Stories put to the text

<p>South Africa faces the challenge of boosting a book--reading culture, but because new books are expensive, access to libraries in rural areas is limited and internet penetration is low, the task at times seems overwhelming. However, 80% of South Africans own a mobile phone, and an innovative concept launched in July looks set to bring short fiction to the masses via their handsets.</p>
<p>Novel Idea is an initiative of a company called MOBfest, which commissions short fiction written for a mobile phone platform. The stories consist of 28 episodes of a maximum of 900 characters, which are delivered to a mobile phone for 28 days. To receive the stories, the user simply sends a text message to the provider and registers on the WAP site via their phone.</p>
<p>The writers who have been commissioned have already been published in print. For the recently-completed first round of stories, the writers included Lauren Beukes, Sam Wilson, Sarah Lotz and this year's Caine Prize for African Writing winner, Henrietta Rose-Innes.</p>
<p>Readers are encouraged to vote for their favourite story and Wilson was the winning &quot;mobilist&quot; of the first round, netting a R8,000 prize sponsored by mobile service provider Vodacom. The second round will be launched by the end of the year.</p>
<p>As with any new concept, it hasn't been without teething problems. Commissioning editor Michelle Matthews, formerly of Oshun Books, admits there were a few technical hiccups. But, she says, it was mainly about educating people about the capabilities of their mobile phones. The phone has to be WAP-enabled and some people who had this capability were not aware that they could access the internet via their phone. &quot;I sat with people who had no idea their phones were WAP-enabled and helped them to register, and they were thrilled,&quot; Matthews says.</p>
<p>She agrees that the concept could help to boost book reading in South Africa. &quot;However,&quot; says Matthews, &quot;I think that for now, fiction on mobile phones is a different experience to your traditional 300-page novel. Writers tend to write differently for the platform and readers don't want to read long texts on a small screen&mdash;at least not yet. I think it appeals to an overlapping market. It is always possible that someone will seek out a book by an author they've read and enjoyed on their mobile phone, so Novel Idea is a good marketing tool for established authors.&quot;</p>
<p>It can also be a good way to spot new talent. According to MOBfest's website, in Japan last year, five out of the top ten selling hardcopy novels were originally written for mobile phones.</p>
<p>Some might consider Novel Idea a gimmick, but it has potential&mdash;particularly in South Africa&mdash;to develop new readers, and this is not something to be dismissed.</p>