A friend of mine brought the recent Spice & Wolf novel debacle to my attention the other day. For those not in the know, manga publisher Yen Press is going to be translating and publishing Japanese author Isuna Hasekura’s original Spice & Wolf novels in the U.S. starting this December. As you would imagine, given the popularity of the anime, many were pleased with the announcement.
The catch is that marketing light novels can be a tricky affair. Yen Press founder and director of publishing, Kurt Hassler points out that the common misconception, based on past examples, is that it can’t be done. However, Hassler argues, when you really come down to it, a light novel is simply a novel with illustrations. And given that there are far more readers of novels than manga fans in the West, with the right approach, light novels can be viable in the market. It’s this "right approach," however, that is causing all the debate.
Hassler writes on the Yen Press blog:
"The unfortunate reality we face, though, is that these designs that we adore, while they work brilliantly in markets where manga is ubiquitous, tend not to be impactful with more general audiences here — and we want everybody to enjoy these books! So the challenge we have to undertake is to come up with new cover designs for these fantastic books in hopes of garnering for them the readership they deserve."
The result: The U.S. cover for Spice & Wolf vol. 1 is quite the departure from the art style people have come to associate with the franchise. It looks like something aimed at the Twilight or Sweet Valley audience, and who’s to say that Yen Press don’t want to give off that impression? Diehard fans who want the original cover (via a slip-jacket cover freebie) will require a subscription to Yen Plus magazine. Needless to say, it’s causing a fan uproar.
As fans of Japanese games, we’ve seen our fair share of similar localization changes, too. Take, for instance, the redesign of the Star Ocean 4 user-interface, or even the original Revelations: Persona on PS1 as a more extreme example. Or you could take it a step further and even look to Japanese publishers like Koei Tecmo who are effectively desgining a Japanese Gears of War in the hopes that it will take off in the West.
While I may not agree with these decisions, I can understand why they are made. Yen Press are an excellent publisher and if they say they’ll run into marketing trouble with the original S&W cover, I’m inclined to believe them. Manga, anime and games are, at the end of the day, businesses that need to be profitable. My question is, if Japanese media as a whole faces such a significant challenge selling to an overseas audience, why isn’t the industry doing anything to turn the situation around?
In their country of origin, the three major segments of the "otaku" market — manga, anime and games — are intimately connected. For example, Japanese animation studio Production I.G. also own a manga imprint named Mag Garden, which in turn publishes several manga magazines. Enterbrain, the publisher that owns Famitsu also own an original manga imprint named Comic Beam.
And of course, the biggest example are Square Enix, who not only own the majority of Japan’s biggest game franchises, but also publish popular manga like Fullmetal Alchemist and Soul Eater.
Namco Bandai, too, are similarly involved with games and anime, and the results speak for themselves. The cross-pollination between the anime and game adaptations of series like Gundam and .hack has contributed greatly to their success. But the factors behind success go well beyond just cross-pollination.
Enterbrain — in addition to Famitsu — also publish a wide range of other magazines aimed at the gaming audience. These range from B’s LOG, a magazine aimed at female gamers, to Tech Gian, a magazine focusing on adult games. This is important to note because it indicates that the industry is taking measures to promote a wide variety of experiences and give them the exposure they need.
Surely, in the U.S. where the market hasn’t been hit as hard by the economy, the otaku entertainment industry can take a leaf out of its Japanese counterpart’s book and start to invest in actually expanding the audience? One could argue that Yen Press might not be facing the challenge they do with Spice & Wolf were they a little closer to the sizeable videogame audience. I love Yen Press and I wasn’t even aware that they were publishing Spice & Wolf until recently, simply because it’s hard to keep track of so many different publishers across three different industries. Now it’s definitely on my radar.
Similarly, maybe games like Mana Khemia could reach a wider audience if NISA or Atlus or XSEED kept a closer eye on the manga or anime fanbase.Word of mouth is how niche games sell. After all, Final Fantasy enjoys a sizeable female audience that doesn’t play games otherwise. Why aren’t more companies looking for ways to replicate this success? Who’s to say Rune Factory or Harvest Moon couldn’t be just as appealing to a female audience, if not even more so?
What prevents companies like Atlus or NIS from partnering with, say, Otaku USA or Tokyopop for some aggressive cross-promotion? Or with Video Games Live for that matter. What prevents them from trying to make strides into the rest of the Japanese media industry in an attempt to synergize their product line-up? Sure, otaku media is considered mainstream pop-culture in Japan — a significant advantage that it will probably never have in the West — but this is the entertainment industry. Creating demand is what we’re supposed to do best. And demand is created by showing everyone how awesome you are — something none of these publishers seem to be doing.
Of course, this is by no means an easy task. There’s the considerable investment you’d need to take into account and the fact that you’ll probably go through a lot of failed experiments before striking gold. But then again, publishers that are in the niche game biz weren’t looking for easy money in the first place, were they?