Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Medium Is... The Massage?

When I first started to post my fiction on a webpage, I had a vague idea that maybe the text could become available also for mobile phones...

Around 2000 I made an early experimental "sampling" of my fiction for mobile phones - with black-and-white screens, before the Internet became available on those devices. It looked awful, so I decided to set mobile phones aside until the technology and software had improved...

...and boy, has it improved.

Today a friend showed me what my homepage looks like on a state-of-the-art Qtek 8310 smartphone, using the Web browser Opera Mini.
He could set the size of the text to whatever suited him.
Wide images were automatically resized to fit the screen.
The screen resolution was crisp and clear.
It amazed me how good the webpage looked on that small 240x320 display.

I looked at the screen and thought: Soon, this will be the standard for all mobile phones. People will be using them instead of PCs to read books.

When I ask people what they think about reading fiction from a screen - any screen - I still encounter a widespread skepticism against it.
Maybe people take a pragmatic "I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it" attitude. Or maybe they have been burned by bad experiences with flickering cathode-ray screens... I don't know and I don't care. I have seen the future.

So: what does the mobile-phone-as-book-reading-device imply for writers?

For starters, any specific medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. (Printed books have many weaknesses, but they've been around for so many hundreds of years that we've become accustomed to the weaknesses.)

The obvious strengths of writing fiction for a mobile phone, of the top off my head, would be:

1. Eliminate the middlemen (editor, bookstore, publisher, printer, distributor, access to PC) - the writer reaches the reader directly and (almost) instantly, even where bookstores are scant or non-available.

2. Instant editing - if you find an error in your text after it's been posted, or think you it needs some on-the-spot editing, you do it right away... and the update reaches the reader immediately.

3. The mobile format is well suited for short fiction - the mobile reader will hardly be able to read through WAR AND PEACE without being interrupted by phonecalls, text-messages and conversations... But if the story is short enough, time won't be an issue.

4. The mobile format is well suited for serials - in the 19th and early 20th century, it was typical of novels to be published as serials (in magazines and newspapers) before they were released as complete print books.
The serial, with its cliffhangers and "To Be Continued"s, could get a renaissance on mobile devices. (Thanks to L. Lee Lowe for the correction.)

Of course, the medium has its weaknesses, but they are not a big problem unless you think of it as just another form of paper books. It is not. When television was new, it took the producers some time to figure out how TV was different from radio. Old TV shows often featured an announcer's voice-over, an old cliché from radio broadcasts.

I think that as people try to figure out how to present fiction on mobile devices, they will go through a phase of repeating clichés from an older medium... and only in retrospect will we see it clearly.
"How silly the first books for phones seem now, what with their digital dust jackets and imaginary page numbers!"

If you have a new phone with a large screen (and a good browser), check out this page...
If you have an older phone model with a small screen, there's a mobile version...
And if you have a phone with a black-and-white screen, buy a new phone.

ADDENDUM: For further study of the logistical and financial problems with distributing fiction magazines in print, read Vic Wertz' fascinating article "Why Amazing Stories and Undefeated died"...
...then tell me again how fantastically superior that system is to electronic distribution.


Lee said...

'Once upon a time, ALL novels were published as serials (in magazines and newspapers) before they were released as complete print books.'

I'm afraid this really isn't true. The novel has a long and rather complex history, reaching right back to medieval romances. Are you referring to 18th century chapbooks?

A.R.Yngve said...

I stand corrected. (See altered text, above.)