The Guardian

Tokyo, March 26:

Not content with using mobile phones to text and email, play games, take photographs, shop, and check the news and weather, Japanese youngsters now have another reason to stay glued to handsets: full-length novels. This is the new unique selling proposition (USP) for cellphones in Japan. Though the market is in its infancy, publishers are responding quickly to a growing interest in entire works of fiction and non-fiction that can be read on mobile phones. Hundreds of titles are on offer on subscription websites, with new releases appearing every month. Barely a genre has failed to make it from the bookshop shelf onto the miniature screen: classic novels, new fiction, erotica, essays, dictionaries, academic and self-improvement texts, anything to satisfy a growing demand among Japan’s 85 million mobile-phone owners.

The domestic market in ebooks was worth 180 million yen in March 2004, an increase of 80 per cent from the previous year, and industry watchers predict the figure will be many times higher by the end of the decade. Traditionalist bookworms may be appalled, not to mention a little dizzy, at the thought of reading a classic novel on a tiny screen, but devotees of the new medium say it is a habit that is easily acquired. “The biggest attraction is the convenience of being able to have your favourite books with you all of the time,” said Bandai Networks spokeswoman Mari Kobayashi, “Unlike printed titles, novels and other works can be made available to subscribers as soon as they are ready. The speed with which people can get their hands on new titles is a big factor.”

Almost two-thirds of subscribers to Bandai’s site are women — 60 per cent of all readers are in their teens and 20s, and 70 per cent log on daily, the firm said. Miona Yamashita is a typical ereader. She is young, urban, very fond of her mobile phone, and desperate to find new ways to while away the time she spends on Tokyo’s heaving commuter trains. “My eyes sometimes get tired but I like the idea of being able to read on trains when they are so packed there isn’t even space to open a book,” said the 24-year-old office worker, who has just made a start on a murder mystery by the noted thriller writer Seishi Yokomizo. “But I also like dipping in and out of books, rather than always reading straight narratives.” Improvements in display technology and features such as automatic page-flipping (as opposed to scrolling down line by line) have made reading novels less arduous.

Rather than constituting a threat to the traditions of the written word, ebooks are seen as an opportunity to draw in a new generation of readers, with several Japanese publishers setting up subscription sites. Bandai Networks’ Bunko Yomihodai (All the Paperbacks You Can Read) features about 150 titles and has attracted 50,000 subscribers. Users pay a flat rate of a few hundred yen a month. They can search for books by author, title or genre, and are encouraged to post online reviews. Several authors write short, racy novels specifically for handset reading. While the phenomenon is catching on in China and South Korea, interest has been limited in Europe and US. But that may be about to change.