The Cell Phone Novel

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for no particular reason — cell phone novels. My main motivation for this particular post is an attempt to wrap my head around the notion of cell phone novels as its own (sub)genre of stuff that people read.

True, reading novels entirely on our iPhones seems normal enough nowadays, so how huge of a leap is the writing novels entirely on phones?

Wired (“Big Books Hit Japan’s Tiny Phones”) fills us in on some of the basics:

“A mobile phone novel typically contains between 200 and 500 pages, with each page containing about 500 Japanese characters. The novels are read on a cell phone screen page by page, the way one would surf the web, and are downloadable for around $10 each.”

The form factor would drive me crazy, but I’m more of a Kindle partisan, I suppose. As for content, The New York Times (“Thumbs Race as Japan’s Best Sellers Go Cellular”) notes the cultural clash over the decidedly unliterary cell phone novels —

“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.”

And how much does the medium itself define the creation of the work? I thought the distinction of how a cell phone novel is written was both interesting, and hard to fully comprehend (is there a difference between a novel written by hand, or typed on a writing ball, or a Macbook Pro?):

“As the genre’s popularity leads more people to write cellphone novels, though, an existential question has arisen: can a work be called a cellphone novel if it is not composed on a cellphone, but on a computer or, inconceivably, in longhand?

“When a work is written on a computer, the nuance of the number of lines is different, and the rhythm is different from writing on a cellphone,” said Keiko Kanematsu, an editor at Goma Books, a publisher of cellphone novels. “Some hard-core fans wouldn’t consider that a cellphone novel.”

The revenue model for cell phone novels is actually fairly clever (in case U.S. publishing houses are taking notes) : free online, or access for a nominal subscription fee. To get some sense of what we’re talking about, you can see

“The writers are not paid for their work online, no many how many millions of times it is viewed. The payoff, if any, comes when the novels are reproduced and sold as traditional books. Readers have free access to the Web sites that carry the novels, or pay at most $1 to $2 a month, but the sites make most of their money from advertising.”

And avid readers can buy printed versions of the most popular of the cell phone novels (see left). Most all of the information I was able to find on the topic of cell phone novels is at least a couple of years old. Even if it is/was a fad, it’s a rather interesting fad borne of a nexus of reading culture and technology.

Speaking of which, the cell phone novel boom is quite an example of technology playing a fairly large role in reader behavior:

“The boom appeared to have been fueled by a development having nothing to do with culture or novels but by cellphone companies’ decision to offer unlimited transmission of packet data, like text-messaging, as part of flat monthly rates. The largest provider, Docomo, began offering this service in mid-2004.

“Their cellphone bills were easily reaching $1,000, so many people experienced what they called ‘packet death,’ and you wouldn’t hear from them for a while,” said Shigeru Matsushima, an editor who oversees the book uploading site at Starts Publishing, a leader in republishing cellphone novels.”

Finally — while we’re on this subject, data throttling (Verizon, AT&T, and friends) is still very much a topic of debate, and is still quite a source of consternation for anyone paying for already exorbitant data plans. If you’re thinking there should be a better solution, there probably is. FOr example, The New York Times: “Is Data Throttling a Necessary Evil for Cellphone Carriers?” —

“Carriers could potentially create separate types of data plans for customers with specific types of use patterns. They could charge extra for these special plans, and in exchange give these customers priority in gaining access to the higher network speeds so they would get a consistently good connection when playing games or watching video.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg

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