Light novels have been the basis of an ever-increasing number of anime series, but the books themselves have been a much-overlooked category of Japanese pop culture in the US. Fortunately, that's starting to change, and English releases of light novels have greatly increased over the last couple years.
Light novels have gained tremendous popularity in the US
What are some key differences between novels and manga when it comes to the US market? How do light novels compare with their most frequent shelving companions, young adult books? And who are the key publishers in the US?
Light novels vs manga
Compared to translating and publishing a manga volume, there's one factor that stands out from any other: the word count. An average volume of manga contains anywhere from 4,000 to 7,000 words, with many of those being nice, easy to translate phrases like "Huh?" "Watch out!" and "I... l love you, stupid!" Light novels have those same phrases, of course, but without the accompanying artwork. What was a two-word translation is now "'Watch out!' he cried as the arrow flew towards its unsuspecting target."
An average light novel has around 35,000 to 50,000 words, and all those words need to flow together nicely. It's a very different type of translation work, and it takes a lot of skill and art to essentially re-create a novel. It takes even more skill to create a translation so smooth that readers don't even notice it was translated. Unfortunately, not all English-published light novels pass this bar, but as the market matures and becomes more viable, publishers can invest more money in good translators and better books.
Interestingly, manga didn't used to be so "easy" to translate compared to novels, even light ones. Once upon a time (the 1980s and ‘90s), bringing manga over to the US involved carefully replacing the sound effects with English versions, flipping pages to read from left to right, and painstakingly adding color. Tokyopop's "100% authentic" revolution, however, removed all that work and sped up production times enormously.
Although their appearance may look similar on the outside, the inside reveals a different story
Light novels vs young adult novels
Sometimes you'll hear light novels equated to young adult novels. It's true they have a lot of similarities, but there are also some key differences between the book categories.
Young adult novels in the US are often published in hardback or trade format, which is a larger, more expensive paperback size than the mass-market romance and sci-fi paperbacks you see at the grocery store. Japanese light novels, on the other hand, are a little smaller than an average volume of manga and are cheaper than most other novels. They're made to be cheap entertainment that is produced, read, and disposed of quickly.
Young adult reader demographics skew towards teenage girls. Light novel demographics skew towards men in their mid-twenties. Both categories, however, have wide cross-demographic appeal outside of their main audiences.
Measure of success
Young adult titles are successes if they spin off more books. A very popular book might get a movie (it helps if the author is a man), but merchandise deals are extremely rare. Light novels, on the other hand, are successes if they spin off an anime series, manga adaptation, game, and merchandise empire.
A prolific young adult author might publish a book a year. Light novels come out at practically break-neck speeds, with multiple volumes a year being common.
Light novels usually have illustrations, most often in "manga style." Young adult books almost never contain art outside of the cover and maybe a map in the front.
Young adult novels have titles like "Noun of Adjective," or maybe just "Adjective." Light novels have titles like "This is a Complete Sentence or Maybe a Rhetorical Question."
An example of light novel's tendency for long titles
Both young adult books and light novels love exploring other worlds and lives. Both categories are heavily laden with sci-fi, horror, supernatural, fantasy, and, above all, romance. But where light novels are dominated by "isekai" (stories in which the hero/ine is transported into another world), young adult books favor teenage girls and their romantic troubles in a variety of settings.
While both categories' publishers find authors in the usual way - through agents and submissions - light novels are also known for awarding publishing contracts to winners of contests. In recent years, both categories have begun finding new talent on the internet. Young adult novels have been coming out from popular fanfiction writers and light novels from online web authors.
This list is not to say Japan doesn't have what we consider young adult novels - in fact, the first Japanese novel I ever read was in the young adult section at my local library (Dragon Sword and Wind Child). I had no idea it was a translation; it fit right in with the rest of the collection. This list is simply comparing these two particular popular categories of books.
Who's publishing light novels in the US?
There are more publishers of light novels in the US than you might guess. While it's quite a bit of effort to translate a novel, many publishers have made the effort for a few books they thought were worth their time. The biggest publishers, however, are manga publishers who have gotten into light novels on the side (or, in the case of Yen Press, made it a publishing focal point).
Seven Seas began publishing light novels in 2006 with Boogiepop and Others, but the category didn't do so well for them compared to their manga lineup. The continued to publish novels occasionally, like Strawberry Panic in 2008 and Wicked City in 2010. As of last year (2018), they've been expanding heavily into the category and now have quite a few popular titles regularly coming out. Titles include current hits like I Want to Eat Your Pancreas and Didn't I Say to Make My Abilities Average in the Next Life?! as well as classics like Perfect Blue and Record of Lodoss War.
Seven Seas has been greatly expanding their lineup in recent years
Although (mostly) defunct now, Tokyopop should get credit for trying to make light novels mainstream a full decade before they finally took off in the English market. They brought over titles like Slayers in 2004 and Scrapped Princess and Fullmetal Panic in 2007, and in such quantities that you can still find copies today. Unfortunately, the translations weren't always stellar, so you might prefer to read newly licensed versions as they become available instead.
Vertical has always been in the business of publishing Japanese novels, though usually denser and darker works of fiction like Dark Water and City of Refuge. Light novel series Guin Saga, however, has been a mainstay of their lineup since 2003 and they licensed the popular Monogatari series in 2015. Expect a slow but steady stream of licenses to continue.
Guin Saga was one of the earliest Japanese light novels to be brought over to the US
Many of Viz's light novel licenses are exactly what you'd expect: titles tied to popular manga series like Naruto, My Hero Academia, and Vampire Knight. However, Viz got into the Japanese novel game not with light novels but with sci-fi and dark fantasy via their Haikasoru imprint, launched in 2009. It features titles like All You Need is Kill, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, and Brave Story. Interestingly, Viz founder Seiji Horibuchi correctly predicted in 2011 the light novel boom of 2017.
There's no arguing who's currently top dog in the US light novel market. Yen Press found success with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Spice and Wolf light novels in 2009 and continued publishing novels thereafter. In 2014, they went all-in, announcing a new imprint, "Yen On," devoted to light novels. Sword Art Online was the first title printed under the new line, and it was quickly followed by popular title after popular title. Yen Press is now the undisputed powerhouse of English light novel publishing. A small sampling of their titles includes Your Name, A Certain Magical Index, Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, Re:Zero, and the Kingdom Hearts novels.
Yen Press is enjoying success with some of the most popular titles
-Lisa Marie Cooper
Lisa loves to read but is veeeery picky about translations, so she's thrilled to now have so many light novels and publishers to choose from. Long-time Right Stuf fans may recognize Lisa as Marie from the Anime Today podcast or as the OG RightStufSpecialsMinion on the Anime News Network and Fandom Post forums. Her non-anime articles can be found at PositivelyEditorial.com.