A light novel (ライトノベル, raito noberu) is a style of Japanese young adult novel primarily targeting high school and middle school students. The term "light novel" is a wasei-eigo, or a Japanese term formed from words in the English language. Light novels are often called ranobe (ラノベ) or, in English, LN. The average length of a light novel is about 50,000 words, close to the minimum expected for a Western novel, and light novels are usually published in bunkobon size (A6, 10.5 cm × 14.8 cm), often with dense publishing schedules.
Light novels are commonly illustrated in a manga art style, and are often adapted into manga and anime. While most light novels are published only as books, some have their chapters first serialized in anthology magazines before being collected, similar to how manga is published.
Light novels developed from pulp magazines. To please their audience, in the 1970s, most of the Japanese pulp magazines began to put illustrations at the beginning of each story and included articles about popular anime, movies and video games. The narrative evolved to please the new generations and became fully illustrated with the popular style. The popular serials are printed in novels.
Very often light novels are chosen for adaptation into anime, manga, and live-action films, and some of them are 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 have a reputation as being "mass-produced and disposable," an extreme example being Kazuma Kamachi who wrote one novel a month for two years straight, and the author turnover rate is very high. As such, 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 ¥540 (including 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 (US$170 million at the exchange rate at the time) and that about 30 million copies were 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 Bunkobon format. Other English-language publishers that license light novels are Tokyopop, Viz Media, DMP, Dark Horse, Yen Press and Del Rey Manga. The founder of Viz Media, Seiji Horibuchi, speculates that the US 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.
Most light novels are published by Japanese writers, with very few exceptions. For example, Yū Kamiya, author of No Game No Life, is a Japanese-Brazilian writer who lives in Japan and publishes his novels through major Japanese publishing labels
Popular literature has a long tradition in Japan. Even though cheap, pulp novels resembling light novels were present in Japan for years prior, the creation of Sonorama Bunko in 1975 is considered by some to be a symbolic beginning. Science fiction and horror writers like Hideyuki Kikuchi or Baku Yumemakura started their careers through such imprints. Kim Morrissy of Anime News Network reported that Keita Kamikita, the system operator of a science fiction and fantasy forum, is usually credited with coining the term "light novel" in 1990. After noticing that the science fiction and fantasy novels that had emerged in the 1980s were also attracting anime and manga fans because of their illustrations by famous manga artists, Kamikita avoided using terms like "young adult" because the novels did not appeal to one particular demographic.
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 Haruhi Suzumiya series, the number of publishers and readers interested in light novels suddenly skyrocketed.
Light novels became an important part of the Japanese 2D culture in the late 2000s, with series such as A Certain Magical Index selling large amounts of copies with each volume release. The number of light novels series put out every year increases, usually illustrated by the most celebrated artists from pixiv and the most successful works are adapted into manga, anime, games and live action movies.
Since the mid-2000s, it has become increasing popular for publishers to contact authors of web fiction on their blog or website to publish their work in print form. The material is often heavily edited and may even feature an altered story, which might compel someone who had already read it online to buy the print release as well. The free novel publication website Shōsetsuka ni Narō is a popular source for such material. Popular works like Sword Art Online, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, Overlord, Re:Zero and Konosuba were originally popular web novels that got contacted by a publisher to distribute and publish those stories in print format.
- 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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- Media related to Light novels at Wikimedia Commons