Teenage Thumb Tribes: Why Cell Phone Novels are Part of Publishing’s Future

In What's the Buzz by Edward Nawotka

This article appeared in our print edition for BookExpo America 2010. You can read the original here.


By Jacob Lewis

When I was seventeen, after reading Portnoy’s Complaint, I send an adoring note to Philip Roth. It was a revelatory book for me, and I wanted to tell him how drawn I was to it. He never responded.

I met Philip Roth a while back, when I was the managing editor at The New Yorker, but I didn’t have the guts to say anything, even though the fact had been nagging me for a very long time. By then—I worked at The New Yorker for twelve years and at Conde Nast Portfolio for another two—I fully understood the distance we maintained remained between writers and editors and our consumers. You could see it in the formatted rejection letters and the dismissiveness with which we sent callers to the ‘readers services line.’

I now run a mobile publishing company for reading and writing young-adult fiction called Figment, which will launch this summer. Figment is a user-generated community for teens. It’s a creative space for where they read great content, write unfiltered stories, and share them on the web and mobile phones. We aim to connect an active amateur community with the professional one, and insure everyone gets a response.

The idea for Figment comes from a New Yorker article, written by my former colleague and now partner in the business, Dana Goodyear. She wrote about a phenomenon that exemplified techno-phile Japan: adolescent girls were writing, sharing, and reading novels on their cell phones.

In Japan, the Internet and its communities have long existed on mobile phones. An entire generation has grown up using cell phones to communicate, shop, watch television and movies, read books, and create content in ways that Americans have only begun to explore. Japanese teens type so much on their phones that they are called oyayubizoku, “the thumb tribe.”

In America, 75% of teens have a cell phone, an equal number use social networking sites and, most impressively, more than a third of them send over 3,000 texts per month. 100 times a day. 10 times an hour. This is our thumb tribe.

One aspect of the Japanese model that is particularly compelling is the intimate relationship created between writer and reader. Delivered to a cell phone, a story may be psychologically on par with a private email or text message. There is an immediacy implicit in the distribution mechanism alone. Fans of cell-phone fiction rightly see themselves as the peers of the writers they admire, and they follow that author and their work as if they were friends. The storyline is beside the point.  It’s the community, the technology, and the belief that something powerful will emerge.

The Internet is as much about community as it is about distribution and commerce. Japanese publishers understand the power of online and mobile communities and have sold millions of copies of books that are free online. American publishers and authors are just beginning to understand the power of their participation in social media, though their efforts have been tepid. Setting up a fan page and a web site and waiting for people to join doesn’t mean you’re participating. Think of the associative quality of some brands: Coke has over 5.5 million fans on Facebook; Random House has just over 3,000.

Put that in the context of the collective power of teens, who have long been underserved by the traditional review apparatus, and the success of young-adult fiction, which is huge. Teens, through whatever means were available, created a viral network to share what they like long before we all discovered the distributive power of Facebook and Twitter. Teens rely on each other. They want to share what they’re reading, and they want to tell the author what they think about what they’re reading. They expect and they demand a response.

As a reading and writing community, Figment will offer a place for teens to engage with peers, with authors, and with content. They can read a serialized novel by a friend down the block or a short story by their favorite author anytime, anywhere on their computer or their mobile phone. They can write a haiku or a 90,000 word novel while riding the bus to school. They can pick and chose, share and exclaim, write and review. I’m sure that the young people who use Figment will think of ways of telling stories that nobody has ever considered before. The fictive possibilities of the Internet are limitless.

At Figment, our stories will begin with our users. Our users bring stories to us. And publishers will want to bring stories to them. The world of literature becomes a community, enabled by technology and emboldened by participation of every member.

The Internet has been wondrously destructive to the traditional media’s business models. But we in traditional media never really tried to get along with the Internet. We produced content much as we always had. We were imperious to our audience and dismissive of the shifting boundaries. We didn’t realize that in the future, everyone’s letters will be answered.

Jacob Lewis is the co-founder of Figment.com.

Figment will be available to select audiences through a limited beta release this summer. To receive an invitation to participate in Figment this summer, sign up at figment.com.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.