Thumb your way to a fortune on the phone

At last: something to do with your phone while commuting. The Asia-Pacific region is about to get its own world-class book prize—for a novel written on the keypad of a mobile phone. The Australia-Asia Literary Award, sponsored by Western Australia Premier Alan Carpenter is at US$100,000-plus one of the biggest literary awards in the world. It is open to cutting-edge novels designed to be read on mobile phones and computers, as well as traditional books. Funded by the Australian government, it is open to publishers worldwide, without the geographical restrictions of most other awards, although the book has to be set in Asia or Australia.

To some extent, the prize represents the revenge of Hong Kong crime writer Nury Vittachi, a syndicated columnist, who is to chair the panel of judges for the new prize. Vittachi started the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2006 but eventually was ousted from the organizing team after complaining that the judges for the awards had no Asian names.

Winners of the AALA prize are to receive a cash payment of A$110,000 (US$103,000), making the prize far larger than the US$10,000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and putting it in the same league as the UK’s Man Booker Prize, which also stands at about US$100,000, depending on exchange rates.

Initial details of the award were revealed in Perth, Australia, by Vittachi and Carpenter. The prize has been financed by the government of Western Australia in an attempt to make the area under its jurisdiction a regional hub for the arts.

Entries for the new award are invited immediately, with the winner of the inaugural prize to be announced in the fall of this year. Entry forms are available on the Internet, at www.dca.wa.gov.au. The closing date for books for this year is May 31.

While most of the western world is still writing on – and reading on – the printed page, Japan in particular has sprinted ahead with mobile phone novels, most of romances written by high school girls. They have become phenomenally popular. One Japanese woman who goes under the pseudonym Chaco has written five novels on her mobile phone including one, What the Angel Gave Me, that has sold more than 1 million copies. The novels typically cost about US$10 to download and usually range from 200 to 500 pages, with about 500 characters per page.

Nor is the Australian prize the first of its kind. An Osaka woman writing under the name “Towa,” writing of pure love between a schoolgirl prostitute and a host club gigolo – what else? won the first grand price and 1 million yen the first Japan Mobile Phone Novel Awards in 2006.

NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese telephone company, and two other companies sponsored the prize, according to Wired Magazine, drawing 2,400 entries – most of them by women in their teens and early 20s writing of romance, although some sci-fi and murder mysteries also popped up.

Readers in China also have an appetite for screen-published works.

While the new award is open to books published in new media formats, it excludes self-published works, thus avoiding vanity publishing projects.

Book industry executives in Asia and Australia say they regard the new prize as a potential Asia-Pacific Booker and are enthusiastic about the message it presents to the world. Writing from Asians and Australians has made major inroads into world culture in recent years, with authors such as Thomas Keneally and Kiran Desai winning major awards.

While the Man Booker Prize is arguably the world’s best known literary prize, it is limited to authors from the British Commonwealth and Ireland. A related prize, the Man Booker International Award, does not have geographical limitations, but is presented for a body of work, not for a specific book. The same is true for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is for a single book, but is open to US authors only. In cash terms, the richest award is the IMPAC, a €100,000 award presented in Dublin for books nominated by libraries around the world.

The Kiriyama Prize is sometimes described as an Asian book award, but is actually a US prize, limited to Asia-themed books from North American publishing houses. Purely Asian book prizes do exist, but are generally limited in scope, language range, cash size and publicity level.