can this possibly work?

We will, it seems to me, inevitably end up doing a lot of our reading in digital format. Yes, lots of people say that nothing could replace the feel of paper or the heft of a hardback. But you only have to think of how much time we’re spending reading onscreen now. For many people, eight hours in front of a computer during the day means that they already absorb far more words in a digital form than via books. It seems only a matter of time before we become more comfortable with an electronic format than a physical one, with our work habits leaking over into leisure.

That being said, it’s remarkable how slow the progress in the development of electronic books actually has been. In the Western world, the idea of the killer reading application — the bookish equivalent of the Ipod — has been around for ages but seems no closer to fruition, as Emmy Henning and Jenny Lee discussed in Overland 190. Instead, we get ridiculous gimmicks. Like this, for instance:

In a move that could bolster the growing popularity of e-books, Google said Thursday that the 1.5 million public domain books it had scanned and made available free on PCs were now accessible on mobile devices like the iPhone and the T-Mobile G1.

Also Thursday, Amazon said that it was working on making the titles for its popular e-book reader, the Kindle, available on a variety of mobile phones. The company, which is expected to unveil a new version of the Kindle next week, did not say when Kindle titles would be available on mobile phones.

“We are excited to make Kindle books available on a range of mobile phones,” said Drew Herdener, a spokesman for Amazon. “We are working on that now.”

Well, it seems ridiculous to me. But, then, with the digital revolution, it’s often been the most unlikely aspects that have taken off, usually because they’ve been appropriated by users. Who would have predicted the billion dollar market in ringtones, for instance?

Which brings me back to something that I’ve mentioned here before but that continues to obsess me.

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 first mobile phone novel was written six years ago by fiction writer Yoshi, but the trend picked up in the last couple years when high-school girls with no previous publishing experience started posting stories they wrote on community portals for others to download and read on their cell phones.

Magic iLand is one such site. It began as a community portal where users could create personalized homepages from their cell phones. In March, the company launched a free novel library where readers can download text and link to blogs by select authors.

The Magic Library Plus has quickly established itself as the gold standard for mobile phone novels. Work published there is guaranteed hundreds of thousands of readers and lots of street cred. Since its inception, the library has added at least 10 new titles per month. It includes frequently updated reviews and instructions on how to write a mobile phone novel.

It’s easy to dismiss these phone novels as a fad, one of those crazy only-in-Japan novelties. And maybe that’s the case. Still, given how marginal most literary writing is to the mainstream of the culture, it’s worth thinking a little bit about what’s going on in a forum that has young people passionately talking about and writing novels, and reading them in the hundreds of thousands.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I’m with you on the Kindle and so forth, I can’t imagine ever getting one. You know what interests me, Jeff? The idea that a writer should be able to earn a living writing whatever they want to write, ‘literature’. When did that start? Most of the history of professional writing has been writing for a market. These phone novels you speak of remind me of Charles Dickens. Writers have always had to use their craft in creative ways to earn a living.

  2. I’d get a Kindle in a second if it was cheap enough and pleasant to use. It would be fantastic to read a review of a novel in the NYT and then download it instantly so you could be reading it a few minutes later.
    The phone novels are mostly amateur, I think, though there’s some people making money out of them. In some ways, that seems to be why they’ve taken off — ordinary people feel a sense of ownership of them in a way that, perhaps, they don’t with literary novels. That’s how writing’s going to survive in the next century: the creation of little communities of enthusiasts, all interacting with each other. At least, that seems to be Mark Davis’ argument in the thing he did on small press in Overland 190, and the more I think about it, the more convincing it is.

  3. It might interest you to grab an iphone or an ipod touch and browse the Book applications. There are many of them. If they aren’t overly popular or dominating the market, they are certainly present.

    I have one particular application – Stanza – which lets me install all sorts of fiction and is integrated with a number of book markets – Gutenberg, Pan MacMillan (for sample chapters of new titles), Random House free titles, and others.

    I didn’t mind the experiment of reading through several pages of Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’.

    I haven’t found the need for it though, and there’s an extra quailty about handling and owning a book. As an object it takes on personal qualities which you associate with the experience of reading the story. It’s always on the shelf representing that particular experience for you to pick up again. There’s something empty about an electronic device, in that sense.

  4. I agree on the point about book as object. Of course, you could make the same argument about records. Since I’ve acquired an I-pod, all the new music I have is purely digital. Yes, there’s a loss in not having the physical objects but most people accept it when they start dowloading music. Suspect it would be the same with e-books.

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