Last month, a new English light novel distributor emerged on the scene. Called J-Novel Club, it promises to publish the latest light novels worldwide in digital format. You might have seen my interview with the site’s owner on Crunchyroll, which goes into more detail about what the site is all about and what sort of titles are available there already.
Needless to say, I’m a supporter of the website. It’s a risky and experimental venture, but I definitely want it to succeed. If J-Novel Club manages to take off, we could see more light novels available in English, including the more obscure titles without anime adaptations. I never thought the day would come when I’d be able to read an official English translation of My Little Sister Can Read Kanji, but now that it has arrived, I fall on my knees and thank God I’m alive.
So what’s next in the world of English light novels? While I have no way of seeing the future, I do have some tentative predictions about the prospects of J-Novel Club, which I’d like to share in this post.
At the time of this writing, J-Novel Club has licensed six titles, and they also plan to announce at least four more titles before the end of the year. This all sounds well and good, but are these titles necessarily what the audience wants to read?
Let’s go through the titles available so far. Occultic;Nine and Grimgar need no introduction, given that they both have anime adaptations. My Little Sister Can Read Kanji is… not quite a cult classic, but it is fairly well known among English-speaking light novel fans because of reviews pointing out the oddity of its existence. The other titles (Brave Chronicle: The Ruinmaker, My Big Sister Lives in a Fantasy World and I Saved Too Many Girls and Caused the Apocalypse) are completely obscure. Given that they’re pretty trope-y light novel fare, they’re unlikely to win over people who don’t read a lot of light novels of this sort.
I’m not saying the selection is bad; in fact, it’s pretty good for a publisher just starting out. I imagine that Occultic;Nine and Grimgar would be pulling most of the subscribers at this stage. The best advertisement for a light novel is an anime adaptation, and this is true in both the Japanese and English markets.
Unfortunately, I think it would be extremely difficult for J-Novel Club to license the more potentially lucrative titles, given what I know about Japanese light novel publishers. Kadokawa has a monopoly on the industry, and while they’re becoming increasingly open to the prospect of selling ebooks worldwide through their BookWalker service, I think they would rather stick with Yen Press’s proven track record with print books than rely on the J-Novel Club’s digital-only model. Shogakukan also appears to emphasise print runs over ebooks, if the print-only English release of Oregairu is anything to go by. This kind of attitude, from what I understand, is common among the veteran publishing houses in Japan.
It’s worth noting that the only publishers who have signed a deal with J-Novel Club so far are Overlap and Hobby Japan. Both of these publishers are very young, and I can see why they’d be more willing to take a risk by investing in J-Novel Club. Personally, I’m stoked to see more of their titles available in English. That said, very few of their titles have anime adaptations. Overlap has been publishing Infinite Stratos since volume 8, but I don’t know if this means they have procured the rights for the earlier volumes, so there may be some trouble there. As for Hobby Japan, I think Aesthetica of a Rogue Hero is the only series with an anime adaptation that hasn’t been licensed yet. (Edit: Also Demon King Daimao. I forgot that one even existed.)
J-Novel Club’s biggest problem at the moment, then, is that they’ll have to reach out to other publishers besides Overlap and Hobby Japan in order to publish the big name titles. Acquiring a million light novel titles doesn’t mean squat if none of them are known to your audience.
I’m not entirely pessimistic, though. Publishers can and do change their minds all the time. If the J-Novel Club business model shows results, then even the conservative publishers may come on board. I would be extremely surprised to see a Dengeki Bunko title on J-Novel Club in the near future, but I’ll give it time. In the meantime, I fully plan to support J-Novel Club’s releases and wish them the best of luck.
I think it would be smart for J-Novel Club to get into web novels, much like Cross Infinite World has done with female-targeted novels. Titles like Mushoku Tensei, Arifureta and Tensei Shitara Slime Datta Ken are popular with English as well as Japanese readers. Translating web novels also suits J-Novel Club’s system of weekly digital updates. I wonder if this is something the company is thinking of pursuing.