April 01, 2008

The unbearable lightness of light novels


A recent blog conversation in a small corner of the publishing world I follow (and earn a nominal income from) is directly relevant to any niche, small or micro-publisher.

The discussion concern the "light novel," a popular novella format in Japan, basically an illustrated paperback of around 40,000 words. Several U.S. anime and manga publishers have been licensing light novels. Sales have not been encouraging.

In response, Erica Friedman (a small publisher in her own right) gets down to brass tacks, admonishing the licensors and licensees to "Rework your projections and admit that you’re all working in a teeny-tiny, grassroots industry."

Her essay encapsulates the aspirations of small publishers, and the pitfalls awaiting them. In the comments, she points to one fail-safe strategy: plumb the lowest common denominator. (Which is pretty much what yaoi does.)

One obviously approach is making first volumes available free, because "you can't expect people to buy stuff that they don’t know about!" Baen Books does precisely this. It offers many of its titles--especially first titles in a series--for free online.

Baen Books is now making available--for free--a number of its titles in electronic format. We're calling it the Baen Free Library. Anyone who wishes can read these titles online--no conditions, no strings attached.

As Eric Flint explains:

[P]erhaps most important of all, free books are the way an audience is built in the first place . . . . Most readers of science fiction and fantasy develop that interest as teenagers, mainly from libraries [and] . . . people lending books to their friends.

Niche and micro-publishers serious about expanding their markets should memorize this essay. Though perhaps Tim O'Reilly sums up the problem the best: "Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy."

The Baen approach is a kind of serialization. Manga, after all, is a thriving expression of the serial novel, very much in a form Dickens would have been familiar with. English translations of Japanese light novels could benefit from a similar marketing strategy.

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Comments:

Thanks for posting on my blog!!

I think if the industry is ever to grow, then they need to look at how the japanese have done it.

Would you buy a LN version of say Shonen Jump, only instead of manga it’s full of chapters from LN’s?

I know i would. To be honest i bought Shojo Beat on a whim, and found some new upcoming manga i hadn’t heard of that i liked the looks of. Buying the piecemeal version of Shojo Jump lead to me buying the volumes when they were released.

LN’s could be handled the same. Instead of publishing a volume, they could produce a book thats the same size of a manga volume, but has chapters from the LN’s in.

However no matter what path the industry takes, they need to promote it, and promote it properly.

Several manga i’ve bought and gotten into i bought because they were on special offer, usually buy 2 get one free. I’d buy two volumes of manga i wanted, and pick up a third of a series i’d not known or looked at. Since i’m getting it free i don’t care if i ilike it or not :)

These kinds of promotions are what induce people in, get them buying new stuff. But it’s all useless unless they know it happening.
4/01/2008 9:45 AM