There have been a lot of conversations on forums about the issue of why Light Novels do not sell well here in the West. Tokyopop discussed Light Novels recently on their editor’s blog and Seven Seas talked a little bit about the Strawberry Panic! Line when they put the third LN on hold.
Fans, of course, are sure that it’s all the publishers’ fault. They don’t sell them right, advertise them right, censor them, change the covers, don’t have enough babies who grow up to be people who buy Light Novels.
It’s well established that manga has a swiftly growing audience, but that the market has not grown with the same verve. Online aggregators of manga distributed without permission gain hundreds of thousands of readers, while those very same titles struggle to break even in sales.
Light Novels are a special problem. In Japan they primarily exist as franchise extenders. Of course there are some exceptions – and those exceptions are always the ones that are successful enough to turn the formula on its head. However, for a large number of LNs, the audience for the series/author/imprint already exists. There rarely is any need to promote beyond an ad or two in the magazines in which the the stories are serialized.
Here in the West LNs don’t have:
1) The magazines that serialize chapters monthly
2) Any other media tie-ins (unless they do and then the title is much more expensive to license)
3) The audience – LNs are, for the most part YA/older teen…maybe young adult… material. There are rare series which transcend this, but mostly it’s teens and early twenties.
In Japan, readers already know the material from Number 1) and 2) or follow the author. Here – this is rarely true. LN readers are, realistically, a niche of a niche, mostly because of other media tie-ins, like anime, games or manga. Most regular novel readers don’t know LNs exist and if they do, they don’t care. On top of that, you have the same problem as all other media in the anime/manga world – the audience is orders larger than the market.
Yes, there’s a teeny little problem with marketing and shelving. Let’s look at that rationally:
First, there’s the issue of marketing.
Let’s say you have an unlimited budget…where do you place a print ad to sell this great new book? You probably don’t know…because there really *aren’t* too many good places where you can put that ad. Name a good magazine for Teens. How about Older Teens? How about Young Adults? If you named a magazine, think about how many people you know who actually subscribe to it and read it. If you named something niche, like a Gaming magazine, imagine how many people who read that magazine might really want to curl up on the sofa with, say, Gosick. Okay, so I picked a magazine at random. GamePro, and checked their advertising rates. One ad – an ad that will run in one issue – for a 1/3 page ad is…$12,750. Name a LN that’s likely to sell to the readership of Seventeen magazine.
How many ads do you see when you read a magazine? How many make you call the number or buy the product?
Advertising only works if you can saturate the audience. That’s a lot of $12K ads.
And if you put in an ad on magazine/website, you only reach the people who see it, and notice it, which is a small fraction of people.
You might say – well, advertise it online – but of course that compounds the problem, because where people go for information is fragmented into thousands of sites, ad systems are fragmented into hundreds of affiliate systems and you still have the problem of people tuning out ads. For more on this see my discussion of promoting manga.
The conclusion – there is no way publishers of Light Novels can effectively advertise their products to reach a larger portion of a potential reading audience. They *could* advertise to librarians…and I believe some do. And then the problem becomes the Libraries’, to try and attract readers of those novels.
So that’s the problem with fans’ exhortations to “advertise more.”
Now, let’s look at the common wisdom that LNs would sell better if they were shelved in the fiction section, or with the YA novels.
The first thing that *has* to be said – bookstores are dying. Distribution without permission has become so widespread that children today have never been in a library or a bookstore before. They just assume they can get things for free online – and they don’t really know that it’s illegal or immoral. (When you do something wrong, you get punished. If no one punishes you…it must not be wrong to do.)
So, the idea that a book will sell better if it shelved properly in a bookstore is a fallacy from the start. YA audiences aren’t using bookstores that much in the first place. Nonetheless, YA fiction is a hot commodity, what with Twilight and Harry Potter and all. So you get your LN shelved in the YA or fiction section.
Now it’s competing with millions of other fiction titles. How are you going to get it noticed? There are *way* more fiction novels published every year than there are manga – even when Tokyopop was cranking out 10 titles a week. How many publishers are putting out manga regularly now? Viz, Tokyopop, DPM, Vertical, Yen, Seven Seas, maybe a few others. If every single one of these was popping out a lot of books – let’s say 50 books a week. There are (very roughly) 6000 books a week being published in America. Of course not every book ends up on a bookstore shelf, but fiction is a very, very competitive field – and YA lit, which is incredibly hot right now, is no less competitive.
Perhaps you decide to go for a row end cap display. This will separate your books from the pack a little, but then you’re back to the fact that bookstores are a dying breed. Only people who walk into that bookstore will see that display – which means you need to position those displays in high traffic stores, probably in major cities. These will have to be coordinated through your distributor – they are not cheap.
If you shelve the books with the Teen Lit or the Fiction, they will simply get lost in the rows and rows of authors whose name have some meaning to the audience. How well will Hasekura do compared with Meyer?
So you shelve it in with the manga. Now it gets lost in titles that are shelved alphabetically. How are people going to find it? Either way you go, you’re “wrong” according to fans.
Speaking of Meyer and Hasekura, let’s take a look at Yen Press for a second. Kurt Hassler has probably the most intimate knowledge of the book-selling industry in the manga world right now.
Yen licensed Spice and Wolf Light Novels. The “audience” for these novels have been hostile – very vocally – in every possible way. I have seen accusations that the novels were censored (they were not) that the new cover destroyed the artistic integrity of the books (this despite the fact that a slipcover with the original art was available…and that the original art was pretty basic.) The reality was that those fanboys – the established audience of the series – had no intention of buying the novels no matter what Yen did. All their complaints these were justifications of the behavior they were going to do anyway.
Yen then licensed and created a manga for Twilight – this instantly blew away any records of manga sales in America to date. It had weird looking typography, word balloons that obscured faces and above all, it was Twilight, an already much-maligned series. The fangirls who were the audience for this manga were also the market. It sold like the proverbial hotcakes.
There are two defining factors here: one, I believe that girls buy what they want more than boys do. In conversation last night about this topic, Sean Gaffney noted that all but one title on this week’s New York Times Best-Seller list of manga is “for girls.” Black Butler (also from Yen) has an astounding four volumes on the list and Hetalia has both of their released volumes. Naruto is the only series not explicitly “for girls” but it also has wide cross-over appeal…as most Shounen Jump stories do.
The second fact is the one that is most relevant to today’s discussion – to put it simply, Twilight had an a priori market. These fans know Twilight, they are devoted to Twilight and will buy Twilight materials.
The difference between marketing and selling a novel by Hasekura and one by Meyer is the difference between selling a novel you wrote vs one written by Stephen King.
The problem with Light Novels is this:
How do you promote and sell a book that 1) no one has heard of 2) has no *mainstream* media tie-in 3) no *where* to effectively advertise it 4) an audience that doesn’t want to pay for it 5) immense competition from domestic authors backed by larger companies with high-recognition names and major media tie-ins.
Figure that out and you have the winning formula for selling LNs.