Thinking Lighter

Panelosophy - Thinking Lighter
by Chloe Ferguson

Just when booksellers thought it safe to return to their graphic novel sections, in comes another mystery item to send them confused and scrambling back to the stock rooms. Light novels, or prose accompanied by illustrations (often centered on a manga or anime franchise, with illustrations by the series' author) bring with them a headache inducing slew of questions: is it a book? A comic book? And perhaps more importantly, where the heck does it get shelved?

Light novels are perhaps the newest addition to the manga publishing industry in the US, and have thus far encountered a notably mixed market. Tokyopop, so far the largest importer of the medium, has seen some titles fare decently (Twelve Kingdoms) while others, like Kino's Journey, have entered an unclear suspended status, presumably after poor sales. Nonetheless, the number of light novels available on shelves has continued to rise, with publishers like Seven Seas and Udon bringing out new titles. The question of who's buying remains an elusive one; many light novels pertain to a particular series (a la Hot Gimmick S, a light novel offered by Viz to complement their Hot Gimmick series' ending) while others are original creations that ran exclusively in Japanese light novel magazines. The light novel also proves a harder sell in general, as chunks of prose with pictures does not a manga volume make. The reading period required is certainly longer, and translation becomes a much more hazardous minefield as a few lines of dialogue over numerous panels turns into a lengthy description in the novel.

Accordingly, the translations in light novels are often hampered by both the translator's ability and the original material itself: the books aren't exactly masterful prose even in Japanese, something that is apt to come out in a less than inspired English translation. All this amounts to sluggish movement off of the shelves- if, that is, booksellers can figure out how to shelve the novels in the first place. The issue seems simple for light novels that have the accompanying series available in English- simply shelve the Hot Gimmick light novel next to Hot Gimmick. But for series that lack companion manga in English, the future is far murkier. Shelve by publisher (and group Tokyopop with Tokyopop, all in the manga section?) Or shelve under young adult fiction when the series stands on its own? Both methods have cropped up in bookstores, but until sales numbers can differentiate between the two, the question is fated to remain unanswered.

The ultimate fate of the US light novel market remains in the hands of consumers, particularly those with vested interest in the series that spawned them. Light novels are a niche within a much larger niche, and thus have much less room to wiggle in when it comes to genre or target demographic variance. There's an appetite for the books- but whether it's enough to ensure repeat servings in yet undecided.