An Introduction to Light Novels

What is a Light Novel?

Light novels are books—or more specifically, works of popular fiction from Japan. In Japan they are called ranobe, which is a shortened form of raito noberu, or light novel.

Some things that a light novel is not:

  • Manga — a graphic novel (or comic book)
  • Anime — an animated TV show or movie
  • Visual Novel — an interactive game for computers or video game consoles, in which you read a story accompanied by music, sound effects, and manga-style artwork of the characters

Those pictures are all from adaptations of My Youth Romantic Comedy is Wrong As I Expected, which is a light novel series. Let’s take a look at the first light novel volume, which has been translated into English.

The cover of a light novel looks similar to that of a manga volume, but if you open the book you’ll find lots of words. Light novels such as this one also include some black and white illustrations.

That’s all you really need to know, but if you want to dive in deeper… keep reading!

What Makes a Light Novel Different From a Regular Novel?

In Japan, light novels have become a popular form of entertainment. A typical light novel volume is a bit shorter than a regular one (under 300 pages), is small in size (14.8 cm in height, and 10.6 cm in width), is affordable (around 600-800 yen), includes a number of manga-style illustrations (probably 5 to 10 of them), and is not too difficult to read (generally targeting a young adult audience). Of course, there are exceptions that can be found regarding any one of these points.

Many light novels are serialized, meaning there can be many volumes in a series featuring the same characters and setting. Popular series often get multiple books released in a single year, not so different from how quickly manga volumes are released.

In recent years, there have been many anime adapted from light novels. Manga adaptations for popular light novel series are quite common too. Exposing a franchise to audiences of different mediums is known as cross-promotion. In other words, if you’re a fan of an anime, you might not only buy the Blu-rays for it, but you’ll also buy the light novels that the anime was based on. And then you might buy the manga adaptation, the art book, and a couple figurines too.

Various anime and manga series also tend to get light novel tie-ins of their own. These stories may be spin-offs, prequels, sequels, or direct adaptations.

Now with all of that in mind, I think the answer to “What is a light novel?” ultimately boils down to…

A light novel is a light novel because the publisher says it’s a light novel.

To discern this, you need to check the book’s label–i.e. the imprint owned by a publishing house.

  • For example, there’s Dengeki Bunko, the largest light novel label in Japan. It is owned by ASCII Media Works, which is a brand company of Kadokawa. That’s the publishing house. Some of Dengeki Bunko’s most popular works include Sword Art Online, Spice and Wolf, and A Certain Magical Index.
  • GA Bunko is a label owned by SB Creative, a publishing branch of Softbank. Their most popular light novel is probably Danmachi (AKA Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?).
  • Then there’s Gagaga Bunko, owned by Shougakukan. This label published Oregairu (AKA My Youth Romantic Comedy is Wrong as I Expected).
  • MF Books is a Media Factory (Kadokawa) label that’s focused on publishing web novels (stories originally found online) that are aimed toward middle-aged men. For example, The Rising of the Shield Hero.
  • For a label targeting a female audience, there’s Kadokawa’s Bean Bunko. They’ve published works like Kokuhaku Yokou Renshuu and Saiunkoku Monogatari.

To learn more about some of Japan’s light novel publishers, click here.

Now I’ll give a quick overview of the publishers translating light novels into English.

  • Yen Press has the most series out right now, and created the Yen On imprint in 2014 specifically for light novels. Yen Press is co-owned by Kadokawa Corporation and Hachette Book Group. Some of Yen On’s newest releases are Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers, Konosbua: God’s Blessing on This Wonderful World!, and Goblin Slayer.
  • Tokyopop was the first publisher to translate a large number of light novels into English, but the US publishing division went defunct in 2011. The various series they were releasing were all dropped by then.
  • Vertical Inc, One Peace Books, Viz Media, and Seven Seas are each publishing select light novels.
  • Cross Infinite World is releasing ebooks for Japanese web novels aimed toward women.
  • J-Novel Club is currently releasing chapters of many light novels online in English on a weekly basis. Completed volumes are then released as ebooks. Example works include How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, Invaders of the Rokujouma!?, and In Another World With My Smartphone.

Why Read Light Novels?

They are good.

What Light Novel Should I Read First?

To get a couple recommendations from five different bloggers, click here.

I Want To Learn More About Light Novels!

I recommend this article. Also, Wikipedia details some of the history of light novels.

You can also look at this site’s old introduction page.