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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Translating the gap: The Japanese cellphone novel and the American digital revolution

The Japanese keitai shousetsu (cell phone novel) boom in Japan is not a surprising development in a country known for its tech culture. This is the country of musical toilets, dancing robots, ultra smooth bullet trains, sushi conveyor belts, and netbooks that look like clutch purses. While a less visually bombastic arena, the Japanese publishing industry has produced its own share of surprises.

The cell phone novel is a literary genre born from Japan’s digital generation, a prime example of medium dictating both production and prose style. The serialized novel is frequently typed out on a cell phone, uploaded to a website, and distributed to subscribers who access the story on their own phones. Chapters are understandably quite short. The prose is succinct to accommodate the limited screen space.

There are those (myself included) who cannot understand how such a sparse read can be a source of literary satisfaction. I’m quite a fan of minimalist works, both in prose and poetry, but I sense that many of these cellphone novels lack richness of language and content. The limitation of space, of course, plays a large role in restricting the language but I still have yet to see a work that uses this new literary environment in a manner that creates depth and complexity without compromising craft essentials like world-building, character development, and aesthetic language.

The numbers, however, say something different.

According to an article posted on techradar.com:

“When we reported last year on the rapid spread in Japan of novels designed to be read on mobile phones we could hardly have guessed that they would be outselling print publications within a few months. But that’s exactly what has happened in the first half of 2007.”

Riding on this wave was a popular cell phone novel entitled Moshimo Kimiga (If You…). Written by a 21-year-old nursery school teacher on her phone and subsequently published in a 142-page hardback in 2007 after its online success, Moshimo Kimiga competed with a new Japanese translation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov which had –unexpectedly– sold over 300,000 copies in its first five months.

While figures like this may cause a chill to run down the spines of publishers and writers alike (mine included), it is hard to deny that something deep and strange is happening in the literary world because of the digital revolution. This is not simply an issue of content and literary quality. This goes beyond Dostoevsky. The tables are turning.

The Sydney Morning Herald states in a 2007 article:

“Remarkably, half of Japan’s top-10 selling works of fiction in the first six months of the year were composed the same way – on the tiny handset of a mobile phone. They sold an average of 400,000 copies. By August, the president of Goma Books, Masayoshi Yoshino, was declaring in a manifesto that he was determined “to establish this not simply as a fad, but as a new kind of culture” […] In just a few years, mobile phone novels – or keitai shousetsu – have become a publishing phenomenon in Japan, turning middle-of-the-road publishing houses into major concerns and making their authors a small fortune in the process.”

So what does this mean for the American publishing industry?

While there have been attempts to replicate the phenomenon on American soil (or rather, the “American cloud”), these efforts have been met with little success. Whether this was due to our data plans or reading culture, we can’t be sure. But what we can get from this short experiment in tech culture translation is that Americans do not turn to their phones for pleasure reading.

But now we have e-readers. And tablets.

This changes the game considerably. While the Japanese market has its own characteristics and peculiarities, the growing popularity of e-readers is encouraging the American market to read digitally. The increasingly aesthetic designs of these devices are giving the reading not only a revised medium but also a shiny new image. Tech factor, cool factor, and connectivity.

People who were not avid readers before are getting caught in the wave. The American literary scene may also experience shifts in form and style to accommodate the tastes of a changing and expanding readership. Perhaps the serial novel will reemerge as a popular form in the West, with established authors producing digital content in installments and readers engaging with the text via chapter-by-chapter feedback through their e-reading devices.

There are real possibilities here for publishing houses, and real tools that could optimize their operations. With the right publicity, a compelling marketing angle, and an attractive user interface, a publishing house’s new authors can tap into serialization to build their platform. Additionally, it is also a strategic way to publicize authors who already have a name for themselves but could benefit from a more loyal following.

2 comments on “Translating the gap: The Japanese cellphone novel and the American digital revolution

  1. Pingback: Blueprints for new online book retail « appazoogle

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This entry was posted on November 13, 2011 by in Culture, Opinion, Technology and tagged , , , .

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