'Visual Novel' publisher has tough time finding U.S. audience

Hirameki International is popular in its native Japan — it’s one of many companies that publishes “visual novels,” — a sort of modern-day alternative to “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. The company is having a tough time finding an American audience, however, primarily because of retailer resistance.

The company, which set up shop in the dealer room at last weekend’s Anime Boston 2007 convention — has a line of visual novels it sells for Mac and PC as part of its “AnimePlay” line. Hirameki has found a niche catering towards fans of Japanese animation (anime) and graphic novels (manga), but a lack of familiarity with the genre and risk aversion has stopped retailers from carrying the software in stores, said Aldo Donnaloia, the company’s sales manager.

Visual novels feature rich color graphics and soundtracks with some of Japan’s best-known voice actors speaking character dialogue. They aren’t as interactive as games, but they’re not totally passive like e-books or movies, either. Visual novels often provide users with decision-making capabilities that will affect the story’s outcome. The pacing is slower than a game or a movie, but offers a rewarding payoff for enthusiasts who like the unique experience.

When visual novels are prepared for American audiences, the original Japanese language track and all the original story is maintained, but a subtitle track may be included so English speakers can understand what’s going on, which may turn off some casual users who don’t want to have to read.

Sometimes visual novels are equated with “dating sims,” a genre of largely erotic interactive entertainment where the goal is to disrobe a woman or to have sex, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Hirameki, for example, markets products safe for teens and others. In 2006, the company began offering Mac-compatible titles as well, first with a gothic horror novel called “Animamundi: Dark Alchemist” and more recently with “Yo-Jin-Bo,” a story set in feudal Japan. Both titles leverage Adobe Flash to achieve cross-platform compatibility.

Donnaloia told Macworld that despite the genre’s huge success in Japan, traditional software retailers in the United States have been very reluctant to give shelf space to Hirameki’s titles, to see if American retail consumers are interested in trying something new.

“They look at the titles and they see that they’re not games, and they don’t understand,” said Donnaloia.

As visual novels, Hirameki hoped that its software might appeal to bookstores and libraries as an alternative to traditional printed content. But it’s been a tough sell there, as well. Librarians and book buyers don’t quite get it, either, Donnaloia said.

“I’ve been up and down each coast and everywhere else,” he added, exasperated.

So for now, Hirameki is left to sell its visual novels directly through its appearances at anime conventions and through select retailers that specialize in reaching out to anime and manga enthusiasts.

But the past few years have seen explosive growth both for anime and manga in the United States. Once a cult phenomenon restricted to conventions and a few select mail-order media outlets, anime is now popular enough to merit significant shelf space at major national retailers like Best Buy. Both Borders and Barnes and Noble feature healthy manga sections in their brick and mortar retail locations.

U.S. anime publisher Funimation recently lauded the iTunes Store’s ability to attract new consumers to anime — some of its best-known titles have been available for purchase and download since February. The company spoke at the same convention where Hirameki made an appearance — an annual gathering of anime enthusiasts in Boston, Mass. that has seen an almost tenfold increase in attendance in the past five years.

So Donnaloia hopes it’s only a matter of time before American consumers — and retailers — catch up with their Japanese counterparts and take up visual novels the same way they’ve embraced Japanese video games, monster movies and other Japanese cultural elements that have made their way into the American mainstream.

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