Cell-lit is all the rage

Running late for a meeting? Send an SMS. Logging on to online banking? Use the code you receive via SMS. Want to enter a competition? Send the answer in an SMS.
Want to know how many people were thinking about you at midnight? Count your “happy new year” SMSes. SMS is one of the most ubiquitous ways that we communicate.

According to a report on Biz-Community following the recent Global Messaging 2008 conference held in Cannes, South Africa is considered an innovator already when it comes to SMS trends. “Please Call Me” messages (13-million of which are sent a day on the MTN network alone), are typically South African. We have been banking on our cellphones for six years—the rest of the world is just getting started. Service providers even allow users to transfer airtime to other users via SMS. South Africans are quite comfortable performing a range of tasks on their pocket computers.

About 80% of South Africans have access to cellphones, while only 10% have access to the internet. In developing countries cellphones are the internet. So if you want to see an explosion of people accessing and sharing content in Africa and other “third world” countries, do it on a mobile platform. Teen SMS chat forum Mxit is like Web 2.0 on phones—it was always going to be huge in a cellphone-based communication community like South Africa.

So, surely it makes sense for traditional publishers to think of publishing content on cellphones? It does and it’s already happening. Cell Book, a small company based in Durbanville, started publishing daily devotionals to cellphones in 2007. It was the first company in the world to publish the Bible on cellphones and it has sold more than 30 000 downloads.

“The response was awesome,” says chief executive Pieter Traut. “People love to show off the Bible on their mobile phone.” Cell Book (www.cellbook.co.za) plans versions of the Bible in South Africa’s other official languages, too. So far the company has focused on Christian content, but the less spiritually minded will be thrilled to know that a searchable, condensed version of Platter’s Wine Guide will soon be available on the same platform. Just think how useful that will be when shopping or ordering wine in a restaurant. It’s no wonder South Africa’s publishers are waking up to the potential of the medium.

Internationally, some big non-fiction publishers are merging various publishing modes with an impressive degree of sophistication. Mega-publisher Hachette’s Routard printed travel guides include bar codes in the text. Simply read the bar codes with your cellphone to download additional information, such as interactive maps, audio tours or videos on to your handset. Hachette now refers to those old-fashioned paper bricks as “book portals”.

Literature lovers probably read that last sentence with a shudder. But, as much as the thought of The Gr8 GatsB or W8ing 4 GodO might fill you with horror, there is a space for fiction on cellphones too. In Japan keitai shosetsu (mobile phone novels) are a growing phenomenon. Young women write these stories—a cheesily dramatic mixture of violence and romance told mainly in dialogue—for free, in the hope of becoming famous writers. And it works. In 2007 half of the best-selling printed novels in Japan started as cellphone novels. Koizora (Sky of Love) sold 1,2-million copies in paperback and was made into a movie.

It is not only the forward-thinking Japanese who are embracing the medium. American romance publisher Harlequin is giving it a pretty good squeeze too. It delivers bodice rippers in daily 500-word chunks to faithful readers. It is not rocket science, it is just another way of delivering romance junkies their regular fix.

As Brent Lewis, Harlequin’s director of internet and digital, says: “Don’t fall in love with the technology, fall in love with the outcomes.”

Imagine hearing that familiar “beep beep” and opening a message that plunges you into a story. The SMS format encourages taught, action-packed writing and the platform delivers it right to your hand—the whole experience is exciting.

At the Cape Town Book Fair South Africans will finally get to read fiction on their cellphones. Look out for information on the Novel Idea (powered by Mobfest; www.mobfest.co.za) fiction competition at the book fair. SMS the number to receive free stories on your phone and to vote for your favourite author. The outcome? Pure enjoyment.

Michelle Matthews is a freelance publishing consultant and commissioning editor for Novel Idea, powered by Mobfest

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