Our blogger looks at mass market fiction and explains why we need to publish more light novels and paperbacks.
Wouldn’t it be nice if books were cheap and literally available everywhere?
When I lived in Japan, books were everywhere. Every little mom-and-pop convenience store had at least a small book section. And, it wasn’t just for Mills & Boon.
You had comics (Manga), novels, serialised short story magazines, some others stuff best not mentioned, and you always had some popular Light Novels.
When I go to the gas station store now, I see several magazines, a machine renting DVDs, and literally not a single book.
Light Novels, Young Adult Fiction, Paperbacks: A Comparison. What Can We Learn?
I believe that if more pulp fiction were published, it could revitalise the children’s/young adult book market and beyond. Theses books could turn young readers into lifelong readers.
(For a breakdown of the book market, look here.)
I decided to look at the formats of mass-produced books and how they should be used.
1. What Are Light Novels?
- Light Novels (LN) are short books that are about 50 000 words in length. Isekai is an example of a light novel.
- They are almost exclusively published in Japan (and Asia), but are available in English as ebooks or, if you are willing to wait, as paper books.
- Their target audience is 14 years and older. They are published regularly, usually at 6-9 month intervals.
- Often, individual chapters are published monthly in serialised magazines (typically in six parts) and then collected in a book for publication.
- These books are almost always illustrated.
- Light Novels cost about 650 yen or $6.
2. What Are Young Adult Novels?
- Young Adult (YA) novels are books that are 55-80 000 words long.
- They are published mostly with the age demographic of 12-18 in mind.
- Young Adult novels at the time of writing cost about $15.
Publishers like Scholastic are doing a good job. They opt for a series of short books, and publish often. The popular series, Animorphs was 54 books in total, published over a five-year period. A child who started this series would be able to finish it before they graduated high school. These books often have more than one author, or are written by a team of ghost writers. These books are frequently illustrated.
Due to the intense age targeting it is rare to find many example of these books being enjoyed by older readers.
3. What Are Paperbacks?
Paperbacks come in two varieties.
- Mass Market Paperbacks
These are pocket friendly books that are usually a reprint of a popular Hardcover book.
They are made assuming that they will sell well and that they are disposable. As such, they are made with glue bindings and paper covers. They tend to age poorly.
They cost $10-$15 for a 300-page book.
- Trade Paperbacks
Trade Paperbacks are a bigger, more durable paper-covered book. They are often printed to sell a book at trade fairs. They have also become a popular format as a cheaper alternative to hard covers. Six out of seven paperbacks in America were trade paperbacks in 2017.
They are more expensive than normal paperbacks at $15+
Both: Paperbacks are usually not illustrated. They are the most popular form of book at about 60% of the book market, including audiobooks, but not ebooks.
Books don’t sell as well as they used to because we have made it difficult to buy them.
Light Novels (in Japan) sell around 30 million copies yearly. Young Adult fiction (in the USA) sells 19+ million.
Given the population of the US (327 million, increasing) vs. Japan (126 million, decreasing), one would expect that YA novels should sell about 100 million copies a year.
So why don’t they?
- It’s hard to buy books
If I want to buy a book on a whim, I have to drive to a book store. I have to check if they have the one I want. Be disappointed that they don’t. Go home. Check on Amazon. Decide if I want to wait for it to be delivered, or if I would rather just read an ebook, or listen to an audiobook. This also requires I have an iPad or Kindle. While I like reading ebooks, many people complain that it hurts their eyes or that it is annoying to have to keep your device charged.
Why aren’t there pop-up book-stands in malls that catch your eye with the latest releases? Why not have books next to the sweets or at the tills in grocery stores?
It’s becoming more and more difficult to find a good book store as they downsize or close altogether. Unless you live in a big city, you probably have to order your books.
- It’s Expensive
The new YA novel, So This is Love is the most wished for book on Amazon, and, as I write, it costs $18. I am not surprised the YA industry does not sell as many books as it should.
Light novels are $6 so it’s easy to justify picking up a new book when you pop into the convenience store. At 50 000 words it should also keep an average reader occupied for at least a few days. This type of book fits nicely in your hand and it is not heavy.
YA novels are longer at 80 000 words, but at $18 they are often a luxury purchase.
Strangely, ebooks are often more expensive than Mass Market Paperbacks.
- There Is Too Much Age Targeting
I stopped reading Animorphs and other YA fiction when I turned 19. I feel uncomfortable going into the children’s section as an adult and even more uncomfortable reading fiction that is so obviously targeted at only one age demographic. I don’t feel that way with light novels. In Japanese books stores, I commonly found LN being read by working-aged people.
Light novels are still obviously mostly for young adults, but with the huge variety (80 published in January alone) I would not have a problem finding something to read.
The publication of books with the mind-set of 14+ rather than 12-18 will alienate fewer readers.
The Problem With Publishing
Publishing is not the mammoth industry it once was, but it has survived. People have been buying more physical books recently. Juvenile fiction is growing every year.
Children want to read more than adults, and we should exploit this.
But, publishers and booksellers are too scared to take the risk. They don’t want to spend money printing something that might not sell.
Here’s the thing though. If you treat every book as a risk, you will never be able to find a market for it. Publish 10 books cheaply, make them available, and you will find one or two that take off.
- Do this regularly and you have an audience that expects constant new books to read rather than at random intervals.
- Do this well and you will have young people reading a 54-book series who are buying a new book every week.
- Do this poorly and you will have a publishing industry that relies on Harry Potter to carry entire companies.
What Is The Solution?
Imagine if something as popular as Harry Potter were broken up into short books? Kids could read them on the bus to school or during breaks. You could sell 100 a year to the least bookish child.
15 years ago, you could walk into any book store and pick up pulp fiction paperbacks cheaply.
Online book sales and piracy problems did not make reading any less popular or profitable. It did scare publishers who did know how to move with the times. This led to a decline in physical book sales in the West.
Other places, like Japan, have made reading into a collector’s game.
Books are themed, brightly coloured, and sold as if they have expiry dates. This appeals to children who love to collect things. I don’t understand why this has died down in the West. Surely, any child would want copies of their books on their bookshelves and not on a tablet?
This is a picture of a second hand book store in Japan with four floors.
Why can’t we have this in the West, Publishers?
Most western countries are as wealthy as Japan and no less interested in reading. There is clearly money in this. So, get back to work and make book stores less boring.
Christopher writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisLukeDean
If you enjoyed this post, read:
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- The Greatest Fictional World Builders Teach You To Write Fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Greatest Fictional World Builders Teach You To Write Fantasy: Terry Pratchett
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- Why Writers Should Know About Monsters Before They Write a Word
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