– Novels & The Great Beyond –
In my article last week about Japanese Young Adult fiction, I briefly made mention of the variety of forms YA has evolved into in Japan and it’s effect on the pop culture there. This week I’d like to expand on that specific part of the discussion further, and perhaps delve into a related subject.
As mentioned in the previous post, Japan’s YA market is huge. The more you explore it, the more you are likely to quickly discover yourself becoming lost within the many sub-cultures and facets that are connected with it. A major reason for this is the simple fact that YA does not simply entail paperback and hardback. It’s has become so much bigger than that.
In the beginning of the last decade, Japan witnessed one of the newest outgrowths of YA: the Cell Phone Novel. Inspired by blog novels, Japanese writers began to pen their bestsellers on standard mobile phones. The first website to catch wind of this phenomena was Maho-I-Land, a mobile phone community that before 2003, hosted the ability for users to write blog entries on the go. Upon realizing that people had begun to publish novels using the system, they launched a specialized section on the site to facilitate just such a desire. Little did they realize that it would soon become a publishing sensation like no other in recent memory.
The first success in this new writing craze, and part of the reason why the previously mentioned website had taken notice, was a novel titled “Deep Love” by a male author writing under the pseudonym “Yoshi”. A gritty love story with plenty of heartbreaking drama, it grew immensely popular in a short time, eventually attracting the attention of a publisher and going onto sell over 2.6 million copies. From there, the road was paved for the future.
In a nation where cell phones are as likely to be seen as people on the streets, young authors flocked in droves to a new myriad of websites that had opened to promote this new concept. With the number of users on certain websites entering the millions, certain communities began to run contests, some eventually offering $100,000 to potential authors and a publishing contract. As more and more cellular novels became popular, including one title which received 12 million views online, the medium gained even further traction, culminating in the feat of having 5 out of the top 10 bestsellers of 2007 have originally come from the cramped keyboard of a flip phone.
Of course, stories like that rarely go unnoticed and it wasn’t very long before major news outlets across the Western Hemisphere began to report on the matter. As public interest grew, so did several attempts at exporting the idea to the States. One of the most recent websites to launch, and quickly proving to be the most successful, is figment.com.
Though Cell Phone Novels were likely never originally intended as being predominantly YA, that was in fact the demographic that eventually grew to primarily drive their success. With 86% of High School, 75% of Middle School and 23% of Grade School students actively reading the amateur works on their phones, they have effectively dominated the market. Part of the ongoing attraction for young readers has been in the fact that they are consuming material from their own equally minded peers. A majority of the works that have so far gone on to see publishing success in print were penned by authors in their earliest twenties, with a few exceptions, such as one highly successful fourteen year old whose bestselling title earned her $600,000.
However, the Cell Phone Novel is but the most recent development in the evolution of YA. The other is the Visual Novel.
Making up around 70% of the current video game market for the PC in Japan, the Visual Novel has become an extremely popular and unique expansion of the YA culture. Inspired by the Interactive Fiction of the 1980’s and Choose Your Own Adventure books, Japanese game developers launched a fast growing industry in the 1990’s when at the same time, the market for the aforementioned two products quickly lost all appeal in the U.S. and Europe.
Unlike Cell Phone Novels, Visual Novels were well aware of their intended audience and have only grown further as a result. Utilizing Anime style artwork, voice actors, an original soundtrack and typically young protagonists, the software targeted a unique demographic that not only included fans of literature, but also newfound lovers of video games.
The interactivity, or gaming element of the product, is a series of choices the player must make as he reads the narrative. Depending on the decisions made, a player could experience a multitude of different endings. In the case of some, such as the highly acclaimed “Ever 17 -Out of Infinity-“, a player’s goal is to unlock a final “true ending” that will explain and connect all the differences in the previous alternatives.
The result has come across to many as nothing short of brilliant, showcasing a wide variety of writing talent for the authors involved. To date, the games have gone on to sell well for just about every major gaming console, with the most recent hype having surrounded the title “White Album” and its release for the Playstation 3. The format has also seen much success in recent years with cross media platforms. Many Visual Novels are now given novelizations, converted to Manga and given film and television adaptations due to popular demand.
For some reading, even those well acquainted with one or more of the discussed subjects, it may well be the first time you’ve heard someone actually connect it with the YA book industry. This is in part because of the fact that these extensions of the industry have grown so large that they have come to, rightly, be viewed as entirely new thriving industries in and of themselves. However, regardless of their presentation, they are still at their core, Young Adult, in both story content and market.
In order to grasp what I mean, a reader must understand that YA is merely a popular term used to describe an age group of readers, or in recent years, according to some, a specific style of storytelling. Cell Phone Novels are written and read by a YA readership and contain narratives that fall into that same category. Visual Novels are equally consumed by a similar demographic, albeit usually a bit older and more mature. Since both of these, regardless of format and distribution, are essentially works of prose, they are by natural right, an extension of the YA book culture in Japan.
But, just what do the above two outgrowths of YA have in common beside their roots? They have effectively changed the narrative of an ongoing debate.
For a country that is on the cutting edge of technology and has pioneered two unusually popular electronic formats for novels, it may come as a surprise to many that Japan has run into a proverbial brick wall when it comes to the subject of electronic books.
To date, there is but a small eBook market to speak of in Japan. Simply put, the major publishers there are not convinced that there is a profitable business to be had in it. Of course, that’s not to imply that they haven’t tried. Though numerous attempts have been made by companies such as Sony to launch a successful eBook industry with their brand of ereaders, the truth is that they have failed, sometimes miserably so.
Some YA publishers have even attempted to stimulate an eBook market in recent months using Apple’s iPad device. This however has faced an unexpected road block with the introduction of Apple’s new regulations on eBooks sold outside of its native iBooks app.
So what is it exactly that has proved a problem for what has now become a fast growing digital industry in the U.S.? Several things. For one, Japanese paperback books are much smaller than America’s own mass paperbacks. They can easily slip into a pocket and are quite light to the touch. Compared with a bulky, perhaps heavier electronic ereader, consumers may see the devices as more of a negative to their reading experience than a benefit. Since many Japanese readers are constantly on the move, the method of reading they employ must be in harmony with their lifestyle. The books are also quite notably cheap, ranging in price between $5-$6 a volume. There is also the fact that many Japanese simply appear to prefer print. While Magazines and Manga have seen success being sold electronically, mainly through cell phones and the like, novels have routinely not. Japan, as a matter of notable fact, is one of the largest consumers of paper products in the industrialized world.
But in this unique battleground for publishers, something can be seen that hasn’t really been discussed before. For many years, some in America have championed eBooks as the end all replacement for paper bound literature. The view has been, quite expectantly, met with mixed reactions from both those in the book industry and those outside it. Some older generations have worried that these proponents could be right, noting the youth who are already quite engrained with digital culture.
Yet here we are, observing one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, having trouble selling eBooks to just about any demographic available. The same country that has seen wild success with Cell Phone Novels and Visual Novels cannot sell the idea of doing away with paper.
This represents, in my opinion, what should become an intriguing shift in the discussion on eBooks and the future of publishing. If readers in Japan are satisfied with their paperback novels, this could mean that the debate has been framing the question wrong. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not about whether eBooks will replace traditional paper, but whether traditional paper can evolve to become more convenient than eBooks?
Or perhaps, it could very well mean that readers, if they are to make the switch, want more than the same. After all, what is it exactly that has driven the success of both mobile fiction and Visual Novels? Interactivity and a unique individual experience.
What if the Kindle and the numerous devices like it are destined to only have limited appeal? What if the answer to the future of the book industry is far different than what publishers in the West have ever been envisioning? It’s a bold question, and it begs a response that only Japan seems prepared to possibly give.