Japan is best known in western geekdom for her video games, anime, and manga, but from time to time, we see the novels (often illustrated YA “light novels”) that inspired some of these works. These usually come out in the West under the auspices of manga publishers: transhuman space opera Crest of the Stars, coming-of-age fantasy The Twelve Kingdoms, and high-fantasy spoof Slayers were released by the now-defunct Tokyopop, while economic fantasy Spice and Wolf (my review here) is published by Hachette’s manga/graphic novels imprint, Yen Press. (One exception is Moribito, published by Scholastic.) Yet in the West, these are nowhere near so well known as their adaptations – it’s reasonably common for science fiction, fantasy, and video game geeks to watch anime; rather rarer for them to read the source novels. Why?
I can think of several potential explanations:
Poor quality? At first glance, this is an unlikely culprit – the respective anime adaptations of Crest, Twelve Kingdoms, and Moribito are all excellent, at least as good as any live-action Western competition. If there’s a problem, it must be peculiar to the books – such as prose. The only one I’ve read, Spice, suffers from a weak localisation, and one Amazon review suggests that so does Crest, but without further data I couldn’t say if the problem is more widespread. Still, a possibility.
Lack of Kindle availability? Ebooks have been a boon for mid-tier fiction, yet none of the books I mentioned above is available for Kindle! (At least in the case of Spice, its few illustrations are no excuse; they’re mostly black-and-white, which the Kindle screen can handle.) I don’t think this is individually decisive, and certainly there are light novels that buck the trend by appearing on Kindle, but it surely can’t help.
Poor market positioning? I have not seen these books marketed at all beyond the manga crowd, despite their potential appeal to science fiction and fantasy buffs! The closest they’ve come has been the Spice novels, which use photorealistic dust jackets to conceal manga-style covers. This seems the most likely suspect to me – if sf/fantasy communities aren’t even discussing these books, even to say “they’re bad!”, that suggests the problem is awareness.
For whatever reason(s) it occurs, this phenomenon is too bad – not only do some of these works deserve to be better known, but I’d like to see the fruits of creative cross-pollination. And if any readers are familiar with these markets, I’d love to hear your insights. Either the problem is not so easy as I’ve made it sound – or else there is an opportunity here, waiting for somebody to grab it…