SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. -- Half of Japan's bestselling books last year -- half! -- started out as cell phone-based books, according to the New York Times. Will cell phones become the medium of choice worldwide for novels and full-length non-fiction books?
Apple CEO Steve Jobs told an interviewer at MacWorld that Amazon's Kindle e-book reader was doomed to failure because, he said, "it doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore."
Although Jobs got his facts wrong in the interview, the reality is that he may be onto something. Much digital ink is spilled over how the Internet and electronic media are taking eyeballs away from television viewing.
As people spend more and more time online, playing video games and interacting with downloadable media, they both have less time for books, and less attention span.
In cell phone-crazy Japan, people are reading books on cell phones in huge numbers -- especially young people. What this fact doesn't tell you is how the medium is changing the message. These cell phone books tend not to be Joseph Conrad or Jane Austen, but mostly short escapist trash -- basically soap operas in print, and much of it by un-published authors. However, these amateur writers become so famous on the medium of cell phones that they drive sales for subsequent print versions.
So where are we going in the English-speaking world? Are we headed for the post-literate society Jobs describes where "nobody reads"? Or is there a possibility of a new genre of literature -- shorter, spicier and more electronic -- similar to what has developed in Japan --a world where the book publishing industry adapts to new reading habits?
The cell phone novel craze hit Japan when NTT DoCoMo experimented with charging for downloadable books. To the best of my knowledge, such experiments have not been conducted by carriers in the United States. What would happen if they did?
I'm working on a column about the possibility of a cell phone genre of literature developing in the English speaking world, if only a carrier or, say, Apple, would push for it.
So let me ask you: Do you currently read on your cell phone? If so, what do you read? Would you be willing to download short electronic books to your phone from iTunes or your carrier's web site or a third-party web site for a fee? How about long books? Magazines? Why or why not?