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Get Ready for the Cell Phone Novel!

By Sarah Klein

The Kindle and other e-Readers are slowly catching on, but I have yet to see a backpack-wielding teenager skimming an eBook. In Japan, however, teens are into electronic reading. On their cell phones!

The cell phone novel craze reached a peak in Japan in 2007, when five of the top ten best-selling Japanese novels were original cell phone compositions. Writers type the novels, called keitai shosetsu, on their cell phones, and then upload them to media-sharing sites, where millions of readers download new chapters onto their own phones. It didn’t take long for publishers to take notice: some of the best cell phone novels are now paperbacks, movies, and Japanese comics. In 2007, keitai shosetsu became a $240 million market, comprising over 5 percent of the country’s total market for mobile content, according to CNN.

Now a publishing phenomenon, cell phone novels are helping teens and young adults—mostly women—read and write in ways they never did before. Many use the medium to express concerns or share stories of young love, drugs and even disease—topics usually considered taboo in Japanese culture.

The short sentences and simple themes read more like comics than traditional novels, but publishing representatives told CNN this is what is attracting the young readers. That and the pervasiveness of cell phones: in Japan, 96 percent of Japanese high school students own one.
Now cell phone novels are slowing in Japan after their 2007 rise to fame. But many commentators believe countries like the U.S. may be next,  as mobile networks and data plans have become faster and cheaper. Japanese sites for uploading cell phone novels are expanding to English-language, U.S. based sites, like MobaMingle, the global site from Japanese company DeNA.

Not that American parents are looking for more reasons for their teens to be glued to their cell phones! Luckily, there’s some good news about cell phone novels. Yukiko Nishimura, a professor from Toyo Gakuen University in Japan, recently presented research at a UC Davis conference showing that cell phone novels may help teens become more interested in literature. Nishimura found that cell phone novels are written at a sixth- to eighth-grade reading level, not a far cry from the fifth- to ninth-grade reading levels of most popular teen novels. She referred to the trend as “a new genre.”

While cell phone novels are only beginning to infiltrate American culture, writers, readers, and critics eagerly await to see where mobile reading will take us.

Comment by Saoirse Redgrave, posted 7/9/2009, 8:08 PM:

There's great potential in writing & reading venues provided by cell phones. I hope as this phenomenon infiltrates American culture through sites like Textnovel.com people read & explore widely. My YA novel (winner of the first-ever cell phone novel contest in the western world, through Textnovel.com), "13 to Life: A Werewolf's Tale" earned me a multi-book deal with St. Martin's Press. Book 1 releases next Spring & I look forward to talking to teens about all aspects of the writer's journey.
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