January 28, 2009

The cell phone novel

The cell phone ebook format in Japan is popular enough that novels are "born digital" in that medium and then reformatted for the printed page and published the "old fashioned way." There are even cell phone novel contests offering tens of thousands of dollars in prize money.

The road to cell phone bestsellerdom begins with the online cell phone forums, where the novels are posted for free. As Patrick Galbraith describes the genre,

The works are published in 70-word installments, or abbreviated chapters that are the ideal length to be read between shorter train stops . . . The resulting works are emotional, fast-paced and highly visual, with an impact not unlike manga.

Like Cory Doctorow, Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho claims that "the free distribution of e-books actually encourages paper books sales." And in fact, "ten of the bestselling printed novels in Japan in 2007 were based on [free] cell phone novels, and each sold around 400,000 copies."

The genre has its detractors, to be sure, citing the explicit, often exploitative nature of the material, the "lack of diverse vocabulary and a general dumbing-down of traditional literary approaches." Still, I'm with the "at least they reading and writing something" school.

Although America's car culture is a direct impediment to the commute-centric cell phone novel culture in Japan, I have the feeling that the future of the ebook may well coincide with the rebirth of the novella.

UPDATE: Lev Grossman covers similar ground here, pointing out that "Four of the five best-selling novels in Japan in 2007 belonged to an entirely new literary form called keitai shosetsu: novels written, and read, on cell phones."

Grossman believes that "novels will get longer--electronic books aren't bound by physical constraints--and they'll be patchable and updatable, like software." I agree with the latter. I'm not so sure about the former, though I can see serials coming back into vogue.

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