard & Warrior With Money by Ghost Mikawa
Yuusha ni wa Katenai by Shirou Kuta
Shinryaku Kyoushi Seijin UMA by Edward Smith
Yamabiko no Iru Mado by Narikio Narita
Ashita kara Orera ga Yatte Kita by Rin Takaki
Minutes: Ichi Bunkan de Sekai o Horobosu Houhou ni Tsuite by Yomoki Kiono.
As light novels are written for younger audiences, the way that the novels are written is interesting. Light novels often use a literary minimalism approach and often have short paragraphs sometimes ranging from one to three sentences. Kanji, being an important aspect of the Japanese language are often accompanied with more furigana than usual in order to aid younger readers and allows the authors to use obscure readings for Kanji or to create new readings which provide several new layers. This leads to the issue I mentioned earlier. The complexity is often lost in translation.
Speaking of translation, currently Viz Media, DMP, Dark Horse, Yen Press, and Del Rey Manga are the companies that translate light novels to English, Tokyo Pop having died off a few years back. As light novels are not a large money maker they are not given much attention by these companies and as a result we have few translated in the United States. However there are some locations online that do have fan translations, the most notable being Baka-Tsuki which provides many different and popular light novels and also connections to the fan based translation world.
As you can see, light novels are another complicated and intricate part of otakudom which relates back to the new anime we are graced with each season. Sure, they can be lazy attempts at cash cows instead of a studio making original content; however, they can also be wonderful glimpses of whats to come. So remember, if you want more light novels translated support the industry and give props to the companies currently translating light novels.
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