A light novel (ライトノベル raito noberu?) is a style of Japanese novel primarily targeting middle and high school students (young adult demographic). "Light novel" is a wasei-eigo, or a Japanese term formed from words in the English language. Such short, light novels are often called ranobe (ラノベ?) or LN in the West. They are typically not more than 40,000–50,000 words long (the shorter ones being equivalent to a novella in US publishing terms), rarely exceed 200 pages, often have dense publishing schedules, are usually published in bunkobon size, and are often illustrated. The text is often serialized in anthology magazines before collection in book form.
Light novels are an evolution of pulp magazines. To please their audience, in the 1970s, most of the Japanese pulp magazines, which had already changed from the classic style to the popular anime style covers, began to put illustrations in the beginning of each story and included articles about popular movies, anime and video games. The content also became influenced by popular movies such as Star Wars. The narrative evolved to please the new generations and became fully illustrated with the popular style. The popular serials are printed in novels.
In recent years, light novels' stories have been popular choices for adaptation into manga, anime, and live-action films. Light novels are often serialized in literary magazines such as Faust, Gekkan Dragon Magazine, The Sneaker and Dengeki hp, or media franchise magazines like Comptiq and Dengeki G's Magazine.
Light novels are very popular in Japan. The publishing companies are constantly searching for new talent with annual contests, many of which earn the winner a cash prize and publication of their novel. The Dengeki Novel Prize is the largest, with over 6,500 submissions (2013) annually. They are all clearly labeled as "light novels" and are published as low-priced paperbacks. For example, the price for The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya in Japan is ¥514 (plus 5% tax), similar to the normal price for trade paperbacks — light novels and general literature — sold in Japan. In 2007 it was estimated (according to a website funded by the Japanese government) that the market for light novels was about ¥20 billion ($166.7 million at ¥120 to the dollar) and about 30 million copies published annually. Kadokawa Group Holdings, which owns major labels like Kadokawa Sneaker Books and Dengeki Books, has a 70% to 80% share of the market. In 2009, light novels made ¥30.1 billion in sales, or about 20% of all sales of bunkobon-format paperback books in Japan.
There are currently many licensed English translations of Japanese light novels available. These have generally been published in the physical dimensions of standard mass market paperbacks or similar to manga tankōbon, but starting in April 2007, Seven Seas Entertainment was the first English publisher to print light novels in their original, Japanese format of 10.5 cm × 15 cm. Other English-language publishers that produce light novels are Tokyopop, Viz, DMP, Dark Horse, Yen Press, and Del Rey Manga. The founder of Viz Media, Seiji Horibuchi, speculates that the U.S. market for light novels will experience a similar increase in popularity as it has in the Japanese subculture once it becomes recognized by the consumer audience.
Popular literature has a long tradition in Japan. Even though cheap, pulp novels were present in Japan in years prior, 1975 is considered by some to be a symbolic beginning of the history of ranobe. That is when Sonorama Bunko was created; it was the first of several imprints that published pop-lit paperbacks resembling modern ranobe in terms of poetics. Science fiction and horror writers like Kikuchi Hideyuki or Yumemakura Baku started their careers through those.
In the 1980s, epic novels by Tanaka Yoshiki — Legend of Galactic Heroes and Heroic Legend of Arslan — took young male Japanese audiences by storm. Also, RPG-inspired Record of Lodoss War novels achieved popularity. All of those were later animated.
The 1990s saw the smash-hit Slayers series which merged fantasy-RPG elements with comedy. Some years later MediaWorks founded a pop-lit imprint called Dengeki Bunko, which produces well-known light novel series to this day. The Boogiepop series was their first major hit which soon was animated and got many anime watchers interested in literature.
Dengeki Bunko writers continued to slowly gain attention until the small light novel world experienced a boom around 2006. After the huge success of the Suzumiya Haruhi series, suddenly the number of publishers and readers interested in light novels skyrocketed.
Light novels became an important part of the Japanese 2D culture in late 2000s. The number of ranobe series put out every year increases, the most celebrated artists from pixiv illustrate them and the most successful works are animated and made into comics and live action movies.
- 榎本秋 (Aki Enomoto) (October 2008). ライトノベル文学論 [Light Novel Criticism] (in Japanese). Japan: NTT Shuppan. ISBN 978-4-7571-4199-5.
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