Millions of Teens Are Reading Pulp Fiction via Text Message

Screen capture. Hooked

Anything that gets kid reading is a good thing, right?

Teenagers are notoriously unwilling to put down their phones and pick up a book to read, much to the frustration of parents and educators, but one app developer has come up with a solution. Prerna Gupta is the founder of Hooked, a mobile app that sends short stories in text-message format to subscribers’ phones. The result has been an astonishing 1.8 million downloads of the app, since its launch in fall 2015, which means a lot of teens are reading, phones in hand.

Gupta did her research thoroughly before launching the app. Initially she published the first 1,000 words of the top 50 most popular young adult fiction on a mobile-optimized website, but discovered that the reading completion rate was only 35 percent. When she had a story rewritten in text-message form, its completion rate shot up to 85 percent. Gupta had found the magical formula, and since then, has published 9,000 stories, most of which fall into horror or fantasy genres.

There is a staff of 200 writers constantly pitching and creating content for Hooked. Stories are written in four or five segments, each about 1,000 words conveyed through texts. From Quartz:

“The kids can be absolutely brutal,” says Sean Dunne, one of about 200 writers who’s written for Hooked since it launched. His stories include “The Watcher,” whose first episode came out in early October and has 872,000 reads alone at time of writing. “For every story I publish there were 10 ideas shot down, that didn’t get approval.”

For anyone accustomed to reading full-length books and not communicating constantly over text message, the format can seem very strange indeed. The plot development is limited to exchanges going back and forth between characters, sort of like a play, except the characters can never be in same place, otherwise they wouldn’t be texting. It does not allow for character development, complex imagery, or descriptive language.

Wired loves the approach:

“As with radio serials, suspense and horror are common tropes on Hooked. And the form inflects the genre. The young authors intuit the creepiness that’s often inherent to today’s mobile lifestyle: a person who texts you while covertly observing you, your friend suddenly going silent during a heated SMS argument.”

While I think it’s important to get teens interested in reading, I worry that spoon-feeding them over-simplified, thrilling fiction is not a good long-term solution to the problem. Books are a bit like food; it’s entirely possible to overindulge in ‘junk’ literature that immediately gratifies, but has little lasting value — whether it’s a complex story to mull over afterwards or important emotional lessons to take away from it. After all, much of fiction’s worth lies in character development and the empathetic bond created with readers over the course of a novel. To take that out of the equation entirely seems tragic.

Philosophizing about the social effects of such an app, however, does not change the data, which is every app developer's primary focus. Gupta, clearly, is on to something pretty spectacular, when you consider that Hooked has recently become the top grossing book app for iOS in the United States and is now competing with Amazon’s Kindle and Audible apps to be the number one free book app in the U.S. Apple store, too. It's impressive.