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.

8 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.

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