Have you ever wondered why there are so many “transported to another world” anime series every season? Or perhaps you are curious why almost every single romantic comedy anime takes place in a high school? There is no simple answer to either of these questions, but there is a major factor that gets little attention in the West: “Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi!” (“This Light Novel Is Amazing!,” hereafter referred to as KLNS). KLNS, a yearly ranking of the best light novels in publication, wields enormous power over the light novel industry, thus influencing what sort of series are likely to receive an anime adaptation. Despite its overwhelming significance in the industry, very little information about KLNS is available in English. So what exactly makes it tick, and what can we learn from it about industry trends? Let’s take a nice, long look at KLNS, beginning with the most simple of questions:
What Is a Light Novel?
Contrary to popular belief, the term “light novel” does not refer to a specific genre of novels per se. It is actually a marketing term. Before the KLNS rankings were established in the mid 2000s, the term “light novel” was uncommon. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the term was first popularized by KLNS itself. By generating hype behind a ranking system specifically for “light novels,” KLNS incentivized publishers to label their titles under the “light novel” moniker, which in turn initiated a boom of these publications. Because light novel is a marketing term, its application is particularly subjective and the line between light and regular novels is rarely clear. That being said, there are certain common conventions in the light novel fandom: illustrations inside each chapter, anime-esque art styles, and the frequent use of common conventions such as isekai (transported to another world) settings or other established character tropes.
KLNS has in recent years endeavored to separate light novel publications into two categories: bunkobon and tankobon. Bunkobon are small paperback books that generally measure 105mm by 148mm, while tankobon tend to measure around 128mm by 182mm. In other words, tankobon are standard-sized books that one can find at any American bookstore, while bunkobon are much smaller-sized than one is likely to find in the United States. Bunkobon in particular are marketed as books that can fit in one’s pocket, making them ideal for all those salarymen commuting to and from downtown Tokyo via train. The difference in size is reflected by a difference in price as well: although tankobon are usually sold for somewhere around 1,000 to 1,400 yen (approximately 10–14 USD), the much smaller bunkobon are usually sold for around 600 to 800 yen (6–8 USD). Both tankobon and bunkobon can be light novels, but there are also plenty of similarly-sized books published in Japan that are not considered light novels.
What is KLNS, Exactly?
Although KLNS is best understood by Western audiences as a ranking list for light novels, the term actually refers to a physical guidebook published by the Japanese company Takarajimasha every year since 2004. Takarajimasha is well-known for publishing many other guidebooks, including the “Kono Manga ga Sugoi!” series. KLNS tends to appear in bookstores around the beginning of December each year, but the actual list of top titles is usually posted online a week or two before the book goes to print. Much like car models, every ranking list is numbered based on the year that begins the January after publishing. Thus, the first guidebook published in 2004 was the “Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi! 2005” list.
KLNS is simultaneously an enormous marketing machine and a trend-setter for the industry. Up-and-coming titles can find their market share drastically increased by a high listing in the guidebook. At the same time, the list is remarkably standardized. Obvious trends in character tropes, genre/setting, and even book titles are apparent from just a cursory glance at the yearly listings.
Nevertheless, KLNS is a great tool for enthusiasts and offers a wealth of information outside of the actual rankings themselves. The guidebook has a variety of features, from reader reviews to editors’ picks to long-form interviews with the writers of the top series each year. It is effectively a who’s who of the light novel publishing industry and often predicts (influences?) which titles will go on to receive English translations and anime adaptations.
Which Series Qualify?
All applicable series must have at least one volume published in print within the past year, usually from September 1st of the previous year until August 31st of the current one. Only volumes published within that time frame are supposed to be considered when scoring a series. However, there are a ton of minor caveats, so I’ll outline some of the main ones below and provide my analysis on each point.
· Single-volume series qualify as long as they were published within the time limit.
This point is fairly straightforward. Although most of them never get official English translations, many light novels are actually one-shot stories and are not part of long-running series.
· As of 2021, light novel adaptations of video games, manga, anime, and movies now qualify for the list.
Until the most recent list, light novel adaptations of other media properties were automatically disqualified. I suspect that the growing number of adaptations of popular movies and games such as Tenki no Ko influenced this decision.
· Titles published by Takarajimasha are not open to consideration.
Takarajimasha is more known for their guidebooks than anything else, but they do occasionally publish light novels. If their series ranked high on their own list, other publishers and fans would naturally assume the worst, so it makes sense why they choose to remove their own titles.
· Series previously designated as “Hall of Fame” titles are no longer in the running.
The Hall of Fame was introduced in the 2016 list for a single title, My Teen Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, as I Expected (known affectionately by fans as Oregairu). At the time, Oregairu had won first place three years in a row. I assume the Hall of Fame was introduced as a way to prevent dominant titles from making the list feel stale. As of 2021, Oregairu is joined by three other titles, all three of which were added in the 2020 list: Sword Art Online, A Certain Magical Index, and The Ryuo’s Work Is Never Done!.
· Translated (into Japanese) titles, pornographic novels, and “boys’ love” stories do not qualify.
The banning of boys’ love, a genre that depicts homosexual relationships between men, is homophobic. Notably absent from the “banned” list is the yuri genre, which depicts homosexual relationships between women. Many yuri series are written for a heterosexual male audience, so it may not surprise you to learn that the majority of respondents to the survey are men. For a nuanced look at boys love series, I recommend checking out Anime Feminist’s website.
· Although the distributed list of options is limited to light novels, respondents can choose to write-in their own candidates that they believe should be considered light novels.
This is a weird rule that shows just how vague the designation of “light novel” can be. There are quite a few books published in Japan that have many of the hallmarks of light novels but are considered distinct simply because their publishers do not market them as light novels. If a respondent deems any of these light novel-esque series worthy of their vote, they are allowed to write them in.
How Are the Rankings Determined?
This is where things get complicated. Takarajimasha distributes surveys in September every year that they use to determine the final rankings. The surveys and their target participants are broken down into two categories: “web” and “collaborator.” The web survey is simple enough; it is an online form that anyone interested can complete within the allotted time frame, usually a couple of weeks. The collaborator survey is a little bit murkier. The guidebook describes the respondents in this category as being “reviewers, writers, book store employees, librarians, event coordinators, university club members, internet bloggers, internet news reporters, etc.” Despite this category being invite-only, KLNS does not specify how it determines which collaborators it sends the surveys to.
Each survey has four categories: best series, best male character, best female character, and best illustrator. Respondents must offer their top choices in each category in a ranked list and also provide reasoning for their selections. For best series, respondents must list their top five choices, but they can only list their top three choices for the other three categories. The selections are given points based on their respective positions in the list. For example, if one respondent lists their top five light novel series, their number one choice receives five points, their number two choice receives four points, and so on. Respondents must submit the survey by the deadline in order for it to count toward the final results. Takarajimasha also only accepts surveys that they consider “complete,” which means that the respondent must make selections for all four categories and provide appropriate reasoning for each choice.
The scores from both the web surveys and the collaborator surveys are then tallied together and weighted to give a composite score. Takarajimasha is deliberately vague about how they calculate the final scores. Because of the large number of web respondents, they attempt to balance the composite scores of the web and collaborator categories so that the web responses don’t overwhelm the collaborator responses. The publisher implies in their official explanation that they attempt to keep both categories equal in relative power when determining the final scores. The series are then collected into two lists, one for bunkobon titles and the other for tankobon.
Most of KLNS’ editorial decisions for scoring make sense. For example, the separation of bunkobon and tankobon titles into two different categories is a great way to make sure that the more expensive tankobon series get fair representation. Tankobon are a bit less accessible due to their higher pricing, and this tends to be reflected in the imbalance of scores between series sold as tankobon versus series sold in the cheaper bunkobon format. Likewise, the weighting of web respondents and collaborators helps give the rankings a good balance of popular titles and critically acclaimed ones. The guidebook also offers separate lists for both web and collaborator responses so that curious readers can see how each group voted individually. However, the exact details of how individual scores are counted towards the total are unclear. This is likely deliberate to avoid controversy over fans complaining about how their favorite books were scored, but it also makes it difficult to evaluate the efficacy of the scoring methods.
What about “Kono Manga ga Sugoi?”
Takarajimasha also puts out a guidebook for top manga every year titled “Kono Manga ga Sugoi!” However, the influence of the manga guidebook is less substantial than that of the light novel guidebook. If you go back and look at the top light novel rankings from the past ten years, you will find that many of the entries each year later went on to receive anime adaptations or even English translations. On the other hand, unless you read Japanese, you have probably never heard of most of the top titles on the past ten years of manga rankings. I think that part of this is due to the relative size of the two mediums. Manga is incredibly mainstream in Japan. Just about everyone has read at least a couple of manga series at some point in their lives. In contrast, light novels are much more niche. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, Takarajimasha themselves likely popularized the “light novel” concept by starting publication of KLNS in the first place.
The light novel guidebook’s advantages over its manga-oriented cousin are twofold. First, there are fewer light novel titles to choose from, which results in most popular series finding their way into a respectable position somewhere on the list. Furthermore, the smaller cultural space that KLNS occupies makes it a kingmaker within the medium. A large percent of light novel consumers are tuned into the hype surrounding certain series within the fandom, hype that is often generated by the yearly publication of the KLNS rankings. In contrast, the manga industry is far larger and doesn’t need a guidebook to build interest. Major publishers such as Shueisha are going to steamroll the competition with or without receiving accolades from any official rankings.
The compilation of the yearly Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi! rankings is a complicated process shrouded in mystery. However, it also plays a huge role in the light novel industry that it helped create in the first place. Most of the titles that manage to snag top positions on the chart go on to receive anime adaptations or translations. The list has an outsized influence on the fraction of the Japanese light novel industry that manages to make its way to the West, so it is doubly important for Western fans of the light novel medium to be aware of what goes into the process for determining the next round of big hits. I hope that this article helped clarify how these rankings work. Stay tuned for my upcoming look at the recently-published Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi! 2021 guidebook in the next few weeks.
Curious about last year’s winner? Check out my review here: