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For Japan's cellphone novelists, proof of success is in the print

One teenager who wrote a three-volume novel on her phone has gone on to sell more than 110,000 paperback copies, grossing more than $611,000 in sales.

February 09, 2010|By Yuriko Nagano

Reporting from Tokyo — She likes Care Bears, doesn't wear makeup yet, and took her nom de plume from a character in the Disney classic "Bambi."

And last year, 15-year-old "Bunny" became one of Japan's top authors of a genre called keitai -- cellphone -- novels.

After getting its start as a tale told on tiny cellular screens, her three-volume novel "Wolf Boy x Natural Girl" has gone on to sell more than 110,000 paperback copies since its release in May, according to Starts Publishing Co.

The "Wolf Boy" author, who took her alias from Thumper's friend Miss Bunny, started writing when she was in the sixth grade, after her parents bought her a cellphone. "I was so excited," she says with a shy smile.

Bunny was using her phone mainly to text friends until she saw a TV ad about a keitai novel website that allowed users to write novels on cellphones for free. Inspired by some of the novels she read, Bunny took a crack at one herself, simply following the word limit of 1,000 characters per page.

Keitai writers can choose to "publish" their online content immediately or keep it unlisted. Most writers upload the content as they finish so they get instant feedback from the readers, who access the stories on the website and click through the pages. Authors respond to readers by correcting errors and, in some cases, altering story lines.

The prize for the occasional most-read story is getting your novel into print.

Over the course of several months, Bunny tapped away in her bedroom, in between homework assignments. "Wolf Boy" ended up as a high-school love story between shy, pretty Miku and tall, handsome Shun, who is generally a gentlemen except when Miku is around (thus the name "Wolf Boy").

One scene, from Shun's point of view, is typical of the style:

"I changed into a suit for the party. . . . When I stepped out of my room . . . Miku was there. Miku was in a pink one-piece dress, wearing white heels. She looks mature because her hair is lightly curled. She's looking straight at me. It's hard to keep my cool when she's looking at me like that."

"Wolf Boy" became one of the most popular novels on the No-ichigo website. Unaware of her daughter's work, Bunny's mother was floored when she first heard about a pending book offer.

"I had no idea," her mother says.

"Wolf Boy" has grossed more than $611,000.

When asked whether Shun is her ideal boyfriend, Bunny looks down, blushing. She shakes her head and mutters, "He used to be, but not anymore." Bunny doesn't have a boyfriend now.

No one at school knows about her success. "It's embarrassing," Bunny says.

As most other keitai novel authors do, Bunny conceals her identity for privacy.

"Users first access these websites by giving themselves an online identity and they generally stick to operating under that pseudonym," Starts Publishing editor Shigeru Matsushima says.

Much of the Japanese literary establishment has been critical of the genre's commercial success.

"Most keitai novel authors are amateurs who've never written before and the stories follow a similar pattern," says Chiaki Ishihara, a literature professor at Waseda University.

Ascii Media Works, a publisher of keitai novels that targets 14- to 17-year-olds, acknowledges that the works are not masterpieces.

"Keitai novels should be likened to the literary genre of light novels," says Kenro Hayamizu, author of a book analyzing the cellphone novel phenomenon. "These are like Harlequin romances for young girls."

The size of the keitai novel market is unclear, but Maho i-Land Co., one of the largest keitai novel content providers, boasts 1 million online book titles and 6 million users.

"Although sales for each new release vary widely, we've sold an average of roughly 100,000 copies per book we've published in recent years," says Mari Yusa, who works in Maho i-Land's content division. The firm publishes a few of the most popular novels each month.

When keitai novels started to emerge in the last decade, many of the stories were gritty and based on real-life events.

The genre had its beginnings when a thirtysomething author known only as Yoshi wrote the novel "Deep Love," about a 17-year-old girl named Ayu who tries to pay for her boyfriend's heart surgery through prostitution and ends up dying of AIDS-related complications.

Matsushima, the editor at Starts Publishing, says the recent success of breezier keitai stories such as "Wolf Boy" has signified a shift in reader interest. Horror stories and girls' comic-book-type comedies have been popular too.

"Recent stories are noticeably being written in a more colloquial style with adolescent-speak," Matsushima says. "Over a year ago, readers started rejecting sad stories. They turned to novels depicting the ideal, make-believe world," a trend possibly triggered by Japan's economic recession.

"Readers' choices could be an honest reflection of how they feel about the real world," he says.

Bunny is studying for high school entrance exams. She's put her book earnings into a savings account and is looking to her future: "I'd like to think about whether I'd like to become a professional author."

Nagano is a special correspondent.

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