Five of the top ten bestsellers of 2007 in Japan were "cell phone novels." At the time, "Keitai Shousetsu" were a new literary form, each a series of short "chapters" -- usually with fewer than 200 words each -- which were read on the (then) tiny screens of Japanese cell phones.
While the worldwide popularity of Twitter is condemned by some for shortening attention spans and fostering poor writing habits, Western writers can still learn a few tricks from our Eastern counterparts, who by tradition make every word count. Think of cell phone novels as Twitter for literature. Like tweets, many are written by average people rather than professional authors, and there is often a similar disregard for the conventions of spelling and grammar that career writers observe. But there are notable exceptions.
It would be a mistake for readers to dismiss this eclectic medium strictly on the basis of word count or other conventions of the traditional book industry in the West. Fans are, well, fanatic. And they function as a community of readers that is passionate and supportive of both writers and the format itself.
The "less is more" philosophies of the East, such as the minimalist discipline of haiku, made the first cell phone novels a natural fit for Japanese readers. But even to a Western outsider like this columnist, this upstart medium seems well suited for English-language verse, inspirational affirmations like those found in many self-help works, or perhaps stream-of-consciousness prose in the spirit of Kerouac... to cite just a few possibilities.
This quirky medium has grown steadily in recent years. Today, cell phone novels are still the starting place for many of the bestselling books of Japan. Some are now rendered in print; others are made into anime, movies, TV drama series, etc. The leading cell phone novels hit multi-million views and sell like hotcakes. For example, It's Your Fault (Kimi no Sei) by Sakura Imo is at 17 million views.
Cell phone novels are no longer read exclusively in Asia, but have also swarmed across Africa and Europe, and -- wait, don't panic! -- now they're coming for you.
The leading outlet for English-language cell phone novels is TextNovel.com, where readers can subscribe to thousands of free serials in a variety of genres. Once a reader subscribes, s/he can read installments online, or have them delivered by text message or e-mail the moment the writer publishes the next segment.
Launched in 2008, TextNovel also attracts indie writers in droves. Many authors actually compose each installment on a cell phone, and "publish" it without ever printing a copy. Most write for the joy of it, since authors receive no royalties. But there are several concrete, practical benefits to writers in lieu of royalties, as explained below.
More recently, a new iPhone app called eMobo is helping to take the cell phone novel to the next level. Linking to and from TextNovel.com, the app allows readers a portable way to store and organize their texts, to share their favorites with fellow fans, and a variety of other useful features. (See the App Store for details, including bug reports in reviews for this early 2.0 build.) This is a "freemium" app that gives readers unlimited access to free cell phone novels initially; after the trial period, some genres and features are locked until the user pays a fee, while others remain free indefinitely. Either way, the reader gets access to a wide variety of reading material, and a vibrant community of fellow readers.
For writers (as opposed to readers) the eMobo proposition is even more compelling. In a statement exclusive to IR, Derek Vasconi, the developer of eMobo, said "The more [readers] use the app, the more it gets to know [them], and will suggest books...based on their reading preferences...If you are an author," he added, "and you like to write horror...anyone who uses the app and likes horror books could have your book suggested" by the app. Writers can buy ads in the main pages of the app at a nominal cost, but there is no charge for suggestions made to readers based on their profiles.
While still new and not quite totally free of bugs, eMobo (version 2.0 released November 2013; iOS 6.1+ only) already has an install base of about 22,000 users, growing rapidly; the TextNovel community totals more than 50,000. If the popularity of cell phone novels in the West grows at even a fraction of the rate seen in Asia, these numbers could swell dramatically, giving Western authors increased potential for exposure in the future.
English-language writers can use the app to publish stories straight from their iPhones with greater ease than the original cell phone novels of Japan. But the features that help stories get discovered are even more attractive to writers. For example, the app encourages readers to seamlessly share their favorite texts with their personal contacts and the TextNovel community by text message, e-mail or social media... or all three, with just a click or two. This networking functionality greatly improves the chance of a good story going viral.
Another concrete benefit of eMobo for writers is that the app gives them immediate feedback from readers, helping them keep their audiences engaged, as their stories develop. For new writers, the value of developmental guidance could well outweigh the absence of royalties.
The lack of royalties is also offset by the fact that TextNovel and eMobo permit writers to include links to books for sale elsewhere in their texts, potentially generating revenue for authors, in addition to exposure.
Cell phone novels offer an eclectic (and free) summer reading experience very different from conventional fare from mainstream publishers. For indie writers, TextNovel and the new eMobo iPhone app could hold even greater opportunities.
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