Downloadable novels, written to be read on mobile phones, are the most remarkable success story in Japanese publishing. The fledgling industry is already worth ¥9 billion (€57m) a year – while sales of traditional books are falling.
Mica Naitoh cuts an unlikely figure for a literary celebrity. As we sit chatting in a Tokyo coffee-shop about her home town of Yamanashi and her love of bargain shopping, it’s easy to forget that this 36-year-old single mother of two is one of the leading lights in a new Japanese literary form – the mobile phone novel. Her name may not ring any bells in regular literary circles, but Naitoh has thousands of loyal readers, and publishers are queuing up for her services.
With over 100 million mobile phone subscribers in Japan (out of a population of 127 million), it’s easy to see why publishers are keen to exploit the mobile phone – or keitai denwa – as a means of selling books. Millions of Japanese surf the internet and send emails on them, so why shouldn’t they read, too? While sales of print books are in decline, the mobile phone book business in Japan – known as keitai bunko – has exploded in the past five years. From being worth nothing in 2002, it rose to ¥1.8bn (€11.5m) in 2003, ¥4.5bn (€29m) in 2004, and at the last tally had risen to ¥9.4bn (€60m) a year.
“I was working as a writer, selling short stories, romances and autobiographical pieces,” Naitoh says. “But I was always being told that my sentences were too short and that I used too much dialogue.” It turned out that those supposed shortcomings were perfect for mobile phone publishing. Her big break came four years ago when the publisher Shinchosha approached her about using her work for a new subscription service where readers would pay to access books through their mobile phones.
Some of Naitoh’s keitai stories have been transferred from books and magazines, but most have been written for the mobile phone. Demure in appearance and softly spoken, Naitoh is refreshingly unselfconscious, whether she’s talking about how she married (and divorced) the same man twice, or about her early keitai efforts such as Seventy Thousand Yen for Two Hours, which explored the world of the male host. It’s perhaps this directness that has struck a chord with her female fan base.
“People said that I was only successful because I wrote about sex,” she says, “but then I wrote a love story – Love Link – and it was even more successful.” Love Link is still Shinchosha’s top-selling mobile phone novel. It was accessed 1.5 million times when it was released in 2004, in a series of 80 episodes over the course of four months. Love, another keitai romance has, she estimates, been accessed nearly 20 million times.
Naitoh is currently writing stories for five different publishers. For the website of the internet provider Livedoor, she’s writing an ongoing story – in 120 volumes – called Love Reverse. It’s a Freaky Friday-type scenario where a female rock idol and a male fan find their roles reversed. Naitoh writes the part of the female idol, while male writer Yukinori Otani writes the part of the fan; new volumes appear twice a week. She’s writing another continuing story for Shinchosha, Kono Yonosumi, about a single mother. It’s not autobiographical, she says, but “I do put my experiences into my work – small things; the ups and downs of daily life.”
The explosive growth of mobile phone publishing is due in part to changes in phone technology – transmission speeds are faster than ever, screens are bigger and sharper, and carriers now offer flat-rate transmission fees – users can download an unlimited amount of data to their 3-G phone at no extra cost.
“We started our mobile literature business in 2002, but it only really got going in 2003 when NTT DoCoMo [the largest mobile phone carrier in Japan] started offering a book service,” says Masumi Nakamura, head of mobile phone publishing at Shinchosha. Long-established publishers such as Shinchosha and Kadokawa have yomihodai, or “read as much as you can” services. Readers pay a monthly fee and have unlimited access to a selection of titles – some keitai exclusives, other existing print books – as well as free fragments of books which they can then buy directly from their mobile phone.
“Sales of print books are going down,” says Shin Nina, Kadokawa’s executive director. “The older readership is stable, but younger people have so many other forms of entertainment – mobile phones, email, internet, video games and so on; some of them don’t read at all. We decided to use mobile phones as a way of reaching them.”
Kadokawa now has 200 titles on its yomihodai site, for which readers pay a monthly subscription of ¥315 (€2). “At the beginning it was an experiment,” says Nina. “We wanted to see what would work, so we put everything on there – classics, mystery, romance and horror.” They soon found out that their core readership was women in their twenties and thirties who liked mysteries and love stories, and were reading on the train or late at night.
Shinchosha readers have a similar profile: “80 per cent of our readers are women,” says Nakamura. “They don’t like porn. Maybe some erotic element, but there also has to be romance.”
“Once we’d hit 20,000 subscribers we changed our outlook,” says Nakamura. “We realised a keitai author doesn’t have to be famous.” Shinchosha has had hits with young unknowns such as Ayako Miyagi, who writes semi-erotic dramas in the style of the Edo era (1615-1868).
Kadokawa – whose yomihodai service has 50,000 regular readers – supplies books in keitai format to 30 sites, both its own and those of independent publishers. Websites such as Chokuyomi and Saikyo Dokusho Seikatsu (Ultimate Reading Lifestyle) which sell books for keitai are proliferating, some offering a range of books, others a particular genre. Webruby, for example, is for fans of Boys Love, an unusual publishing niche – stories of boy-boy relationships which are read by women, who are known as fujoshi (literally “Rotten Women”).
For those with more high-minded tastes, there are classics such as Rashomon, a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, converted to scrollable chunks for consumption on a mobile phone. Nina says they don’t abridge or change well-known texts, but they do give readers the option of reading from top to bottom – the traditional form of Japanese books – or horizontally.
“Keitai technology is so good now that we’ve closed the gap between e-books and phone books,” says Nina. Electronic book readers, like Sony’s Librie, haven’t really taken off in Japan. “We tried e-books, but it’s only through keitai that electronic publishing has become profitable. People say that Japanese mobile phone publishing is the only successful e-publishing in the world.”
The practical advantages of keitai books are obvious – no storage space is required, no struggling with heavy tomes on packed commuter trains and no need to jam a paperback into a handbag. There’s even a touch of discretion for those ladies who might be embarrassed to take a volume of Boys Love to the cashier. Books can be streamed or downloaded in a matter of moments and payment is easy – a simple click and it’s added to your phone bill.
The best-sellers on the yomihodai sites are the ongoing series, like Naitoh’s. These books are kept on the site for a month and when they’re complete, sold on to other keitai sites. Some go on to become print novels. Shusuke Shizukui’s romance Closed Notebook, written for Kadokawa’s site, was accessed one million times when it appeared as a mobile phone book in 100 episodes, every day for three months. It has since gone into print and sold 200,000 copies.
The current king of the mobile phone writing world is Yoshi. Seven years ago he was running a coffee-shop in Shibuya and writing in his spare time; today he’s a coiffed star, and his books sell in their millions. His first book, Deep Love, is the original and still the best-known of all the keitai novels, a tale of teenage prostitution which has since been turned into a film, TV-series, manga and a multi-million-selling book. Follow-ups such as Dear Friends and Angels with Broken Wings have all been screen and publishing hits.
Yoshi’s career took off in 2000 when he set up his own website and started distributing his work via mobile phones. “It was a good way to convey my message,” he says. “Plus it was very low budget. In those days there was a limit to the amount of email and number of letters you could send at one time. I had no idea it would grow into such a big industry.”
Readers respond to the immediacy of the keitai novel, the sense that the authors are “talking” to them – partly because of the casual, conversational style of the writing. Keitai books can also be topical – if it’s university entrance exam season, for example, then that can be referred to in an ongoing keitai novel.
“We’ve discovered a new audience,” says Naitoh. “I receive emails from people who say that they’ve never read a book before – especially teenagers.” The teen market is potentially huge for the keitai publishing industry since Japanese teenagers, schoolgirls in particular, are wedded to their phones. Witness the current publishing phenomenon in Japan – the rise of the amateur keitai author – anonymous writers whose stories, usually tales of high-school romance, are plucked from mobile phone sites and propelled by word of mouth into best-selling print books.
Critics mock the style of keitai writing: the short sentences, the limited use of Japanese characters and heavy use of phonetic spellings for words that have perfectly good characters. “Good keitai publishing has its own style,” says Nakamura. “It’s speedy and not too complicated; characters have to be limited.”
According to Naitoh, keitai writing is not as simple as it looks. “A regular novel might be structured in five chapters,” she says, “but I have to write 100 volumes, each one appealing enough that readers will want to see the next volume.” She calculates each one to be three minutes’ worth of reading, enough time to read between subway stations. “Japanese authors traditionally go in for long descriptive passages,” she says. “I don’t do that.”
The sales figures speak for themselves. Of the top 10 bestselling books in Japan in 2006, four began life as mobile phone novels. Yoshi was in there with his latest book, Angels with Broken Wings, Sky/Sea (Tsubasano Oreta Tenshitachi, Sora, Umi), which sold 1.2 million copies.
“Established writers tend to shy away [from keitai publishing], thinking they’re more ‘intellectual’,” says Naitoh. “Good book sales might be 10,000 but keitai access figures are much higher. It can be scary as we can see the results from day to day.” And what of the accusations that mobile phone literature is a sign of cultural dumbing down?
“Some people think that this isn’t real literature, but if you hear music on your mobile phone, it doesn’t make it any less like music. The keitai is just the medium. Anyway, there’s no single definition of ‘literature’, the main thing is that people are reading and enjoying it.”