Steve Vosloo
Steve Vosloo

M-novels on the rise

M-novels, or mobile novels (stories on your cellphone) are on the rise in South Africa, as Michelle Matthews explained so well in “Cell-lit is all the rage”. In SA there is about 10% PC-based internet connectivity, while the number of people with access to cellphones ranges from 60% to 90% (depending on which community you look at). Of those phones, a high number are WAP-enabled and can access the internet.

Added to this is the fact that while our voice and SMS charges are ridiculously high, our mobile data rates are dirt cheap. So, there are a lot of people who have the technological and financial ability to access m-novels. Given the high price of books, the same cannot be said for the general affordability of the printed word.

I know of four types of mobile book initiatives in SA:

  1. Downloadable books: here you download a book once onto your cellphone and read it whenever you like and as many times as you like eg the Bible offered by Cellbook.
  2. Online via an internet-accessible application: here you access a book online only (you need to go online every time you want to read it). A great example is the Emily series of teen fantasy books by Karen Michelle Brooks, which are available on MXit, the popular mobile instant messaging service.
  3. Online on a WAP site: here again you access a book online only eg the stories written as part of the Novel Idea competition of 2008.
  4. Online on a mobisite: here again you access a book online only, but it is through your phone’s web browser. An example is the teen mystery novel Kontax.

I head up the m4Lit — mobiles for literacy — project, an initiative of the Shuttleworth Foundation. To try to understand the potential of cellphones to get teens reading and writing more, we commissioned Kontax. As far as I know it’s the first mobisite-based m-novel in SA (let me know if there are others, please). It is certainly the first in the world in English and Xhosa!

m4Lit is a pilot project — we want to know what works and what doesn’t, whether teens like to read stories on their phones, whether they like mobisites or not, and what features of mobisites are more useful and attractive than others.

We’ve also experimented with the story-telling process: readers are invited to comment on the daily chapters, to submit their ideas for a Kontax sequel and to cast votes on events in the story. So far the response has been positive: more than 35 000 visits to the mobisite (not bad for a project with no marketing budget). But there is also a high drop-off rate, many visitors only read the first chapter and don’t come back.

We’re trying to understand what turns some away and what makes others come back every day and comment like this teen did:

I must admit that i wake up extra early t0 read the chapters (blushing)i never use to go to the library but with kontax i feel like i have a library on my phone and its great , YAY !

To get behind the scenes on the project visit its blog. We’ll share the full project report in December, which will help us all understand the ins and outs of publishing on a mobisite as opposed to the other approaches described above.

What we can say for now is that’s cheap — R0.06 per chapter is all it costs our teen readers. The story itself is free; they pay 6c to their mobile operator for the data. At that price, we’re laying the foundations for a lot more reading in SA.