An Open Letter To Publishers of Manga and Light Novels

April 1st, 2008

Today on Tiamat’s Disciple (link via Mangablog,) there was an interesting post about how Light Novels are failing here in the west, a point of view that has been echoed by publishers and others. In a moment of weakness, I wrote a comment and in another, I want to share it with all of you, and hopefully, a few of the publishers that might possibly see it.

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We’re bumping up once again on the dichotomy between “projections” and reality.

In Japan, LNs have magazines of their own, the audiences of which overlap, but do not completely merge with, the audience of either anime or manga for a series.

The Japanese LN audience is well established before a collected volume is ever put out. Fans are drawn into LN sales through advertising in anime, manga, CDs, live performances and other media, like web radio.

The same is true with manga (through weekly, monthly, bimonthly and quarterly manga magazines) and anime (TV and satellite station weekly and monthly distribution.) Advertising is constant, word of mouth is a negligible factor.

Bring these media over here where there are – completely legitimate – delays to releasing a series in any medium, where word of mouth and “next big thing” are just about the only advertising done and where the audience has been trained by itself to feel entitled to immediate, free and “good enough” releases.

So when I see that LNs, or any other medium, are selling “below projections” I roll my eyes. Who is projecting that suddenly 5000 people will spontaneously want to buy the Light Novel upon which an inexplicably terminated, unfinished, although lush, anime was based – an anime that came out several years ago, no less.

I love LNs, myself. Even those that are brainless rip-offs of their own series, in a desperate attempt to wring more money from a cash cow. *I* am the correct audience for Maria-sama ga Miteru LNs. I am older, I keep up on the series as it comes out in Japan, and I have discretionary income. Is the average 15 year old girl – who has never heard of Maria-sama ga Miteru, and why on earth would she pull out an LN called Mary Watches You anyway, ever truly likely to read it, much less buy it?

The fault lies not in our stars – it lies in the lies that the companies are calling their “projections.” If the Japanese companies are dictating the number of books they think American companies can sell, then it’s time to grow a pair and *make* them understand that, without the barrage of advertising and the streams of distribution, their projections are as real as the worlds in their LNs.

We’ve all been talking about the fansub/scanlation issue to death. LNs are not failing because of scanlations. They are failing because it is time for American companies to stop acting like beaten curs. Stop sticking your collective tails between your collective legs and state the facts as they are. The American buying audience is a few thousand strong – at best. Stop lying about it. Rework your projections and admit that you’re all working in a teeny-tiny grassroots industry. Then grow it for real, like every other company has to – through advertising, promotion and quality products. If fandom bitches that it’s not good/fast/cheap/free enough, tell them to fork over money or stfu.

The boom is over – now let’s get down to business already.

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16 Responses

  1. Heyas, i replied to your post on my blog (damn that was a big post hehe) but thought i’d post it here aswell since you made a post on it:

    I think your right to an extent Erica. though i feel the industry is in the 10’s of thousands, not just thousands.

    For any industry, not just light novels, you need to be realistic with it. Forget projections and look at reality. Then you look at how to make that reality grow into something bigger and better.

    Sadly as i said, no company really advertises their light novels, and there’s very little advertising in the way of manga. You need to advertise and promote it, put out quality releases, and slowy over time it’ll grow. There’s no over night instant million bucks coming, you gotta realise your going to loose money initially. However if you do it right within five to seven years the industry will be in its growth and you’ll be making money.

    from what i’ve seen most companies are only interested in the little they can make here and now, rather than the big amount they can make by trating the market right.

    You’d think they’d of learnt from the mistakes they did with anime and manga, but it dosent seem so.

  2. Anime and manga sell in the mere few thousands, not in the tens of thousands, with the exception of a very few titles.

    This isn’t speculation. It’s the ugly truth.

  3. Jenn2d2 says:

    I think my first reaction has to be a complete validation of your thesis: there’s a light novel market?

    I didn’t know that light novels were being released here, much less failing to sell to projections. I consume a lot of media aimed at the teenage audience, and I haven’t seen any attempt at courting that age group.

  4. Chilipop says:

    That’s what I thought too: “There’s a light novel…market!?”

    I wasn’t aware that such a one existed- I knew that there were a few out, like, correct me if I’m wrong- Strawberry Panic, and Socrates in Love and Kamikaze Girls, but I thought they were not exactly large market material. It was only by fluke that I actually heard about them at all.

    As for small sales…

    Well, we can hope feverently in the long-tail method.

    XD

  5. jenn2d2, chilipop – several of the large manga companies have Light Novel lines. As you point out, jenn, there’s no attempt to reach past the audience that already reads manga.

    That’s not always a good idea because not all LNs are good – many are, in fact, cheap cash cow milking, that a fan of a series might find off-putting more than appealing.

    Some LNs are meant for a YA audience, but others, like Marimite are actually meant for an adult audience, but disguised as a YA book, which just complicates things further.

    Japanese boys know they are allowed to be perverts. They are told a million times a day that it’s okay to look at women’s crotches and talk to their chests. So there’s a ready-made audience for trash like the Strawberry Panic LNs. American boys are not told that – inexplicably, they are told that they should behave like humans.
    So, they have no idea that there is an entire body of literature designed to arouse their 12-year old mental selves.

    You want LNs to sell – advertise them on gaming sites and magazines and in “guy” mags. Not as teen lit, as softcore crap where they can upskirt and downshirt until their eyes cross. Watch ’em sell like crazy. Who do the companies think buy these in Japan anyway?

  6. kieli says:

    Indeed, the Light Novel genre is almost invisible here in the US when one compares it to, say, American comics (which also shares similar issues with its Japanese cousin…poorly written stories, a flood of T&A and companies milking a series or set of characters *cough*Marvel Comics*cough* in order to wring their cash cows dry).

    The only way I knew it existed was when I first picked up the Boogiepop series. I had thought that it was strictly a manga series, only to find that Kouhei Kadono has several LNs for Boogiepop. Granted, the translation of that particular series is somewhat too simplistic but that fact that existed at all was a surprise to me. I’d purchase decent light novels in a heartbeat if they were well advertised and readily available.

  7. Off topic i knw, but i lvoed Strawberry Panic!!

    Not as good as MariaSama, but still good in it’s own way :)

  8. soulassassin says:

    As always, IMHO it’s seems that the fault is on the part of the publishers’ ability to market LNs and apparently their tendency to look around for cash cows.

    Why haven’t they thought of taking the marketing approach used by the publishers of, like say, the Sweet Valley High or the Encyclopedia Brown series? Or try compiling several smaller LN “volumes” into one book with three parts? Unfortunately it seems that we have yet to see those publishers realize what’s wrong with their methods, start accepting our suggestions and becoming very selective with titles they want to acquire.

    Thus it would take more time to wait for the (distant) day when it’s possible for us to read the first English-language volume of Marimite on a lazy day. *sigh*

  9. Adam Arnold says:

    “there’s no attempt to reach past the audience that already reads manga.”

    Erica, this is where you’re wrong. Tokyopop tried to reach out to the fiction market with their “Pop Fiction” line and it just didn’t work. So not only did they not reach wider readers of fiction novels, they also alienated manga fans by changing the covers and altering the translations. So no, those books were never meant for manga fans. (Note: Crest of the Stars was a novel they put out at the same time as their Pop Fiction line launch that was geared towards manga fans, but alterations to that book’s translation upset hardcore fans of that series.)

    As for advertising, this is just not realistic for most light novels (heck, it’s not even realistic for most manga in today’s market). The production costs involved in putting out a single light novel are roughly triple to those of a single manga volume, and you have to turn right around and sell them for a lower price point than your average manga. That eats right into your ability to break even on a title, let alone turn a profit on it. So unless the series is something truly special, then word-of-mouth is about all most companies can hope for as far as advertising is concerned.

    Manga are a niche market, and light novels are a niche within that niche. I just don’t see that changing as the majority of the light novels out there are only going to appeal to manga fans. The only exception is Vampire Hunter D, but that’s a “novel series” to begin with.

    “Or try compiling several smaller LN “volumes” into one book with three parts?”

    Omnibus collections aren’t a realistic option for titles that have never been released before. When you license a series from a Japanese publisher, you have to license each volume and pay a licensing fee for each of them (along with royalties based on the actual sell in number and price point). Add in the cost of materials, translation, rewrite, copy editing, layout, proofing, cover, and then the astronomical printing costs, and you’re looking at an enormous amount of upfront costs (and production time) for a book that could very well tank right out of the gate. That’s not the best course of action in today’s market.

  10. Hi Adam –

    Thanks for weighing in. And for supporting the concept that LNs are a niche within a niche. That was one of the two points I was making – that company projections don’t really allow for the fact that these really have a small audience, at best.

    Tokyopop’s advertising…well, let’s not go there. They’re idea of who they were reaching and who they were actually reaching are just not the same things. :)

    And your final point is, exactly, my point. That it really is time for western companies to push back a bit and make themselves heard – it’s not working as you all just nod and bow and take whatever the J-companies insist upon. You’ll all be gone in a few years if you don’t stop the trend.

    Personally, the LNs that interest me most are series that were novel series first, and then had anime /manga based on them. Generally, they are better written in the and, I think, would actually have a broader appeal than something like Strawberry Panic or Burst Angel which will only be of interest to a percentage of the anime fanbase.

  11. Demian says:

    @Adam: The idea of a Pop Fiction line targeting other audiences is great and all, but doesn’t really work when the novels are still being placed in the manga section, as is what happened at my local Barnes & Noble. Good intentions often don’t stand up well to reality.

    There are better novels out there that probably should of been licensed first; Haruhi immediately comes to mind. But the market has to grow first, time and money have to invested for things to work out. I’m looking forward to Del Rey’s introduction into the market and am hoping the backing of a large publisher behind them will give them more success.

  12. Rich says:

    Well, I’m one of those disgruntled Crest of the Stars fanboys, I guess. I read the Tokyopop translation, and did a full-body cringe. The first two Twelve Kingdoms books were better, though, so there has been some improvement. But there’s still a ways to go.

    I’d rather just sit down with a LN in Japanese with my electronic dictionary and just slog through it that way, without wondering what I’m missing because the translator or the editor decided to change things to appeal to a mass market that doesn’t exist.

    To be honest, I’ve already moved that way with manga. I’d rather spend 400 yen for a tank than $10 for a shoddy translation. I get to work on my Japanese, I save money, I can stay current, and I avoid needless irritation from bad translations.

    Oh, and let’s not forget my favorite pet peeve– when publishers delay publishing a volume simply to milk the fans for as long as they can. (Fruits Basket or Kare/Kano anyone?)

    I have to agree– LNs are a niche within a niche, and I guess I’m in another niche within that niche. The niche of fanboys who realize it’s just more efficient to suck it up and learn the language than to rely on publishers to get it right.

    Considering the cost of manga in the US, I wonder just how long this whole thing is going to be sustainable, anyway. It seems like the market is already saturated– which fanboys/girls are you going to get that you haven’t already gotten? I’m sure publishers are concerned, but how do they plan on expanding the market?

    They’ve already lost me, and I’m a total nerd. I just feel like I’m getting the worst end of the deal– bad translations, 1-5 year delays on top of other delays just for the hell of it, and a 100-200% markup on titles. Great. Where do I sign up? >_>

  13. I don’t buy the ‘advertising is to expensive’ comments, i never have and never will. Work with the front line shops and let THEM do the advertising.

    Do what Tokyopop is doing and tour stores holding events to raise awareness (just do a better job than them lol)

    And stop ignoring the UK and other european markets.

    To date only Yen Press are activly trying to get into the european market by releasing at the same time on both sides of the atlantic. The UK is crying out to be treated as REAL fans rather than as the after thought almost all the companies treat us like.

    Take a look at Tokyopop’s catelogue, less than half is legally available in the UK, the rest comes through the grey market which in turn hurts publishers, and in the long run community as a whole.

    The UK has thousands of anime and manga fans, the last Manga convention held here atracted over 8000 atendents. Yet we’re forced to buy through the grey market.

    On the surface we don’t care, because it means we get manga cheaper since we buy in $ but pay in £, and at the minute there’s just under $2 to £1. But this means that all these companies are losing out in sales revenue. They say it’s to expensive and it’s an uncertain market, but thats because no one has looked at the market here properly.

    TP, Viz, Del Ray, Dark Horse and others all ave a quasi european branch, but the truth is it’s usually less than half of their catelogue thats released here.

    Seven Seas are trying to get into the UK, but frankly they can’t even get their distribution sorted in america, so i nop longer have any hopes for them.

    They all cite the cost involved, and yes it costs. But you can’t expect to NOT have to spend money to get rid of the grey market. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to be costly. However in the long run, if you work with both the distributors and the front line shops, you can remove the grey market.

    However all they’re interested in is making a quick buck, so they’d rather the little revenue they can make today, rather than the big revenue later. It’srather sad really, and very bad business sense. For a business to be successfull you need to weight the current angainst the future, and they don’t seem to do that.

    Until the companies start wiorking together, and listening and working with fans, it’s just a matter of time before these companies start to collapse. Trends change, and focusing on a single trend is suicide for any company.

  14. However all they’re interested in is making a quick buck, so they’d rather the little revenue they can make today, rather than the big revenue later.

    I can unconditionally say that this is absolute hogwash.

    There isn’t a company out there that isn’t doing the best they can – within limitations and restrictions made by the Japanese companies, the convoluted retail book market, and their finances to do EVERYTHING they can to get their book out to everyone who wants them.

    I can see that you’re bitter…but you have no idea at all what the circumstances of licenses, publishing and selling books are. It’s not as easy as you think. ALC books are technically available in the UK – why don’t you see any on the shelves, then? Because no one asks their book stores to order them. Bookstores don’t, in fact, read minds. Many more books are available than are bought and sold. If there’s no legitimate demand, then there will be no legitimate supply.

    If all few thousands of fans in the UK – which I’m sorry to say is really not very many, despite what you think – asked their bookstores for a manga, the manga would be ordered. Then they would buy those book and there would still be no extras on the shelves.

    It cost a LOT of money to license, publish and distribute a book, just to have it sit on a shelf so that you *might* buy it. And when you don’t – the publisher eats not only the cost of the book, but the shipping back and forth.

    Seriously…no company is out to make a quick buck in publishing. It’s not possible, there’s no margin at all for it. None of the companies have infinitely deep pockets – advertising, touring, all costs a lot more money than your $9.95 cost covers. And of that, a publisher is only getting $4. If a book costs $10K just to publish – that’s 2500 copies have to be sold just to cover the publishing costs. How many manga do you really think sell 2500 copies? Not many.

    Speaking as a publisher – please don’t accuse the publishers of trying to do you out of your enterntainment. It’s just not true.

  15. Actually it is true, or atleast as far as TP and Viz go. Both have stated quite freely they don’t think much of the UK market.

    Manga IS being bought and sold in the UK, you will find it on book shelves, and it is a thriving business. But they simply refuse to release here.

    Viz because they simply don’t want to, and TP because they claim there’s no value in it. Viz have already stated they have little to no interest in the UK market several times.

    Your right i am bitter, but i’m bitter with reason. Yen Press a relative new comer into the manga market manages to license, publish and release in both countries, so theres no excuse for the larger companies not to aswell.

    Yes it’s expensive, i’ve never said it wasnt. and yes they will lose money initially. But thats because they’ve created the grey market themselves. They have created their own problems. And these are problems that are going to take time to resolve. But since they have no interest in resolving them, they just allow the grey market to keep on growing stronger and stronger.

  16. Wonderful points made Erica. As a fan of LNs, I completely agree with your point that the market here is not only niche but not properly marketed to. Now obviously there are other light novels out there – there are BL titles and sci-fi/fantasy legends (Vampire Hunter D and Dirty Pair sell fine on their own) – but the majority of titles whether it is Shakugan no Shana, Slayers or the upcoming FAUST line from Del Rey, are written for a very specific market overseas and the editors there will openly say that additional markets are just icing on the cake.

    Stop sticking your collective tails between your collective legs and state the facts as they are. The American buying audience is a few thousand strong – at best. Stop lying about it.

    Now I am not privy about how publishers in the States work, but I do know that some licensors overseas have been given a false impression that the American market is large. Some of theme even believe that manga is now “mainstream” in the States. Is that coming from American publishers? Are they getting starry-eyed when they see the large manga section at the Madison Square Garden Borders or large expansions of manga departments at all of the Kinokuniya USA branches? I am sure there are factors to that, but unless something changes those licensing fees are going to stay high (and will increase) despite a small yet very competitive market.

    I got to talk to some people about this at the Tokyo Anime Fair a few weeks back, and I feel that unless there is more education of fans, better advertising and communication from publishers the growth of light novels will be minimal at best.

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