American teens are getting hooked on fiction by text message

Read anything good lately?
Read anything good lately?
Image: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
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Ella: RU there? I’m in trouble
Ella: Pls answer me.
Ella: Pls, pls, pls, pls, pls

Jacob: I’m here. Whats up? U OK?

Ella: No. I’m in serious trouble.

Jacob: Why? Where RU?

Ella: IDK. I think I’ve been kidnapped.

This dialog is popping up on half a million devices in the US, and it’s not spam. The texts are from Hooked, an addictive app that sends suspenseful stories to teenagers in the form of messages. Based on rigorous testing on how to “hook” readers, Hooked is a hit in the world of book apps, with 1.8 million downloads (not including uninstalls) since it launched a year ago.

Hooked is currently the top grossing book app for iOS in the US. Since September this year, it has vied with Amazon’s Kindle and Audible apps for the number 1 spot among free book apps in the US Apple store. Indeed, Amazon launched an app for kids with the exact same format earlier this month.

Hooked targets 13-24-year-olds and aims to “redefine fiction for the Snapchat generation.” It’s a freemium app: Users can read a certain number of texts before the app pauses itself for half an hour, or they can pay to keep reading.

The explicit aim of the app is to keep users reading (that is, clicking) with its very specific story format.

Founders Prerna Gupta and Parag Chordia are entrepreneurs, not writers, so their approach is data-driven: They took the first 1,000 words from 50 bestselling young adult novels and had 15,000 people test read them on a mobile optimized site. The stories that did the best had about 35% of readers reaching the end, which they thought was low.

Then Hooked tried out their first story in text conversation form. It had a completion rate of 85%.

Stories are made up of four or five episodes, which are each about 1,000 words across texts. Hooked tests story ideas on existing users, and their completion rates help determine if an outline should be accepted. Though the app accepts stories across genres, horror and thriller tend to do the best.

“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.”

The app isn’t making books per se, so it’s not really fair to compare it with apps for ebooks or audiobooks. The stories are addictive, but the format is a narrow form of storytelling that doesn’t allow for much character development, scene description, internal dialog, complex imagery, or style.

Dunne hopes to expand on the form by adding chunks of narrative, admitting it can be limited and gets formulaic. “If you’re writing the way a couple of teenagers speak with each other,” he says, “It kind of limits how prosaic you can get with your own writing.”