Light Novels: Introduction
The name "Light Novels" was coined some 20 years ago on an electronic forum, when the administrator wanted a way to collectively refer to paperback novels that were aimed at youngsters and quick to read. The definition remains vague, but the books often share some common elements: they're around 250 pages, they have manga style cover illustrations, and the intended audience is young adults. Over time the boundaries have grown even hazier, and nowadays you can find all kinds of literature being called light novels, as some titles have been republished with new covers as "proper" literature (12 Kingdoms), while old classics conversely have gotten new editions with manga illustrations (Ningen Shikkaku).
The most apparent difference from regular literature is the abundance of illustrations in most light novels. Every 20 pages or so there will be a grayscale illustration depicting a scene that is taking place, while the covers are colourfully eye-catching to attract buyers browsing the bookshop shelves. The influence of the artist can be massive in light novel publication, as there are certain types of customers who go around picking things to read solely based on the illustrated goodness found inside. With the huge amount of anime and manga adaptations based on light novels, it can also have an effect on character design and, as a consequence, the popularity of such works.
Speaking of adaptations, perhaps you have started wondering if you've heard of any light novel titles before, so here's a tiny list of light novels that ended up as anime:
• Arslan Senki (The Heroic Legend of Arslan)
• Asura Cryin'
• Bokusatsu Tenshi Dokuro-chan
• Boogiepop Phantom
• Full Metal Panic
• Ginga Eiyuu Densetsu (Legend of the Galactic Heroes)
• Hanbun no Tsuki ga Noboru Sora
• Iriya no Sora, UFO no Natsu
• Juuni Kokki (12 Kingdoms)
• Kino no Tabi (Kino's Journey)
• Lodoss-tou Senki (Record of Lodoss War)
• Maria-sama ga Miteru
• Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu
• Ookami to Koushinryou (Spice & Wolf)
• Seikai series (Crest/Banner of the Stars)
• Shakugan no Shana
• Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuu-utsu (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya)
• To Aru Majutsu no Index
• Zero no Tsukaima
Economically, light novels are far behind manga in sales, but between 2004 and 2006 the market grew by 30%, while manga publication seems to be shrinking by the year. To put some perspective on the chasm between the two formats, here's a list of recent first week sales for the most popular volumes:
Yet as the weeks pass, sales pile up quite a bit. With all the volumes added together, popular series like Kino no Tabi and Suzumiya Haruhi have sold over 6 million copies each, which is nothing to sneeze at. It should be noted that these sales can be boosted enormously by movie/anime adaptations coming out, as was the case for Koukaku no Regios, which was only selling 25k copies before the anime began its broadcast.
1) One Piece, 1200k units
2) Nana, 600k
3) Fullmetal Alchemist, 530k
4) Naruto, 504k
5) Bleach, 480k
1) Saiunkoku Monogatari, 100k
2) Koukaku no Regios, 64k
3) Toradora!, 61k
4) Zero no Tsukaima, 60k
5) To aru Majutsu no Index, 56k
By now you'll be excited enough to wonder how you can take part in the magical world of light novel reading. Publishing houses like Tokyopop, encouraged by the rising popularity of anime and manga, decided to give light novels a shot a couple of years ago, but perhaps it was too soon, or a poor choice of titles. In the words of one of the English translators who worked on light novels, "they've mostly died a horrible death [in the USA]." Now your best bet is to learn Japanese for about 3 years. Even so, Yen Press is still publishing English translations of some established series like Haruhi. The easiest way is probably to read fan translations at Baka-Tsuki's wiki. They're working on a whole bunch of titles, although the quality is unknown by me.