MOBILE-PHONE NOVELS

Cellphone bards hit bestseller lists

by Yoko Hani

Like many other young Japanese, Rin, 21, punches her mobile phone keys very quickly. Holding her phone with two hands, and moving her thumbs deftly and smoothly, she quickly generates sentences on the small screen.

But unlike others, her main reason for typing on her keitai (mobile phone) is not to send e-mails, text messages or check the Internet. Instead, she writes bestselling novels. Rin is one of the most popular authors in the fast-expanding genre of keitai shosetsu (mobile-phone novels).

“I started writing stories on my keitai when I was a high-school student,” Rin said. “Usually, you don’t write novels during recesses between classes, and others might think you were a bit strange if you did that. But if you write on your keitai, nobody knows you are actually writing stories. I was writing stories when others thought I was sending e-mails.”

Rin later released her novel on a mobile-phone novels site where users can not only write stories but also read novels for free if they register. After getting a huge number of hits in that cyber-realm, Rin’s novel, titled “Moshimo Kimiga (If You . . . ),” was published in January as a 142-page hardback book. Her story about a high-school romance and the couple’s fight against the girl’s illness sold 400,000 copies after it was published by Goma Books. The book was ranked second on the nationwide bestselling fiction list in the first half of 2007, according to nationwide publications distributor Nippan.

“I do not feel I am an author of bestselling books,” said Rin, who graduated from a junior college this spring and now works as a nursery school teacher in Fukuoka Prefecture in Kyushu. “Now I’m very busy working and I write stories afterward, often on my bed before I go to sleep. I try to keep writing but sometimes I fall asleep while holding my mobile phone.”

Original novels and other writings released and widely read on cell-phone Web sites have been one of this year’s booming phenomena, with several titles as well as Rin’s making the bestseller lists after being published in book form.

Amazingly, in fact, out of the top 10 bestselling fiction works in the first half of 2007, five began life as keitai novels, according to Nippan. And with average book sales of about 400,000 copies each, these bestsellers are breaking entirely new ground in the book industry. For one thing, most of the authors have no professional background as novelists. Then, in terms of the format, these books are written from left to right and top to bottom of the page, as opposed to the traditional Japanese writing style that flows vertically from right to left.

So what does this new popularity of keitai books mean? What impact can these new novels have on Japanese literature?

Mobile-phone book editors attribute the novels’ popularity to the fact that they fit the lifestyle of high-school girls and women in their 20s. This demographic not only habitually communicate by typed keitai messages, but also read on their small screens while on the train, at home or anywhere. As well, keitai-novel sites have become the nodes of a community by making it possible for users to have interactions together and access a huge number of titles. Writers, too, can have easy access to readers’ responses and then draw on them to further develop their stories.

“An interesting aspect of keitai novels is that readers and writers often overlap. In many cases, readers who were inspired by stories on the sites have started writing by themselves,” said Mayumi Sato, an editor at Goma Books, which published three of the five bestselling keitai books in the first half of this year.

“Keitai-novel writers do not necessarily have an idea that they want to be a novelist.

“Rather, they start writing because they want to join the community of keitai writers and readers,” she explained.

And naturally, these novels deal with themes that high-school girls are interested in, and they are written in their normal everyday language, she said.

“Keitai novels are popular because many stories deal with romance, and the stories are set in everyday locations such as school, home or places they go out to have fun,” Sato said. “In other words, if you read a keitai novel, you can sense the lifestyle of young people.”

It’s not only the content, but also the writing style that attracts many young readers, she pointed out.

“These stories are made up of many conversations instead of descriptions and explanations of scenes. As a result, readers may be able to read the novels as if they were reading comic books.

“Probably, some people have no idea what keitai novels are, and others question if they can really be called a new type of literature. But these books sell so well. From the initial spark among high-school girls, I hope keitai novels can further develop and eventually become a new genre. I don’t want to see this popularity just end up as a fad.”

One thing certainly working toward a long-term future for the medium is the Japan Keitai Novels Prize, launched jointly last year by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper and Starts Publishing to find talented new young writers and promote high-quality keitai novels. In this year’s competition, which is currently under way, about 2,000 titles have been submitted for the ¥2 million prize. The top 36 titles have been released on the event’s mobile site so that readers can vote before the reviewing committee convenes to choose the winner at the end of this month.

Koichiro Tomioka, a professor of Japanese literature at Kanto Gakuin University, said the popularity of mobile-phone novels is notable as it represents a new way for novelists to be recognized. But whether or not they will take root in Japan as a type of literature will depend on how the authors can keep producing works of a high standard, he said.

In the conventional system, would-be novelists submit their stories to literature magazines in the hope of being published and recognized as new writers — and hopefully win prizes for their work. Consequently, editors and publishers are involved in the process by which new novelists emerge.

But in significant contrast, Tomioka said, mobile-phone novels are often born without being exposed to the eyes of any professionals and become popular first with readers.

“It’s an interesting system,” he said. “But novels born out of the new process can have amateurish aspects. The issue is whether this new type of writer can keep on writing works as a professional novelist.”

Tomioka said that mobile-phone novels have the potential to develop as a genre appealing to a certain group of readers. But it is premature to suggest they may have a significant impact on Japanese literature, he said.

In fact, Rin — who loves reading books — said she recognizes a difference between what she normally reads in book form and what she writes in her mobile-phone stories.

When she writes keitai novels, she said, she intentionally uses short sentences, creates blank spaces and chooses less complicated expressions because as she writes she is always thinking about the keitai screen and the readers.

“Novels I had read had more words. My stories have fewer words and are very easy to read,” she said.

“But if you are a high-school student and if you don’t feel like reading heavy novels, my stories can be a good starting point for reading.

“I hope my stories can play a role like that.”