Japanese YA – How the Industry Works Overseas(Part 4)

– A Tale of Rates and Sales –

The vast and close knit landscape of the publishing industry can often seem like an incomprehensible enigma to many who look on with interest. Littered with contracts, printing runs, foreign rights, advances, copyright battles and multimedia adaptations, even those within this large circle can find at times the mountainous terrain a bit rough to climb.

So it comes as no surprise to me that some find the Japanese Publishing Industry even more mystifying than its Western counterpart.

For the majority reading, this will most likely be your first introduction to the island nation and their way of running a $270 million dollar Young Adult book market, but to a few, it may be the clarity you have always sought.

To start, I’ll begin with the latter group mentioned.

Whenever I overhear or bring up the subject of foreign rights, literary agents tend to bring up the UK, Germany and or the differing European markets. India tends to be as far east as many seem to go, but on occasion, I manage to hear discussion about the more deeply Asian market. To say the least, the opinions thrown around can get a bit conflicting.

Some express a complete lack of knowledge to how the Asian markets operate, others lament that they have difficulty breaking into them, while some claim that the book industry there is wide open. Obviously, there seems to be quite a bit of confusion. But why?

Part of the problem, and perhaps why there can be so many differing opinions about the continent’s market potential, is that for some of these industry insiders, they have committed a sin they near constantly warn their potential clients never to make.

They aren’t familiar with the market they are attempting to sell to.

For many debut authors, none more so than with Young Adult fiction, a writer will put pen to paper without ever investigating as to whether his tale will actually prove palpable to the audience he will be selling it to. This lack of knowledge is obvious in the final product and usually leads to instantaneous rejections from prospective Agents.

In the same way, many literary Agents I suspect are guilty of doing the same thing to a certain extent. They are either avoiding the geographic area outright or are making calculated guesses without any real firm knowledge to base them on. Many I surmise are unaware of how splintered the YA market is in Asia, especially when dealing with the subject of Japan’s own bustling business.

Of course, to be fair, it’s not as if they have had much of a say. For most, the issue was never one that presented an easy solution. To date, there has never been any resources explaining the Japanese YA industry, and even when an article did attempt to explain several years ago the general book publishing standards of Japan, it just about completely ignored the existence of YA altogether. The only solution was to be lucky enough to know someone on the inside, an uninviting and rare prospect given the low number of proficient English speakers.

That all ends now though.

As I have shown in the past three articles, the Japanese YA industry is vast and varied, a metropolis of books that nearly outshine even the large and growing YA culture in America. Fiercely competitive and constantly in a battle to expand its base, it represents a unique outlook of where the future of books might soon be headed.

But while my previous entries have done an acceptable job of laying the ground work for the culture as seen through the eyes of one of its many readers, it has not touched on the side of the business that resides behind a computer screen and the many obstacles that face the one behind it.

So without further ado, we’ll begin this by starting at the beginning.


Getting Your Foot In The Door

In Japan, much like America, an aspiring author has to go through the right channels in order to find publication. With fifteen or so literary agencies, all of which find their base of operations in the Capitol city of Tokyo, there are plenty of agents accepting proposals year round.

But besides the traditional route of finding an agent to represent you, there are also a number of ‘other’ popular methods of getting into the world of publishing that most Japanese writers are well aware of.

With nearly 4,000 publishers as of 2009 (3/4 of which reside in Tokyo alone), and 500 controlling 86% of the market, competition has proven quite intense. Within the YA industry, this has resulted in some unique (and quite successful) ideas to garner new bestselling debut titles. One of which, mentioned in my introduction to this series, was competitions.

The biggest of these, dubbed “The Dengeki Novel Prize”, is a contest managed by ASCII Media Works, one of the largest publishers of YA fiction in Japan, usually operating under their YA imprint known commonly as “Dengeki Bunko”. Offering the promise of publication and up to ¥1,000,000 yen in prize money, the event has proven it’s success several times over since it’s initial inception in 1994. Some of it’s most notable winners, “Boogiepop”, “Spice and Wolf” and “BACCANO” have gone onto become runaway bestselling book series, spawning numerous multimedia adaptations.

Riding on the success of this, and some other smaller competitions, Kodansha (another big name in the YA industry) recently announced this year the launch of it’s own similar competition, offering a twist to the prizes. The “Kodansha Light Novel Bunko New Author Prize” seeks to offer a grand prize of ¥3,000,000 yen and, on top of that, the promise of creating a fifteen minute Anime adaptation of the work in collaboration with studio AIC.

Special In-Store Display

As with all competitions of this nature, there are plusses and negatives. While many of the bestselling Young Adult novels in Japan have gotten their start here (a notable reference would be “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”), some have avoided the competitions for numerous reasons.

The most probable explanation would be due to the fact that without an agent, the contract a debut writer signs often transfers most control of the given work to the publisher to do with it as it wishes. Most anything in regard to the production of the work is done without the oversight or consultation of the original author.

Of course, in the list of publishing avenues there is always self-publishing. While vanity presses do exist in Japan and are available if sought, the majority of self published novels are, as far as I know, primarily in the Blog and Cell Phone Novel format as noted several articles before. While there are some self-published Visual Novels as well (a notable reference being the “Higurashi -When They Cry-” series), the successes in this regard are usually the exception, rather than the rule.

Cell Phone Novels have proven highly successful for amateur novelists, as evidenced by the fact that five of the top ten national bestsellers in Japan in 2007 were from the format. With fourteen year old girls earning over $600,000 and new books being published from online serials on a sometime monthly basis, the market has been both promising and unpredictable.


The Writer’s Life


Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the YA book industry in Japan is its rigorous time consuming schedules.

American readers are no doubt familiar with most YA titles being released at an average pace of one book per year. This has become quite average for a lot of us.

The same however, is not true for Japan.

No, in a nation where reading is on high demand and the next bestseller is always on the horizon, Japanese authors have found themselves constantly on their toes.

How tough is it? The average book schedule for a particular series is three. That is to say, three a year. With most Light Novel series (Japanese term for YA) stretching to fifteen or more volumes in total, writers are expected to do just as their name implies, write.

“Katanagatari” by NISIOISIN

One prolific and popular YA author, NISIOISIN, would make even James Patterson drop his jaw. In 2007, the bestselling writer wrote one book every month for a straight year, publishing each at it’s completion. What’s even more impressive, is that at the same time, Ryusui Seiryoin (another famous author) was doing the exact same thing at the same time. On top of that, he was holding book signings year round.

That’s not to say though, that there aren’t YA novels on annual rotation, but merely to point out that for many bestsellers, such a luxury of time isn’t available. One of the driving motivations for this is the fact that Japanese readers eagerly devour the material rather quickly, leaving large numbers of customers ready to empty their wallet, but no new product yet to purchase.

As mentioned last time, this is sometimes mediated through the use of YA magazines that do serialize stories on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. Often times, they will publish short stories from a number of popular series to pacify readers while they wait for the next volume. These short stories, will in turn, be eventually combined to form a future volume in the series.

One of the other unique aspects of Japanese YA is the use of illustrations. Many writers often times, after seeing this, wonder whether authors have control over the artwork in their books.

The simple answer, however, is no. Much like authors in the U.S. have little to no control over the final title and book cover, the same is true for Japan. The internal illustrations which many Japanese YA have become famous for, are outside the control of their authors many times, most usually in the case of a first time writer.

From what I’ve seen, writers (if they have proven successful) tend to gain more control over different aspects of the book’s publication, even collaborating with the artists on a shared vision. An example of this is hinted at the end of the novel “Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime”.

This, of course, brings me to another aspect of Japanese works that differ from the U.S.

The Afterword.

While not particularly popular in the states, an Afterward is near common place in every YA book to be found in Japan. In replacement of a typical Acknowledgment page which is common in the West, an Afterward combines the familiar thank you’s with a personal message from the author, sometimes dealing with a variety of themes.

What makes this subject one of such interest is the affect it can have on the fandom of a book and it’s wide prevalence among the industry. To illustrate, a book that has been a regular bestseller, GOSICK, has been praised by many fans for it’s Afterward. One fan in particular even remarked in an online review that it was one of the most entertaining parts of the book.

Intriguingly, even the artists of the internal illustrations, are on rare occasion, given their own afterward beside the author’s.

The Nitty Gritty

Surprisingly, there are many misconceptions regarding the length of Japanese YA. Given the name, “Light Novel”, some readers in America have mistakenly assumed that the books are of a smaller stature than other books in the market. The truth is, that contrary to what the name implies, “Light” Novels are anything but light. The majority of these YA titles register a word count of 50,000 or more, with a few nearing 100,000.

In a few instances, as with TV novelizations, the word count can shrink dramatically to the level of a novelette. A good example would be the “Fooly Cooly” trilogy. However, to perceive this as a representation of the bulk of YA works in Japan would be wrong.

Though the word count of YA novels in Japan are typically near the level of other adult works as well as books overseas in the U.S., there is some difference when it comes to the pages themselves. Light Novels are usually written with simple straight forward grammar and wording. In terms of the Japanese language, it means that very few kanji (the complicated characters that make up much of the written language) are used, and what is used are simple and easily understood.

In respect to the descriptions, long paragraphs detailing a sunrise are done away with, instead replaced by more dialogue or character exposition. In fact, Japanese YA could be looked at as being primarily focused on characters. While the plot is certainly a main focus in Japanese works, characters prove a strong central goal.

This could potentially play into the fact that most Light Novel covers feature the heroine or hero of the tale front and center. To a certain degree, the characters in a Japanese story sell the book almost as much as the blurb on the spine of the jacket. It could even be argued that at times, book sales rely solely on whether the main character catches the attention of a potential reader perusing the aisles in a bookstore.

Marketing and Publicity

Similar to America, Japanese publishers market their works through a variety of avenues available. Unlike the states though, Japan has more opportunities at their fingertips. With a larger pool of readers and bigger stake in the pop culture, not to mention regular film and comic adaptations, authors find their works on a center stage, duking it out to catch the sight of new fans.

Long Line For Book Signing

Book commercials, a relatively newer development in Japan, are quickly becoming mainstays. In recent months, I’ve noticed new TV ads being released more than ever before, promoting new and bestselling titles. The advertisements, utilizing the internal illustrations and even at times adding animation, are quick thirty second blasts of moving images. As to how well they are working at promoting sales, I doubt anyone knows better than the publishers themselves, but judging from the increase in production, it wouldn’t be a far fetch to guess they are performing quite good.

Besides television, new books are promoted in YA publications such as “Dragon MAGAZINE” and “Dengeki Bunko Magazine”, and occasionally on advertisements that wrap around other books.

As always, bookstores, the primary avenue for readers in Japan to grab a new novel, play a central role in selling titles. With over 15,000 stores nationwide, some separated from each other only by a street, new debuts are given ample opportunity to be found.

Social Media

Volume 11 of “Kino no Tabi”

In recent years, I have seen an explosion of growth in regard to YA authors and social networking. From my personal experience on Twitter, I have witnessed a large migration of bestselling authors moving to the platform, as well as Japanese readers who have joined as a result. Big name authors such as Noboru Yamaguchi (Zero no Tsukaima), Shouji Gatou (Full Metal Panic) and Keiichi Sigsawa (Kino no Tabi) would be a few that come to mind.

Facebook, though very popular around the world, is typically disliked by Japanese who prize their privacy and ability to remain anonymous. Thus it has not proven a successful platform for authors, let’s alone most Japanese as a whole.

As some might know though, Japan does have it’s own unique social network called “MIXI”. Though only Japanese users have access, from what I can gather, most users remain anonymous. So I’m not quite sure if publishers have attempted to utilize it in some way for the industry’s benefit.

Author & Publisher Relationships

This now brings us to an intriguing subject. How is the understanding between an author and his publisher? There are, quite obviously, many horror stories in America about authors who had terrible experiences with their publishing houses. Albeit, while they don’t represent what the majority of authors experience, they do give us a glimpse into the mindset of some in the industry.

And so it was that a news report from several weeks ago recently caught my attention.

Volume 1 of “Dantalian no Shoka”

The bestselling author of a recent book series “Dantalian no Shoka” found himself in a bit of a scandal, or at least, as scandalous as most book dilemmas go. According to reports, the author had planned to end his series upon the publication of book seven, but upon the request of his publisher, agreed to extend it by another book. That decision came prior to this last Christmas.

Everything was fine until after he published the eighth and final volume. He was shortly thereafter contacted by his publisher who requested once again that he extend the series by another volume. The publisher was in contact with an animation studio who was planning to prepare a short animated video based off the series. Their desire was to ship the OVA (Original Video Animation) as a special gift with the purchase of the next book (something many YA books do nowadays).

The obvious problem was, there was no more books coming out to ship it with. So the publisher sought the writer to add another book. The author, however, denied the request. He wasn’t interested in writing another volume. The series was finished.

The publisher, not discouraged, decided to take matters into it’s own hands. So they did what any of us would do, they listed a ninth book of the series on Amazon for preorder without permission. The author, upset and not backing down, told the publisher once again, with no room for doubt, that there would be no ninth addition to the series. Clearly having lost their battle, the publisher backed down, removed the preorder and announced the OVA was canceled.

Though this doesn’t give us a completely accurate picture of the entire industry, it does present a unique look at the landscape, if just a bit. We can really get a sense at how competitive the market is and how multimedia ventures, like an OVA, can affect the goals of a publisher. We also get a good sense of the conflicts that an author faces between writing a new book for the sake of his story, or instead, for the sake of increased profit.

How Big is Big?

Some have wondered just how well YA is selling in Japan, or to be more exact, how much. In an industry where numbers mean quite a lot, this is an important question. For a while now, sales data on Light Novels have been scant and hard to find, but thanks to a recent press release we can discover the answer.

With the recent release of new sales figures from several huge series, I can relay in confidence that “big” is, well… とても大きい (Very Big).

As of August 10, the YA novel series “Toaru Majutsu no Index” has reported a total of 12.3 million copies sold (3.3 million of which were sold in the span of a year) and has joined the ranks of “Majustsuhi Orphen”, another series which has sold near the same. Following close behind are bestsellers such as “Shakugan no Shana” which has sold 8 million and “Kino no Tabi” with 7 million.

Combined with everything I’ve been saying thus far and in the previous articles, it should come as no surprise that sales figures are so large. The best part is that the industry doesn’t appear to be dying down. Sales are rising faster and so are new books.

The rise of YA in Japan is also visible in the recent news regarding the bestselling series “Haruhi Suzumiya”. First published in June of 2003, the ongoing series of eleven books has reached near Twilight levels of fandom. With the release of books ten and eleven (released together at the same time) the series not only reached a new milestone for itself, but the entire Japanese YA market.

A printing run of 513,000 copies was approved by Kadokawa for it’s release, the highest ever in the history of the industry and a testament to the growing success and penetration YA has had over the past decade.

A Few Other Odd Bits

On the topic of Foreign Rights, most YA titles in Japan usually never travel further than the borders of Korea or Taiwan, their next door neighbors. Occasionally, with superb bestsellers, titles find their way to the U.S. or Germany, but in most cases, the translations are mishandled and generate little to none profit due to a multiplicity of issues, many of which will be covered in an upcoming article installment.

Another subject that never seems to grow old on the minds of many writers is the issue of “Advances”. Though information is scarce, it would appear that the average advance rate of a Japanese novel falls into some rather familiar territory. Ranging somewhere between $4,000 – $12,000, the book rates match the typical $6,000 many debut writers are accustomed to in the U.S.

Though larger advances aren’t uncommon, they are no longer the norm. Marketing has taken precedence over an immediate check.

In Conclusion

Japan is an obscure island nation to most, known more for it’s oddities than accomplishments. Though having a thriving and vast book industry, a unique outlook on the e-book debate and producing teenage prodigies via cell phones, most in the West have remained removed from their world and the affect their nation could have on the countries that abide nearby.

It is my hope that as these articles continue to outline this intriguing aspect of Japanese culture, more people will begin to gain a broader grasp of the large world Young Adult literature entails.

Isolationism has never been good policy for nations and it shouldn’t be for the book industries that reside in them either.



Statistic Sources from Internet:

[1] To Be Added Later


3 Comments Add yours

  1. kafkafuura says:

    Great article – looking forward to the next!

    I am proud to say I own 6 of the books featured in the pictures in this post :3

  2. IceD says:

    That was a wonderful read. Thanks for sharing your knowledge on japanese YA industry with the rest of us. I’ll be waiting for the next part 🙂

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