Cellphone Novels

My friend, author/illustrator Matt McElligott, tipped me off to this remarkable publishing fact:

In 2007, half of the top ten bestselling novels in Japan were written on cell phones.

I repeat: WRITTEN ON CELL PHONES!

Many articles have been written about the phenomenon, and as usual I’m a little late to the party. Here’s a couple of paragraphs from a 2008 New York Times piece, written by Norimitsu Onishi:

TOKYO — Until recently, cellphone novels — composed on phone keypads by young women wielding dexterous thumbs and read by fans on their tiny screens — had been dismissed in Japan as a subgenre unworthy of the country that gave the world its first novel, “The Tale of Genji,” a millennium ago. Then last month, the year-end best-seller tally showed that cellphone novels, republished in book form, have not only infiltrated the mainstream but have come to dominate it.

Of last year’s 10 best-selling novels, five were originally cellphone novels, mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging but containing little of the plotting or character development found in traditional novels. What is more, the top three spots were occupied by first-time cellphone novelists, touching off debates in the news media and blogosphere.

“Will cellphone novels kill ‘the author’?” a famous literary journal, Bungaku-kai, asked on the cover of its January issue. Fans praised the novels as a new literary genre created and consumed by a generation whose reading habits had consisted mostly of manga, or comic books. Critics said the dominance of cellphone novels, with their poor literary quality, would hasten the decline of Japanese literature.

Whatever their literary talents, cellphone novelists are racking up the kind of sales that most more experienced, traditional novelists can only dream of.

Photo credit: Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

The young woman pictured above, who goes by the name Rin, sold 400,000 copies of a mobile phone novel (a form known as keitai shousetsu in Japan). She wrote it over a six-month period while in high school. Her novel, titled If You, was the 5th bestselling novel in Japan in 2007. Interestingly, Onishi reported that “many cellphone novelists had never written fiction before, and many of their readers had never read novels before, according to publishers.”

I’d bet this has applications for reluctant readers, though what the implications are I can’t begin to imagine.

Duncan Riley, writing for TechCrunch, opined in December of 2007:

I can’t see anyone in Western nations waking up tomorrow and seeing mobile phone composed novels on the top seller lists, but usually Japan is years ahead on many tech fronts; mobile phone data services were available and popular in Japan years ago as the rest of us are only now catching up. Perhaps the NY Times best seller list in 2012 might consist of keitai shousetsu, stranger things have happened.

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