What is an Original English Light Novel?

You’ve been reading Light Novels (LN) for a while and perhaps wonder where they come from. 99.9% of the time, the answer is Japan. But perhaps during your journey through the LN fandom, you’ve come across an unfamiliar term: Original English Light Novel (OELN).

It’s clearly different from the LNs you know and love, but how?

Just what is an Original English Light Novel?

An Original English Light Novel is a Light Novel that was originally written in English by a Non-Japanese Author. They are similar to Japanese Light Novels in regards to content and writing style. But because of their unique origin, they are treated as different than Japanese Light Novels.

OELNs are exactly what they sound like. However, you might have seen them called something else such as ‘English Light Novels’ or ‘Web Novels’.

While many OELN Authors strive to write a LN and have it traditionally published, most soon learn that doing so is next to impossible. So, many simply publish their work online chapter by chapter as each one is written.

Any genre of fiction published in this manner is referred to as web fiction, or more commonly: a Web Novel. So, if most OELNs are published online, you might be wondering:

Are Original English Light Novels and Web Novels the Same?

While many OELNs are or started out as Web Novels, not all OELNs are Web Novels.

Because there are effectively zero avenues to have their work traditionally published, most OELN Authors post their work as Web Novels.

Some of the most popular sites to do this are WattPad and Royal Road. You can find many OELNs on both sites as well as the Author’s personal website if he has one.

If one of these Web Novels garners a large enough fanbase, the Author will typically decide to self-publish it in one or multiple volumes depending on how many chapters they’ve posted so far.

Once it’s for sale (usually on Amazon or their own website), the Author will usually stop posting chapters online and wait to publish each subsequent complete volume.

It is at this point the lines blur. Such a work may have started as a OELN published as a Web Novel, but once it’s for sale, it will be referred to solely as a OELN.

In the first case, you could call it either one, but in the second, it is known only as an OELN.

So, to give a definitive answer to the original question: no, OELNs and Web Novels are not the same—unless they are.

And while you might think readers would guffaw at the idea of buying something they once received for free, you’ll be surprised to learn that most traditionally published JPLNs start out exactly the same way.

Some of the most famous LNs had their start as Web Novels published on Shousetsuka ni Narou, a JP site much like the two I listed above.

JP Publishing houses treat this website as a sort of proving ground for LNs and once they see a particular series gain enough traction, they’ll reach out to the Author to have it published.

Rather than sending their work to a publisher, JPLN Authors have learned how to make the publishers come looking for them.

Unfortunately, this brilliant tactic currently only works in Japan. Why? Because, as I alluded to earlier, there are basically no methods for a OELN Author to have their work traditionally published.

And what do I mean by ‘basically’? I’ll answer that with another question.

Have Any Original English Light Novels Ever Been Traditionally Published?

In case you’ve been wondered what in the world ‘traditional publishing’ is, I’ll tell you now.

A traditionally published novel is picked up by a major publishing house (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins) and everything from cover design to editing to printing is handled and paid for by them. All the Author contributes to the process is the text itself.

Conversely, an Author can self-publish their novel by taking care of all those nitty-gritty not-writing tasks on their own and pay for them out of their own pocket.

Needless to say, being traditionally published is every Author’s dream.

However, it is a futile dream for OELN Authors. Of the many western LN publishers, not a single one of them accepts manuscripts for LNs written by Non-JP Authors.

They have published a handful of Non-JP Manga, but they have no interest in OELNs.

That said, there was one company who sought to change that…

Vic’s Lab launched in 2014 and traditionally published a handful of OELN series. It was a risky undertaking and didn’t take long to crash, but not burn.

They’re seemingly still active to this day, but their website and line-up of titles doesn’t appear to have been updated since their first year. You can read a bit more about what went wrong here in another article I wrote about whether or not you need to be Japanese to write a Light Novel.

So, while there certainly is an avenue, it’s more-or-less a dead one. So, you’re better off sticking to self-publishing.

Which is what nearly every OELN Author has done. They DIY or hire out the graphic design, illustrations, editing, and so on for their LN and then publish it on Amazon, their own website, or several others of the million online book retailers available.

With Print-on-Demand services, they can even sell physical copies of their LNs.

Self-publishing is an arduous path, but it can be done and has been done to some minor levels of success for several OELN Authors. They aren’t millionaires, but they are making a living doing what they love.

But why aren’t they millionaires? What is it about OELNs that keeps them from becoming as wildly profitable as JPLNs?

OELNs mostly are and aim to be no different from the JPLNs you know and love, but remember how I said ‘mostly’? You know…in the previous sentence?

Despite their best efforts, OELNs are nowhere near as popular as LNs and most Otaku turn their noses up at the very idea of reading one.

But why is this? If OELNs are directly inspired by LNs, what prevents them from being successful?

To answer this, we must answer this question:

What Are the Differences Between a Original English Light Novel and a Japanese Light Novel?

Despite a huge number of similarities between the two such as writing-style, character tropes, story ideas, and so on, it’s not so much the internal side so much as the external.

Below is a table of the key differences between OELNs and LNs. Each plays a major role in why OELNs have failed to take off so far.


  • Non-JP Author
  • Non-JP Illustrator
  • Self-Published
  • (Possibly) Non-JP Illustrations
  • No or Very Little Marketing
  • (Usually) Not Professionally Edited
  • Have a Bad Image

Japanese LNs

  • JP Author
  • JP Illustrator (Spare a Handful)
  • Obviously JP Illustrations
  • Traditionally Published
  • Tons of Marketing
  • Professionally Edited
  • Don’t Have a Bad Image (I wouldn’t go so far as to claim they have a good image…)

As you can see, none of these differences have anything to do with the actual written text. LNs being LNs, they are riddled with overused character tropes, story cliches, and plain bad writing, but the target audience both expects and even wants this on some level.

It’s not OELNs content that necessarily prevents them from being popular, but rather the first impression they leave on potential readers. And because of those key differences listed above, it’s usually a bad one.

Those who take a chance and read a OELN often enjoy the content as much as any LN, but rare is the Otaku willing to take such a risk when they could just read another of the million translated JPLNs coming out every week.

But what is it about these key differences that doom OELNs to obscurity?

I’ll breakdown each one (plus a few more), explain what OELNs are doing wrong, and offer a solution if you somehow have a shred of hope left in regards to publishing your own LN.

Will Otaku Read a Light Novel Not Written by a Japanese Author?

OELNs are written and illustrated by non-Japanese. They could be from anywhere (I hired artists from Indonesia and Russia for my LNs), but the key factor is that they are decidedly not Japanese.

And that’s the apparent issue.

A commonly cited reason for OELNs lack of popularity is because Otaku in general have a purist mindset. If it isn’t Japanese in every way, then they want nothing to do with it.

And there’s nothing wrong with this. The reason I initially got interested in anime/manga/LNs was from entirely Japanese sources. The thought of engaging in something similar, but not quite the same is unappealing when one has yet to exhaust the infinite library of ‘the real thing’.

However, I don’t think this purist mindset is the real problem. Plenty of Otaku are happy to read OELNs once they pass the hurdle of actually reading it.

The real problem is that OELN Authors don’t try hard enough (if at all) to appeal to their target audience. If you write a LN that features anime-style illustrations, your target audience is Otaku whether you like it or not.

And those Otaku have a highly specific idea of what a LN is supposed to be.

So, when you present to them a LN that doesn’t at least 90% match what they expect, they’re first thought is going to be: “No thanks, I’ll just go read another JPLN.

The solution to this is simple: create a LN.

“Well, duh,” you say, but fail to understand.

The primary issue with OELNs is that they treat themselves as OELNs.

That is: a completely different entity compared to actual LNs.

If you want to succeed as a LN Author, you cannot settle for creating an OELN, but an LN that is nigh-indistinguishable from JPLNs.

If you want LN readers to read your LN, you need to make it look like a JPLN in every way. There might be a few who outright refuse based on it not being 100% JP, but who cares? There are a million more readers who don’t care and would give your LN a shot if it appealed to their sensibilities.

Despite being a NJPLN Author, I myself would never read the majority of OELNs simply because they look nothing like what I expect from an LN.

But what exactly do Otaku expect from an LN?

To figure that out, we’ll need to keep breaking down the differences between OELNs and LNs.

There is a Huge Difference Between Eastern and Western Anime Illustration

To postpone your burning down my house, I will first say this: there is no such thing as ‘bad’ art; it is all subjective.

Some art may be more popular than others, but there is no measurement for ‘goodness’. So, while Eastern anime-style art is vastly more popular than its Western counterpart, that doesn’t mean one is better than the other.

Now, with that disclaimer out of the way, I’ll say this: OELN illustrations (usually) suck.

And not only are they of poor quality (some looking like they were made in Microsoft Paint), they are so obviously not-Japanese that virtually no Otaku would spare a second glance.

But how are they not ‘Japanese’?

Well, that’s a bit hard to describe with just words, so here’s an example:


I shouldn’t have to tell you which is which if you’ve been an Otaku for even a short amount of time.

Western art and Eastern are different. It’s just how it is. There are a million cultural and biological reasons for this (such as westerners favoring square-geometry to circular like easterners), but going through each one would require another 5,000 words.

Unfortunately for NJPLN Authors, the majority of western anime-style illustrators create illustrations that look like they were drawn by a westerner.

Again, there is nothing wrong with this by itself. I’m quite fond of several western anime-style artists. The problem lies in such illustrations marketing power.

When an Otaku is browsing for a new LN to read and are faced with a cover from a JPLN and an OELN with an obviously western cover—they are almost always going to pick the JP one.

It’s not the artists fault, it’s simply what Otaku expect from a LN. And when the illustrations fail to meet their expectations, they’ll move on.

Now, I can’t magically make any NJP illustrator you might hire start drawing illustrations that are near or outright indistinguishable from JP ones, but I will tell you that it’s worth finding one whose illustrations already are.

I myself spent three months digging through artists until finding two that I felt passed the 90% closeness mark to JP Illustrations.

Both are clearly not-Japanese if you look hard enough, but at a passing glance (which is all you need), their art isn’t any different from JP ones.

So, if you want your LN to be popular, you need to make sure it has anime-style illustrations, but not just any, they need to very closely mimic JP anime-style illustrations.

You can either look for a long time like me or just outright hire a Japanese person off of Pixiv or other similar websites. Google Translate works better than you might think…

The Woes of Self-Publishing

I’ve already mentioned why self-publishing is painful (you have to do everything yourself), but why is it a detriment to OELN’s popularity?

Simply because of the general perception of a self-published novel.

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘self-published’.

To most it evokes these preconceptions:

  • Poorly Written
  • Poorly Edited
  • Lame Cover Design
  • Bad Formatting
  • No Marketing

Among a million other negatives. Indie movies, music, and books might all be great works of art, but few achieve financial success simply because they are indie.

Perhaps to we Otaku who are more accepting of niche hobbies like anime don’t mind the idea of a self-published novel, but would you really choose it over one with a popular publishing house attached to it? I’d be hard pressed to do so.

That said, the times are changing and self-publishing either via actual book or as a Web Novel are both totally viable and easy to do nowadays.

They’re still a hard sell, but many Otaku are fed up with the same stale stories being pumped out by major publishers. So, they start looking for alternatives in the form of Web Novels or perhaps one day, OELNs.

So, while OELNs are at an immediate disadvantage due to the bad image of self-published novels, not all hope is lost.

It Costs Quite a Bit to Market Your Light Novel

This ties into the last point. While traditionally published LNs have a potentially enormous marketing budget, self-published OELNs marketing is severely limited by their Author’s usually empty wallet.

After you’ve spent a pretty penny paying for a graphic design, illustrations, and editing, there isn’t much left for the one thing integral to making that money back: marketing.

JPLNs are featured on posters in major bookstores, billboards, and even on the sides of trains. If a publisher knows a LN can make them millions, they’ll drop hundreds of thousands on marketing alone.

You, on the other hand, might be able to print a couple hundred flyers, spam twitter, and beg everyone you know to spread the word. Effective? Maybe, but it won’t make you rich, probably not even your money back.

Unfortunately, I can offer no easy solution to this. The actual solution is to be rich or be traditionally published. The latter is next to impossible currently, while you probably wouldn’t be reading this if you’re the former.

All you can do is continue writing and self-publishing your LNs while doing everything you can to market it with what resources you have available to you. It may take some time, but there are a few OELN Authors who are making a full-time income by doing just that.

Getting people to read your book isn’t easy, but there are plenty of avenues available with the advent of social media.

Anyway, while marketing is important, what will keep readers buying volume after volume is the content itself. Of which, many OELN Authors fail to make enjoyable.

Yes, You Need to Have Your Light Novel Professionally Edited

This is the number one complaint I see regarding OELNs and most self-published novels for that matter: it was badly edited or had no editing at all.

I get it. I’m an Author, you’re an Author and neither of us are editors. Ok, maybe some of us are, but that’s no excuse to not have your LN edited by a professional.

I know it’s illogical, but you, having been with your LN for so long, cannot see it the same way a fresh pair of eyes can.

An editor can help with all sorts of things like the arrangement of each scene, tone of voice, grammar, typos, and so much more that you yourself may not notice no matter how many times you edit it.

I edited my own LNs over 10 times each and still found errors each time. Editing it yourself is only one half of the editing process.

A professionally edited novel is one in which the readers don’t notice anything. If you’ve ever read anything poorly written or riddled with typos, you know that it’s hard to focus on anything else once you’ve become aware.

A bestselling novel (whether it’s good or not), conversely, you can read through for hours without blinking because there’s no bad grammar or weird sentences to stop you in your tracks.

But proper editing isn’t the only complaint heaped on OELNs. There are many more editing-related mistakes that OELN Authors make. Here are the most common that keep them from becoming popular:

Too Many Tropes and Cliches

There’s nothing wrong with either (JP Authors abuse them too), but they must be used effectively.

Many OELN Authors are accused of throwing in tropes and cliches into their stories just for the sake of them. They either don’t belong or the Author doesn’t do anything to develop a scene/setting/character beyond their base trope.

This is why readers get upset. Otaku expect and love to see the same angry Tsundere, sweet Childhood Friend, and stoic Library Girl, but only if the Author does their best to make such characters more than just a generic trope.

Use tropes and cliches, but don’t abuse them.

Awkward Writing Style

This stems from many LN readers first exposure to LNs being that of a Fan Translation. Compared to licensed translations, Fan TLs are usually quite literal and don’t make the effort to ‘localize’ the text into English.

This leads to dialogue that sounds translated (like a foreign film from the 60’s) and no dialogue tags which makes it hard to tell who talking.

The JP language doesn’t use tags because each character’s method of speaking is typically unique and easily distinguishable from the other characters.

Think ‘desu’, ‘nano desu’, ‘de arimasu’, not to mention the three hundred ways to say ‘I’. Plus there are a million honorifics like –chan or –kun that just feel plain wrong to a western audience and read like fanfiction.

In short: don’t do this. Just because you’re writing a LN doesn’t mean you have to mimic exactly what you find in translated LNs, fan or otherwise.

Just write it like a book in your native language, you can still use all the anime tropes you like.

Poor Grasp of the English Language

Apparently, many OELNs, despite being in English, are written by those who know English as a second language.

This is hardly the Author’s fault, but it’s obvious to any native speaker and harms the overall reading experience if it’s obvious they don’t know English that well.

But this is an easy fix. Just hire an editor.

‘Badly’ Written

Like art, there is no such thing as ‘bad’ writing, but there is such as thing as popular writing. And most OELNs don’t feature popular writing.

Bad writing in the case of OELNs usually comes in the form of telling too much and not showing enough (show, don’t tell), awkward dialogue, predictable story beats, and too much time spent detailing things few people care about like how magic systems work or what the protagonist had for dinner.

This problem isn’t exclusive to OELNs, but it is a pervasive one. All you can do to resolve this is A. Practice writing and B. Hire an editor.

Anyway, as you can see, many problems can be solved by just hiring an editor. I know it costs a lot, that you’d rather spend your money on anything else, but it’s worth far more than you can possibly imagine.

Now, for the final difference that is a direct result of those listed above.

Original English Light Novels Have a Bad Name

No matter what you or anyone else does, the deed has been done. OELNs might’ve had a chance in their infancy, but after so many ‘bad’ ones have soured Otaku’s collective perception of them, they have earned a negative reputation.

So, the overall quality of something presented as an OELN will always be suspect. And not only do readers have that hurdle to pass, but they also have zero incentive to do so.

LNs that receive official translations are considered the cream of the crop. There are boatloads of JPLNs on the market, but only a tiny fraction actually receive translations and that’s because they’re really popular or really good.

OELNs are competing with the best of the best at all times.

What reason does an Otaku have to read an OELN when he already knows the TL’d JPLNs are some of the best? Unfortunately, he doesn’t and the bad name associated with OELNs only cements that decision.

Furthermore, western LN publishers share the same outlook. Not a single one of them is going to waste their time accepting OELN manuscripts or browsing web novels for things to publish. They have an effectively infinite number of JPLNs they can translate and be positive they’ll profit from.

But again, this is not cause for despair.

OELNs may have a bad name, but that doesn’t mean they are bad. Many are quite good. They’re just marketed poorly.

So, I have a proposition.

Should You Write a OELN or a LN?

That probably sounds like a stupid question, but bear with me.

As I’ve addressed, OELNs have a bad name. One that I don’t see going away anytime soon either.

So, don’t use it. Don’t ever think of your LN as an OELN. Why should you? If your LN features the same writing-style, story concepts, settings, and character tropes as JPLNs, then why should you have to call your work something different?

Slapping the OELN moniker onto your LN is no different than calling it hot garbage in the eyes of many Otaku, so don’t do it.

Instead, do everything you can to mimic JPLNs in every possible way. Take note of all the differences I mentioned and do everything you can to combat each one. You can find a guide on how to ‘blend in’ with JPLNs in this article.

When it comes to LNs, Otaku expect to find a well-edited (most of the time), well-written (on some level) LN-style story written by a Japanese Author and featuring Japanese-style anime-style Illustrations.

Spare being Japanese (and you could just use a Japanese pen name), you can make your LN meet all those expectations.

You might be at a disadvantage, but that’s no reason to half-bake your efforts. You have the potential to create a LN that better written and better Illustrated than a great majority of JPLNs. So do it!

The time is now. Compared to just a few years ago, there is a veritable flood of TL’d LNs from a variety of publishers. Overall interest in LNs is definitely growing, so don’t be afraid to pick a fight with traditionally published LNs. Your LN can be just as good if not better.

In fact, the initial reason for my wanting to write an LN was because I was sick of how boring and cliche JPLNs have become. It’s just the same tired stories and settings repeated infinitum.

So, I’m going to do everything I can to shake up the LN scene because it’s a genre I truly love and hate seeing it treated as just something to milk money from.

And again, the trick to all this is just disregarding the idea of OELNs as a whole.

There’s no need to attach this bulky, infamous moniker to your work. Just call it an LN and park it right next to JPLNs.

So long as your LN closely matches or beats JPLNs in terms of quality of writing and illustrations, then no Otaku will have a valid reason to turn their nose up at your work.

So, go on, don’t write a OELN, write a Light Novel.


Hey, my name's Azuma. I first dove deep into Otaku culture in 2010 and never quite grew out of it. After a million different anime, light novels, manga, and visual novels, I learned a lot about each art form. Knowledge I want to share with you from writing advice to drawing tips. I'm also the Author of two light novels series, Garden of PSI and On Creating the Ultimate Weapon. Happy creating!

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