Japanese YA – How the Industry Works Overseas(Part 1)

A Snapshot of Some Bestselling YA on Display in a Japanese Bookstore

If you’ve ever had a chance to talk with me or read my Twitter messages in a given week, you probably are already very aware of my love for Japanese fiction. If I’m not tweeting out a book recommendation, I’m reading the soon to be next one. So it was that when the chance to write an article about Japanese Young Adult fiction was presented, I was thrilled. However, that thrill soon wore off after realizing that this article marks the first real attempt by a westerner to explain the Japanese YA Publishing industry. To be blunt, it’s a lot of pressure and as a result this article has gone through an uncountable number of rough drafts before now.

It’s a bit surprising to me sometimes that a country which boasts the world’s third largest economy, and until recently the second, continues to remain veiled in a shroud of mystery to a majority of the world. Though Japan’s historical days of isolation are far behind them, in many ways it would seem that they never left. On the few occasions that Western media attempt to shine the light on the archipelago, they persist in pushing old stereotypes that represent only a small tidbit of the true culture most Japanese live in every day.

When someone thinks of Japan, images of samurai, sumo wrestlers, ninja, thick Manga, and animated giant robots are usually what come to mind for many in America. However, very few in the US when they hear of this island country will ever have thoughts of Young Adult fiction. And yet, it is this industry, almost more than any other right now, that deserves the spotlight.

With over 78,000 titles published each year, it is one of the biggest book publishers in the world, ranking in the top 5. That’s quite a feat for a country only a bit bigger than the state of California. Of course, the Japanese love for the written word doesn’t end with the paperback. Besides the large number of books published each year in print, there are also the millions of electronically published “Cell Phone Novels”, books written near entirely on a cell phone by amateur authors for their peers to read on their own similar devices. So popular have these books become, that a newspaper survey in Tokyo found that on average, around 86% of all High School students were regularly consuming them. This adamant obsession with prose has also affected another unlikely medium. The highest selling genre of video games for the PC, making up about 70% of the Japanese market, are “Visual Novels”. Inspired by text adventure games and old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, these video games can be adequately described as interactive novels, complete with soundtrack, voice acting, backgrounds and eye catching artwork. As recently as this year, several have been released for the Playstation 3.

Another intriguing area of the YA industry in Japan revolves around media licensing. Though America is no stranger to book deals involving movie/television studios, it pales in comparison to what has become normal for their Japanese counterparts. Novels are routinely, if not at times monthly, bought up for movie and television rights, none more so than YA titles. And mind you, I am not just discussing the “sale” of rights, but the actual announcement of production on them.

With an industry that is as active as it is, it comes as no surprise that book series are common place, far more so than even in America’s own highly competitive market. However, what may come as a surprise to many is how large these series grow. In the west, “Harry Potter” and its seven volumes are considered large in length for a series, but in Japan, it’s not even average. Instead, book series’ that consist of fifteen or more volumes have now become the expected norm, with some reaching over thirty books in length (and still going).

One other area of interest is in how new authors are discovered. Besides the traditional methods of seeking publication, large publishing houses often manage annual writing contests which seek to uncover new talent, with a few running them monthly. These competitions vary widely, as do, of course, their prizes. Aside from the prospect of publication, a debut author could win over $100,000, that is, if they write it on their phone.

But if the industry and its publishing habits seem unique, than the books they publish will come across even more so. Printed in traditional Japanese paperback dimensions, the novels are small and convenient enough to easily place in a pocket, something that is important for a society that is seemingly always on the move. The books themselves contain a writing style that can at times be characterized by their avoidance of long paragraphs and emphasis on plot driven dialogue. Lengthy exposition is not typically to be found.  And lastly, illustrations are not limited to children’s stories, but have instead become a recognized trademark of YA literature and the culture it has grown from.

However, perhaps more than any other fact of interest is the types of stories that are to be found in Japanese YA. Unlike the industry in the US, where book sales are primarily driven by trends, Japan has almost none. The YA industry, being as large as it is there, has new books coming out every few months in just about every genre imaginable. Whether it be mystery, comedy, fantasy, horror, science fiction, slice-of-life or anything else a reader desires, it’s sure to be on sale. Choice is something that Japanese readers have come to expect from publishers, not wish for.

I’m sure you’ll agree that all of this is very interesting. But why, you might ask, have I chosen to take on this task? Quite simple. Some of the greatest novels I have ever had the pleasure of setting eyes on were first published in Japan. Sadly, over the years I have come to see these wonderful book series gain little to no attention or fan base in the West. Most do not even know they exist, nor do publishers seem to make this task easy, usually giving the books virtually no advertisement and dooming them to early cancellation.

Or course, in truth, there are a good number more reasons as to why I have decided to write this series of articles. First and foremost, I want to shed light on an industry that has remained almost entirely obscured to most in North America and Europe.  Second, I want to help agents and publishers have a better understanding of the market they are dealing with. I have overheard some in the industry lament on their blogs recently that the Japanese market is hard to break into. It is my hope, that with this series, I might explain why that is, and give the information needed for these individuals to succeed there. Lastly, and hardly least, I am writing these articles for readers and authors of Young Adult literature, so that they may gain a broadened understanding of the industry and the many differences they never knew could exist within it.

Hopefully, with just a bit of luck and a few strokes of the pen, I may be able to finally lift the curtain that has remained draped over this fascinating country for far too long.



16 Comments Add yours

  1. What a great article! Admittedly, I’m one of those writers who had no clue so much was going on in the Japanese publishing industry. Very, very interesting. Thank you for shedding some much needed light on this area. Can’t wait for your next installment!

  2. coachhays says:

    Great informative article, Matt! Shed a bright light on a subject that was completely in the dark to me. Can’t wait for your second installment.

  3. Angela Kubo says:

    This is so fascinating. I`ve lived in Japan for most of my life, but I never put much thought into into the Japanese YA industry, since I`m not into reading Japanese.

    I`ve tried reading Keitai Shosetsu, but I couldn`t get into them. But maybe that was because the novel I was trying to read was Koizora.

  4. tremorael says:

    Nice post! I don’t know much about the publishing industry (in any country, for that matter), but this was an enlightening read. I have to admit though, with the advent of the internet I read far, far less than I did in my teens. It seems to be one thing or the other – the few times I’ve been without internet access I really enjoyed getting lost in a book. Looking forward to hearing more about the different types of books!

  5. Really interesting article! I knew a bit about visual novels and I enjoy reading manga/ watching anime but this is the first time I’ve heard about cell phone novels. I also didn’t know that the Japanese YA industry was so massive. Seems like they have really explored the written word and found a lot more new and innovative ways to tell stories. I’m sort of a jack of all trades myself and fiddle with programming while pursuing art and writing, so visual novels are especially interesting to me. I even started making one, but then my computer crashed and I got rather disenchanted. Especially knowing that visual novels are still relatively obscure. It seems like the American market can’t even get their heads around illustrated novels yet. It drives me crazy. Anyway, just needed to get that out. Once again, great article. I wish you luck in revolutionizing the American YA scene.

  6. This is great, thanks!
    For some reason it never really occurred to me before to classify light novels as “YA” — maybe because it always seems like such an English-language publishing industry phenomenon?
    Looking forward to the next installment.^^

    1. Matt says:

      The term “Light Novel” is just that, a term. Same as “Young Adult”. But both mean the same thing and share the same demographic. Sadly, many, including myself for a small time, misunderstood the relation between the two. I’m hoping to fix that over time.

  7. anonymous says:

    I see Spice & Wolf being displayed in the opening picture; I think for English-speaking fans of anime and manga, they call them ‘light novels,’ and of course, there’s an underground subculture devoted to translating light novels. Though perhaps I’m misinterpreting the term “YA” as it differs from “light novel.”

    1. Matt says:

      You’re right. But it’s not just Anime/Manga fans. In Japan, the term used for just about all Japanese YA is “Light Novel”. I’ll be covering that issue briefly in a future article.

  8. thanks for such an interesting article–am very much looking forward to the next.

  9. Lori M. Lee says:

    Great article, and I can’t wait to read the next in the series. I’ve been an avid reader of Japanese YA for years, and I had a distant understanding of how HUGE the industry is, considering how many and often new titles are released. But I love me some numbers and this is extremely enlightening.

  10. Fascinating article, Matt! We tend to be so egocentric here in the US, we assume that our way of doing things is the only way. I love the fact that reading is so important in Japan that this huge industry of YA literature can be sustained. It makes me sad when I think about how many kids (and their parents) complain to me about “summer reading” because they feel they should have a break from reading over their vacation. Since when is reading a chore?

  11. Gabrielle Dinh says:

    I actually knew about cell phone novels, besides manga/anime (both things I read/watch), because during breakfast one day, my mom read an article about it 2 years ago that talked about the popularity of them and said I should read it because it looked like something I’d be interested in. Besides that, I never actually tried to know more about them or reading light novels, so this was interesting to read. Looking forward to part 2. (⌒▽⌒)

  12. Matt, this was a really interesting article. I’d like to check out one of these “Visual Novels.” Do you know if they’re available in the US? Or if I can download them somewhere in English?

    Can’t wait to read the rest of this series. Good stuff!

    1. Matt says:

      There’s a visual novel out in the US for the Nintendo DS by the same guy who made Ever 17, called “9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors”. Other than that, it’s slim pickings. There are people in the US Game industry who are against Visual Novels, and I’ll cover that issue in a future article. Basically, they don’t consider them “Real games”, so they feel we shouldn’t have them in America. Combined with the fact that the first attempts to bring them out failed, it’s created an almost invisible niche. There’s also the fact that you could (only referencing the possibility) download a copy of a visual novel such as Ever 17. The company that brought it out originally in English went out of business many years ago and the only way to get the product now is to buy it USED from some seller on Amazon who is charging $170 (the original price was $40) or to download it. Obviously the issue of downloading a commercial product is touchy, but considering that it’s company doesn’t exist anymore and there is no legal way to buy it directly from the company, well, I’ll leave that decision to each individual. I personally was lucky enough to get a copy of it as a present shortly before the company went under. Since then, it has become my favorite game of all time. Here’s a great video review of it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtuCJAdXNyg Also, to contrast, this is a promotional video for the new PS3 visual novel “White Album”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUeOeWSP9XE

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