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Cell Phone Novels: 140 Characters at a Time

Cell phone novels are short stories designed to be read on cellular telephones. This article examines the Japanese trend and its potential in America.


Everywhere you look teens have cell phones or a Bluetooth attached to their ear. So it is no surprise that U.S. teen cell phone subscribers in 2007 numbered more than 16 million.1 In addition, Jacqueline Lane, at the YPulse 2008 Mashup, a conference on teens and technology, reported that 84 percent of teens ages fourteen to eighteen have access to a cell phone and 80 percent of these teens use it daily.2 A survey done in Britain found that “a majority of 16- to 24-year-olds would rather give up tea, coffee, alcohol, chocolate or sex rather than live without their cell phone for a month.”3 Clearly, professionals who work with teens cannot ignore this high level cell phone usage.

Ingenious Japanese Teens

Although American teens are avid cell phone users, Japanese teens have had earlier access to advanced cell phone technology. They also deal with crowded public transportation, with passengers crammed so closely together that it is impossible to open a book. Ingeniously, commuting Japanese teens who wanted to read began to read on their cell phones. Japanese cell phone companies have been streaming literary classics onto cell phones as early as 2003.4 But, as we know, many teens are not interested in reading the classics. They want to read books that relate to their present-day lives. With commuting time on their hands, along with an ever-present cell phone, Japanese teens began authoring their own cell phone novels, posting them in installments to free websites where others can read and offer input as the story is being written.

Defining a Cell Phone Novel

What exactly is a cell phone novel? Lisa Katayman defines the Japanese cell phone novel as containing “between 200 and 500 pages, with each page containing about 500 Japanese characters.”5 An English language cell phone screen, or page, is 140 characters. Cell phone novels are predominantly dialogue, very much like a graphic novel, but without the illustrations. Justin Norrie describes them this way:

They are written by first-time writers, using one-name pseudonyms, for an audience of young female readers… . The stories traverse teen romance, sex, drugs and other adolescent terrain in a succession of clipped one-liners, emoticons, and spaces (used to show that a character is thinking), all of which can be read easily on a mobile phone interface. Scene and character development are notably missing.6

They often deal with themes that high school girls are interested in and are set in everyday locations such as school, home, or places teens socialize. There are more than 2,400 Japanese cell phone novels to choose from, mostly written by young women in their teens and early twenties. Not surprisingly, “more than half of the readers [of cell phone novels in Japan] are females.”7

Top Ten Bestsellers

Five of Japan’s 2007 top ten bestselling books began as cell phone novels. Rin wrote If You, one of the bestsellers, when she was a senior in high school, while commuting to her part-time job. She is now a nursery school teacher and still writing cell phone novels, often falling asleep with her phone in her hand.8 Rin uploaded her debut novel to a popular website for would-be authors, Maho no i-rando, which allows readers to comment on each installment, thus creating a venue for ongoing conversations among members of a community of readers and writers. The number of novels on this site now exceeds one million.9 Rin admits she had never written anything other than text and instant messages prior to her cell phone novel. Nevertheless, her novel, full of emoticons, published as a 142-page hardcover book, sold more than 400,000 copies as of early 2008.10

Writing and Reading as Social Events

Cell phone novel writing and reading is a social event. In a January 2008 posting to his Computer World blog, Mike Elgan noted that the authors of cell phone novels are using an “available publishing technology to have a dialog-not a monologue- with their peers.”11 This connectivity is an important factor when considering the potential of the cell phone novel phenomena happening in the United States. As Zachary, a teen interviewed for a New York Times article debating literacy observed, “The Web is more of a conversation… . Books are more one-way.”12 For those teens who want a conversation with a book or the author, the authoring or reading of cell phone novels suits their technology-rich style of social networking.

Today’s teens have used or been exposed to cell phones all of their lives, so the use of this medium for communicating is natural to them. Some teens can type on a cell phone keypad faster than they can on a computer keyboard. An expert in Japanese literature at Waseda University, Chiaki Ishihara, goes so far as to suggest that “this tool called the cellphone instilled in them the desire to write.”13 Yoko Hani, an editor with Goma Books and publisher of three bestselling cell phone novels, states, “Readers and writers often overlap. In many cases, readers who were inspired by stories on the sites have started writing themselves.”14

Potential for American Cell Phone Novels

Will American teens, like Japanese teens, choose to read, let alone write, novels on a cell phone? The technology and software are already available. Although still in its infancy, cell phone authorship in the United States is occurring through websites such as Quillpill , which allows multiple modes of entry. The site boasts that “users have posted their stories using desktop computers, iPhones, cell phones, mobile gaming platforms like the PSP and DS, and even a Wii.”15 In a response to a request for a login for the Quillpill beta site, Derek Maune, CEO of Synthetic Entertainment, which operates Quillpill, responded,

The cellphone novel phenomena in Japan convinced an entire generation that had been uninterested in literature to start reading and even producing popular fiction themselves…. Literature has its ups and downs throughout history, but I do not agree with the popular idea that’s out there right now, which foretells doom for the written word due to the advancement of Internet usage. Rather, I believe writing can be brought online in a form that will invigorate traditional authors, hobby writers, young authors, and even people who have never really thought of writing anything more than a diary blog.16

Whether Mr. Maune is correct in relation to the roles the cell phone and the Internet will play in who authors the posts to Quillpill, only time will tell. Because more U.S. teens have cell phones than laptops or desktop computers, the opportunity to author and respond to written works on the cell phone keypad may well appeal to them.17 A writer- and reader-interactive mode of authorship would add a new venue to teens’ already technology enhanced forms of social networking. After all, J. K. Rowling began her bestselling series about a young wizard in a social environment, a coffee shop. Who’s to say a future New York Times bestseller won’t be a cell phone novel written by an American teen hanging out with friends in Starbucks?

Clark, R. (2009). Cell Phone novels: 140 Characters at a Time. Young Adult Library Services, 7(2), 29-31.