:: Article

Japanamerica: Cell Phone Stories – Suicide, or Survival?

By Roland Kelts.

Early last month, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a lengthy profile of record producer Rick Rubin. Rubin has been producing top-shelf pop stars since the early 1980s, when he was credited with discovering the Beastie Boys, the white-boy rappers from Brooklyn. He has worked with Johnny Cash, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Diamond, among others.

But the reason for the NYT story was considerably darker: the record industry is, to quote the profile, in “free fall.” Rubin has been given carte blanche by the normally staid suits at Columbia Records to do whatever he can and whatever he wants to save a dying business model.

Rubin won’t keep an office or hew to a corporate dress code. Fine with Columbia. They’re desperate.

The problem is probably worse for the U.S. publishing industry, but I haven’t yet seen that cast of conglomerates invite a maverick into its corridors for an anything-goes overhaul.

What I have seen, however, and only very recently, is a blossoming of coverage in Western media of Japan’s cell phone novel phenomenon. Per usual, they’re a few years late, but at least they’ve arrived.

It’s been widely reported that as of August of this year, over three million ‘copies’ of cell phone novels had been sold in Japan. Some of them, when published and sold as text-based novels, sell in the hundreds of thousands; one title sold up to half a million books.

These are astounding figures for what we still call ‘the novel’, a narrative conveyed in prose, in whatever language, and generally without visual enticements. They are even more dramatic when text-based anythings—novels, newspapers, short stories—are spiraling into irrelevance.

Earlier this year, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, announced that the Times might not exist as a paper-based publication five years from now. He was focusing his resources on the Internet. And last month, the Times stopped its subscription services, offering all of its contents electronically for free.

Soon after, Rupert Murdoch, freshly minted owner of The Wall Street Journal, suggested that his most recent acquisition might do the same.

Yet this past summer, when I raised the topic of cell phone novel downloads as a promising new format for writers like me and publishers like mine in the U.S., a prominent and progressive editor from one of New York’s major international houses shook his head. “They’d just outsource the work [of producing the downloads] to someone in Chennai [India],” he said, referring to his superiors. “And it would just be a mess.”

I even proposed a publishing model akin to iTunes or Napster, in which readers who wanted to download a passage from a novel or other type of book might be able to do so for a small fee. As magazines and newspapers have cut back on book excerpts and book reviews, it’s almost impossible for the average interested reader to get a sample of what he might want to read—the equivalent of an album single played on the radio—before he makes the financial and temporal commitment.

Again the editor shook his head. “It would be outsourced to Chennai,” he said. “And then, who would oversee the quality or control the edits?”

When the concept of the electronic book (E-book) surfaces at the American Book Association conventions, or other major book fairs, Western publishers begin their moaning and dread. But in Japan, the success of downloadable cell phone novels is being celebrated by young editors, who are pursuing the format avidly.

“While an American publisher will find a particularly eloquent blogger and sign him or her to a book deal,” notes Bruce Rutledge, head and founder of U.S. indie publisher Chinmusic Press, “the Japanese publisher is more likely to embrace the new media as well as the new talent.”

Rutledge should know. His company’s latest release, the mesmerizing Goodbye Madame Butterfly, firsthand vignettes of the sexual longings and frustrations of Japan’s first generation of independent women, would be well-served by a medium that made its seductive contents available electronically.

Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, out in paperback this November.

Picture: Roland Kelts outside Cafe Manga on London’s South Bank, by Andrew Stevens.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007.