What are the best-selling light novels of all time?
I’ve been wondering about this as I was reminded about it thanks to a question I received recently.
As there doesn’t seem to be any approximate information about the subject—at least in English, or any other language that isn’t Japanese—I decided to go ahead and write a post about it, including the 25 best-selling light novels of all time by their total of volumes.
Before I continue, I want to make clear each work has a readership of its own, just like the labels where they were published. So, in this sense, despite all these works being in the same list, I’m not exaggerating by saying each of them come from a different realm, composed by different elements.
Here’s the list without any further ado:
1. Guin Saga
30 million copies sold. More than 100 volumes and forever incomplete. If the fantasy works that represent the West are Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, then the fantasy work that represents Japan—or even the East, I dare to say—is without any doubt Guin Saga, as the longest continuing single-writer’s work in the world. It’s been told that is virtually impossible to catch up on Horizon, but after taking this work into account, I think that becomes actually possible.
20 million copies sold. Considered the king of light novels due to its influence on the fantasy genre and its characteristic humor that made it a really readable work by almost any person. It’s the most iconic Japanese work from the 90’s, expanding into various media and licensed in several countries. The childhood of an entire generation.
3. Sword Art Online
16.7 million copies sold. The amount of copies sold abroad is minimal (around 3 million) if you were to take into account the translated version. It’s believed to be the work that revolutionized the VRMMO genre, which is a little misleading, considering there exists works that dwell more in-depth in the matter like Hack or Shift. After Slayers, this work is considered to be the Japanese hit of the decade, and prone to become part of pop culture in both Western and Eastern cultures.
4. A Certain Magical Index
15.2 million copies sold. Characterized for popularizing the usage of magic and special abilities. One of Dengeki’s main flags from the 00’s, and the series with the largest sales per volume ever. There are currently 40 volumes published taking into account its sequel series, and it’s en-route to become one of the longest best-selling light novels still in print.
5. Legend of the Galactic Heroes
15 million copies sold. A work that can be considered part of the pop culture of both the West and Japan. Penned by an author master of his craft—Yoshiki Tanaka—was the reason why it appealed to the fans of space-opera and fantasy alike. A post-Star Wars’ films release is said to be reason of its mass appeal, too. It tends to be compared with it, but I personally find the comparison a too-common misapprehension.
6. Majutsushi Orphen
12 million copies sold. More popularly known in English as “Sorcerous Stabber Orphen,” this work is the brother of Slayers, so to speak. Authors from both series used to be very close and even did a crossover of both series. Its adaptation gained popularity in the West in the late 90’s and in the so-called “noughties.”
7. Full Metal Panic
11 million copies sold. A pretty loved work back in the day and still to this day, known for boasting pretty likeable characters, especially its protagonist for which it won some prizes. For certain fans in Japan is still considered the best military-action light novel. Best light novel of 2008 in the Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi ranking.
8. Record of Lodoss War
10 million copies sold. Just as influential as Slayers. Its traditional linear storytelling can be seen in several other fantasy works, being Berserk the clearest example. It crosses the thin line between what is and isn’t a light novel. It made popular the Kadokawa brand in the West.
9. Fortune Quest
10 million copies sold. The first glimpse to what adding RPG-like elements to a light novel is like can be seen here. One of the few best-sellers that hasn’t yet received an anime adaptation. It boasts one of the richest and most extensive world-buildings a light novel can aspire to have. Fans even used to take notes while reading it as there is too much information you have to follow without forgetting anything.
10. Shakugan no Shana
8.6 million copies sold. Shana is one of those series that was just as big as Haruhi at the time, and the most popular action-romcom light novel. It received several anime and film adaptations. It, however, didn’t have the same impact in the West as in Japan, mostly due to the translation being halted to never come back again.
11. Haruhi Suzumiya
8.5 million copies sold. A work that caused one of the biggest cultural and media impacts both the West and East have seen in the last decade. Not only the light novel was a success, but its anime adaptation was also the most popular series of 2007, as well as being the 1# best-selling adaptation. The SOS Brigade featured in the series used to be performed by fans both at Anime Expo and Comiket at the time.
12. Kino no Tabi
7.85 million copies sold. Despite having this place in the ranking, I’m not exaggerating by saying Kino is probably the most popular series of all time, still to this day. If you were to travel to Japan and ask a person in the street if he/she knows what Kino no Tabi is, they would most likely answer to you “yes, I do.”
13. The Twelve Kingdoms
7.80 million copies sold. It sets itself apart from the rest by having elements commonly seen in Wuxia novels, blending it with a Western and Japanese take on them. It started out as series of novels aimed to a female readership, but it gained enough popularity to extend to a more general audience. Its adaptation helped it gain some notoriety in the West, but the original work still goes undetected by the masses. Still on-going after 25 years.
14. Saiunkoku Monogatari
6.5 million copies. This one is impressive considering is a work aimed toward girls, which shows just how loved it was among its female readership. Yet again, it contains elements reminiscent of Wuxia novels, which is part of its gained popularity. Don’t underestimate the shoujo and fujoshi power.
15. Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai
6.2 million copies sold. Also known as Haganai. MF Bunko J best-selling work ever, as well as being the most popular harem romcom. Part of its success lies in how it deals with social problems in a way you can relate to them, adding a touch of humor and romance in between. The original concept is similar in some aspects to Kazoku Keikaku by Romeo.
16. Arslan Senki
6 million copies sold. Another gem by Yoshiki Tanaka, whose works were, are and most probably will continue to be read by older and younger audiences alike as they are considered part of literature world. This one gained a considerable boost recently due to a second manga adaptation by Arakawa, as well as receiving an anime adaptation of the aforementioned one. The art of adaptception.
17. Baka and Test
5.5 million copies sold. Famitsu Bunko best-selling light novel of all time. It boasts a really rich and minute setting, expanding on topics like the ideal educational system, blending it with fantasy elements to give birth to an interesting series. Kenji Inoue—the author—possess a wacky, affable sense of humor which won the heart of the readers. Best light novel of 2010 in the Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi ranking.
18. Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei
5.3 million copies sold. The most successful webnovel to receive a publication in bunko format, followed by an equally successful anime and manga adaptation. It’s still to be seen if Re:zero will surpass this work, at least sales-wise, because it clearly has in popularity.
5 million copies sold. It caused massive waves back when it was released and is one of those works that is as known in the West as it is in Japan, but for different contextual and thematic reasons, mainly those of the Otaku realm. Not confirmed officially, but the urban legend and various interviews indicate Tsukasa was inspired by Akuma no Mikata to create Oreimo.
20. Hidan no Aria
5 million copies sold. An action-romcom said to be inspired by Shana. This series is still showing considerable sales figures in the last months despite being slightly pushed into the oblivion by the reflectors in Japan, and of course, the West. Still to be finished after 23 volumes.
4.8 million copies sold. Part of the recent trend in “adult” entertainment from media works and other labels with adult-focused content as well. It’s hard to believe this one sold this much, but believe it or not, this is what the average Japanese reader likes to consume nowadays. The basic formula for this trend consists of a young woman in her late twenties/early thirties, a library or coffee shop, and of course, a mystery that even my 92-year-old grandma could solve.
4.7 million copies sold. A series that, surprisingly enough, is very popular among women in Japan. Narita is well-known for having a rapid tempo to write, which makes his text fast to read and easy to get into. This one is mostly known in the West due to its anime adaptation, but the original work still tends to be regarded as “Ah, it’s from the guy that did Baccano.”
23. Monogatari Series
4.5 million copies sold. Not a LN series, but I felt compelled to include it nonetheless. This is a rough estimate, as exact figures have never been published, so there could be a margin of error of +/-2 million. 1# best-selling anime franchise of all time. A series that’s as pleasant to read as it is to watch. An unusual mix rarely seen with adaptations.
4.5 million copies sold. Considered the work that spread the sekai-kei element in the light novels’ realm. For some, the most influential light novel to this day. Boogiebop is the sole precedent of a light novel selling as much as the amount of acclaim it received.
25. Zero no Tsukaima
4.5 million copies sold. A work loved by many, even more so after the author passed away, leaving the series incomplete. MF Bunko J, as being a label mainly targeted to younger audiences, tends to boast great appeal, and when a series with enough charm like Zero clicked with its readership, it clicked for real. Final volume—penned by a different writer not yet revealed—is scheduled to be released on February 2017, and it’s without any doubt next year’s most expected light novel release yet.
Most of the series above mentioned received an adaptation of some sort, be it manga or anime, which helped raise their popularity and ultimately elevated their sales figures.
But this, however, doesn’t reflect their inherent quality and what the more dedicated light novel fans actually consider as notable works, or as their favorites. This chart only indicates what are or were the most popular series, what sold and it’s still selling the most.
In Japan, light novels are a form of entertainment that’s become more and more general as years pass by, to the point that even readers who aren’t really interested in the subculture in any form has gotten into them, or just purchases them casually.
This means they get into what’s most popular at the time or the newest, impacting the sales of any given series or label, and of course, the younger consumers are who impact this aspect the most, as they are the main target for entertainment companies like Kadokawa, ASCII Media Works, Square Enix, Shogakukan, to name a few.
Already known examples of light novels that have gathered critical acclaim but didn’t receive large sales figures are Iriya, Akuma no Mikata, 9S, Lunatic Moon, River’s End, Shinigami no Ballad or Bye-Bye Earth, among others.