Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Light Novel Publishing in Japan

As with Interview with a Translator, Part 1, these posts address aspects of Japanese popular culture. There will be six posts total. Eugene, the translator, is a votary of Japanese literature, art, and contemporary culture as well as a fiction writer. More of his thoughts can be found on his website and blog.

Part 2 delves specifically into the world of light novels, Japan's reading culture and, of course, more translation challenges.

Kate: What is a light novel? Does its designation depend on subject matter or word count? If word count, why are U.S. publishers so obsessed with 100,000 words or more when the light novel clearly does well in Japan?
Light novel equivalent.
Eugene: The "light novel" is a mass market novella format in Japan, a paperback of around 40,000 words, most often printed in the A6 (4x6 inch) format. The content is genre fiction, with a dozen or so pen and ink illustrations. Furigana are included to help with the pronunciation of difficult kanji.
The equivalent of the light novel used to be a thing in American publishing too. Back in the day they were called the "pulps," after the cheap paper they were printed on. And like the pulps, light novels can be diamonds in the rough and they also can be barely good enough to pass muster. 
Dean Wesley Smith explains on his website about how the paperback novel grew from true "pocket-size" into a doorstop:
"Publishers forced writers to write longer books, not to make the books better, but to justify their need to raise book prices because of other costs. (Paper and printing were cheap, so most of the extra costs were in overhead and could be made up with just fatter books.)"
Kate: Why is the publishing industry in Japan willing to play for supposedly lower stakes?
Eugene: An established Japanese publishing firm was likely founded by a guy who started from literally nothing after the war. Most of Japan's 3,700 publishing companies are privately-held companies with less than 10 employees. Only 30 publishers have more than 1000 employees.
So keeping overhead low and spreading the costs (and risks) around is standard practice (true of Japan's movie industry too). There's no blockbuster mentality. If Your Name had made 30 million dollars instead of 300 million, everybody would have counted it a success.
This means publishers can throw just about anything against the wall to see if it sticks. In this respect, the manga and light novel resembles the Hollywood television pilot (on a much smaller scale). And it can be surprising what sticks, like this.
This is a mom.
The standard publishing contract in Japan is so standard (no advance and 10 percent of list price paid on publication) that agents usually aren't involved. Rarely to never will a Japanese publisher throw six or seven figures at an unknown who is going to be "the next big thing."
Of course, things get more complicated once the licensing deals begin. But unlike his American counterpart, the Japanese author retains most creative rights by default. And because there is no one big payday in the offing, licensing far and wide is standard practice.
Japanese publishers will publish periodicals out of the same offices, and use loss-leading manga magazines to "audition" series and artists. The cream of the crop become source material for light novels, anime, live-action television, movies, and even stage productions.
Kate: In one light novel series, the main character is an editor at a publishing company. The major author with whom he works has contracts at several different companies—this author produces one to two books per year for each company. Is this flexibility (a major author coasting between several companies) typical?
Eugene: According to Robert Whiting (author of baseball books like You Gotta Have Wa and The Chrysanthemum and Bat), most of the time a Japanese publisher will ask a writer to do a book "without a contract or an advance." Then when the book is published, "the author gets paid on books printed, not sold."
This is the opposite of how traditional U.S. publishers work. First, it means that Japanese publishers don't contractually lock down an author from the start. Second, it means they have more skin in the game once the book gets printed. A U.S. publisher can do a run of 100,000 books (and boast "100,000 books in print!"), get 50,000 returns, and pay a royalty on the 50,000 (a year later).
The Japanese publisher, by contrast, is down a 7-10 percent royalty right out of the gate. Returns can't be so easily shrugged off. However, shorter printing runs and supply more carefully matched to demand results in books going out of print faster (at least that's my experience with manga). And then you have to anxiously wait around for another printing or edition to come out.
Kate: How do Japanese writers get noticed?
Eugene: My sense is that there's a lot more going on at the grassroots level in Japanese publishing. Authors can start at zero in the doujinshi arena and build a fan base. Think of the way sports stars emerge from the gauntlet of high school and college sports. Once the professional teams get involved, they have a pretty good idea of who's worth recruiting.
One big sorting and recruiting tool are literary prizes. We tend to think of literary prizes as rewarding "Literature" (with a capital "L" because it's "high art" and it's "good for you"); or celebrating a "body of work" from a known and respected quantity (at least known to and respected by all the critics who "matter").
The two biggest literary awards in Japan are the biannual Akutagawa and Naoki prizes, the former for "the best serious literary story published in a newspaper or magazine by a new or rising author" and the latter for "the best work of popular literature in any format by a new, rising, or (reasonably young) established author."
Naoki Matayoshi
Kate: Are these awards more the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Literature or the Nebula? Or something even less hoity-toity?
Eugene: It does seem that the jurors try not to let too much pretentiousness govern their selections. Although, as in Always: Sunset on Third Street, a common writerly stereotype is the guy scribbling away in his hovel with high hopes of winning the Akutagawa prize while actually earning a living cranking out serial novels.
The serial novel is still going in Japan and many light novels start out that way.
The 2016 January Akutagawa prize was awarded to Naoki Matayoshi (no relation to the Naoki prize). He's a comedian, commentator, and occasional actor. Especially since winning the prize, he's been a regular on the chat and news show circuit. He hosts a weekly show about applied economics for NHK. He never attended college.
His biography is not terribly unusual for media intellectuals. In Japan, a diploma (the "Ivy Leagues" aside) is not a necessary credential for having smart things to say. (The protagonist in Hero passed the bar exam and became a public prosecutor without ever attending college or law school. Rare but possible.)
Daughter of the Murakami Pirates by Ryo Wada won the 2014 Japan Booksellers Yoshikawa Eiji prize for new writers, not for being "great literature" (nobody claims it is) but for being a great read. The Kodansha Manga Award has been awarded to hugely popular series like Ace of the Diamond and Attack on Titan.
As with college sports, in Japanese publishing there's the equivalent of a weekly MVP award and an annual Heisman for just about any genre in any medium. They serve a similar purpose: to reward up and coming talent, and to get the word out to the press and the public.
Kate: Why is it comparably more difficult to track down light novels in the U.S. than manga? Isn't manga harder to publish due to the art work? Is word count the reason light novels don't get translated more often?
Eugene: As far as books go, a light novel that finds the right audience can do just as well as any other "long tail" genre novel, which is not all that great. The term "manga," on the other hand, identifies it as a unique print and reading format. Expectations are met before the reading begins. A light novel is, at the end of the day, just another "book" among tens of thousands, and light novels have the additional expense of licensing fees to contend with on the balance sheet.
Along with Justin Sevakis, I also think that light novel adaptations have been slow to take off for the same reason visual novel adaptations have been slow to take off--all those words. 
One of the most popular yaoi light
novel series in the U.S., the later
volumes are far superior translations
to the earlier ones. Readers read
them anyway--but they complained.
Like American television producers, Japanese publishers try to cover every genre and demographic and hope that something catches fire. That includes, of course, chasing the latest trends.
The problem outside Japan is building a critical mass of supply when the still nascent demand doesn't justify the investment. That critical mass has been achieved with manga and anime (it only took a quarter century). It's tougher with a non-visual medium like traditional books.
The steepest cost in localizing a Japanese novel is the translation. A manga can be translated in a week or two, as opposed to a month or two (with no editing). With manga, the American publisher can work from the original print-ready PDFs, erase the speech bubbles and type in the English.
A novel has to be edited and typeset from scratch. On current budgets, there is never enough editing (and often there is barely any).
Good anime and manga can survive mediocre translations. Not so much novels. Especially when it precedes the manga, anime, and movie adaptations, the text has to stand on its own.
Coming next: Japan's Reading Culture!

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