Why the Cell Phone May Save the Novel

I like to watch people’s reading habits when I’m at airports and on airplanes. During several recent flights, which included some lengthy layovers and delays, I noticed that not very many people were reading novels, at least not ones in the form of books made of paper. I didn’t see all that many people reading on tablets, e-readers, or laptop computers either. What I saw, more than anything else, were people reading on cell phones.

The people reading their cell phones were not necessarily reading novels, of course. I personally would not want to read a novel on a cell phone, nor would I want to watch a movie on one. The screen is too small and uncomfortable. But not everyone sees it that way. Readership studies show that many people do like to read books on cell phones, and the numbers are increasing.

How Americans Read

According to a Pew Research study of Americans’ reading habits, last year 32 percent of e-book readers 18 and older read books on their cell phones. That is a higher percentage than people who read e-books on a computer (29 percent). The highest percentage of readers still read e-books on e-readers (57 percent) and tablets (55 percent), and many people use multiple platforms.

As a novelist and professor of literature, I am very interested in the future of the novel and have written elsewhere (including in this article in APU Life magazine) about my concerns that its popularity may wane in this era in which readers are used to being entertained by shorter chunks of information such as Tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, and YouTube videos. Will readers who have grown used to skipping from post to post still have the desire, focus and stamina to work their way through a 350-page novel that contains nothing but words? Have we grown too distracted?

I still worry about that, but this trend of reading books on cell phones, more than any other trend, gives me hope for the novel. Why does the cell phone make so much difference? One reason is that, unlike the e-reader or even the tablet, most people almost always have their phone with them. If they get caught up in a novel, they might find themselves dipping into it at times when they otherwise would not be reading anything—in a doctor’s waiting room, in a line at the store, in an airport terminal. Potential readers who might never think to bother with a novel in other circumstances—such as going to a bookstore to buy one or messing with an e-reader—might be more likely to read one if they could easily access it from their phone.

How the Cell Phone Increases Reading Around the World

Another reason I think the cell phone-reading trend is good news for the novel is that this practice is even more prevalent in other countries, especially developing countries in places such as Africa, than in the United States. A study by the United Nations organization, UNESCO, showed that 62 percent of people in developing countries now read more because they are able to do so on cell phones. In many countries covered in the study, such as Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Nigeria and others, physical books are prohibitively expensive, while open-access books cost as little as 2 or 3 cents each.

The UNESCO study showed that about a third of readers in these countries use their phones for reading books, and about 80 percent of the population has access to cell phones. What kinds of books are they reading? The study showed that the most popular genre was romance novels.

In addition to the countries covered by the UNESCO study, other nations also have a large number of people reading books on cell phones. One report indicates that more than 25 million people in China read books only on their cell phones.

I believe this trend in reading habits worldwide will not only help the popularity of the novel, but will also lead to changes in the novel itself. The novel of the future may look significantly different from novels written in earlier eras. I plan to comment on that issue in a future blog post.

16 thoughts on “Why the Cell Phone May Save the Novel

  1. Hi, Joseph! Great article. You are probably right. I’m still a fan of paper books, but I have read a few on my computer. I’m anxious for you to share how you think novels will change. Keep us posted.

  2. Before I got my Ipad, I read a lot of books on my I-touch (the equivalent screen to an Iphone), particularly in Europe. It made it easier to carry and for a person with hand problems, enabled me to page through the “pages” very quickly. I prefer to read on my Ipad now, using the Kindle app, rather than the Kindle itself.

    I’m not surprised at all.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Michelle. I love that we now have so many options for reading devices. What encouraged me most about what I learned is that in some poorer countries, where there are few options for people in terms of either paper books or tablets, etc., they still often have cell phones, and that allows for them to buy and read inexpensive books.

  4. What an interesting and insightful post, Dr. Bentz! It’s funny–I still much prefer physical, paper books, and I’ve yet to finish an e-book on my “Kindle for Mac” app, though I’ve started several, but I’ve read two whole books on my cell phone! One was a manuscript I was reading over for a friend, the other an e-copy of a new release I was an influencer for, but I could have read either on my computer. I preferred using my phone because I could take it with me outside or to the doctor’s office or wherever, like you said–just like I could a paper book. ‘Tis an interesting age we live in. And that’s really interesting about the impact on other parts of the world too. Blessings!

  5. Yes, Kiersti, I am beginning to realize that readers can adjust to many different forms of a book–on a phone, on paper, on a computer, etc. When a new technology comes along, at first it may seem as if you could never get used to it, but after awhile it feels more natural. I used to print out many documents rather than reading them on a computer screen, for example, but I rarely do that anymore. I still haven’t read a book on a cell phone, though!

  6. Hi Dr. Bentz, how might this medium shift affect the way novels are written and what might the impact be on novelists such as yourself? Do you think readers will be more or less distracted from their books when on their cell phone? Great article, I really enjoyed it and look forward to hearing more!

    • I think the news for novelists is mixed. On one hand, cell phone reading is opening up the novel to millions of potential readers who might otherwise not have access to them. It also allows for reading novels in places and situations where otherwise no reading would take place–waiting in lines, having a few minutes to read between classes or appointments, etc. So that’s good. On the other hand, the cell phone doesn’t lend itself to the deep concentration that is ideal for reading a novel. To get the most out of a novel, you really want to “get lost” in it, and how often will that happen if you’re reading it in snippets here and there on a phone? Also, the economics of this trend has implications for novelists and traditional publishers. Readers don’t want to pay much for novels anymore. They want to spend $2.99 or so for an ebook, and that makes it harder for traditional publishers to survive. More novelists are publishing their own works, so the market is flooded with books, and it’s harder for readers to find quality novels. Thanks for your comment and questions. I do plan to blog about some other aspects of this soon.

  7. Hi Dr. Bentz,
    As a college student without a substantial amount of room for a personal library in my squished apartment, I find it very convenient to have books on my cell phone. I am able to read between classes, in airports waiting for my flight home, and in many other situations. I always have my cell phone on me as you mentioned, so while I would rather have a paper copy of novels, I am able to keep up on my pleasure reading with my cell phone.
    That being said, there are issues with reading novels on cell phones. One issue I find is that notifications such as text messages, social media alerts, and other alarms are problematic while trying to focus on delving into a book. In addition to this, bright screens, small font, and constant scrolling make reading on my cell phone more irritating than with a physical paper copy.
    Despite all the issues with cell phone reading, I think that I agree with you that the benefits of access to cell phone readings outweigh the shortcomings. Particular to the teenage and young adult groups, any amount of extra long-term reading is important, and a trend that is fading without the help of some technology.
    The value of reading for pleasure rather than school work is tremendous. With the few spare moments we have as college students, we tend to want to do anything but pick up yet another book. The easier we make it for people with fast-paced lifestyles to read, the more likely it is that the novel will live on as a popular pastime.

  8. I agree that technology has increased one’s ability to access literature instantaneously. After all, with the Kindle app, readers have the ability to download most of the classics for free! When I was traveling through Europe, I took advantage of different e-books, but I cannot fully buy into it. There is just something so fulfilling, so wholesome, about sticking your face deep into the pages of a novel. I also love being able to see what other people are reading, so the e-book has limited my ability to be nosey by a SIGNIFICANT amount. Bah humbug.

  9. Dr. Bentz, very interesting article! I agree with your thoughts, I also think people use their phones to read because the number one thing people always have with them is most likely a cell phone. It is easy access and a big plus is that the book is instantly there when buying it on electronic devices, no waiting! This society is very fast paced and people like things to happen quickly! I think it is also a good thing if it is getting more people to read and making it an easier resource for people who may not have the same resources we do!

  10. I personally am a part of the younger generation of society and by nature I prefer doing everything on my phone, whether it is homework, having a conversation, or playing a game. I have noticed that it is a lot more enjoyable to read on my phone, even though it is small and not as easy to use as a book or magazine. I find myself reading through long articles on apps on my phone and actually enjoying it way more than I would if I had been reading a paper book. I definitely agree and think that for younger generations the cell phone could actually save the novel.

  11. Dr. Bentz,
    Such interesting observations! I especially loved the comparison between paper books and open-access reading – the section in which you dicusses how in many of the countries studied, actual books were “prohibitively expensive” while the electronic versions “cost as little as 2 or 3 cents” for each book. It really forces you to think about the level of accessibility first-world America has to paper books. On a personal note, I enjoy reading actual physical books, and find it hard to keep interested in electronic readings. However, the evidence you brought up will make me think twice before I condemn e-books again. Thanks for the great article!

  12. Dr. Bentz,

    I really enjoyed this blog post! I think that as up and coming student in the modern century, this trend of cellphone reading is absolutely true. I honestly spend so much of my time reading of my Kindle Fire or my IPhone. In fact, I read a 250 page book on my Kindle in the past two days. I think that this idea that the cellphone may save the novel is true due to its convenience and usability. Like you said, a majority of the population has access to a smartphone, which then provides them with the ability to read on a device. A lot of people shy away from libraries because they don’t want to travel down to a building to pick up a book only to return it weeks later. With the phone, you can have it at the palm of your hands in an instant! Kindle and Ibooks also do a great job of releasing free books and discounted content for readers. I read all of my screenplays on my tablet and phone. I think it’s a great thing, as much as I like reading from a physical book.

  13. In terms of the novel, I don’t know if it will ever truly wane as a form of storytelling. One could argue that theater is as ancient as the novel (if not much older), but that doesn’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon.

    I do think it is relevant to say that novels will be easier to read in short lapses. I’ve noticed in many newer novels that I read that the sections are shorter, as if to indicate “stop here” for the busy college student or attention deficit high schooler.

    I think a potential trend could be novels being serialized again. Serialized novels would answer the public’s problem with attention span, as well as updating itself like TV shows do now a days.

    However, I highly doubt that the novel is going to be dying out. Though it has serious competition, I know many friends who still read very avidly.

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