Book Festival: The New Reality - A World Without Books

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Angus Konstam (chair), Kate Pool, Michael Schmidt, Nicola Morgan
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Panic among the publishers? Whinging writers? Wither the book as we know it? Yes, it’s the first of this year’s crop of debates on the future of publishing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

It’s all too easy to be flippant about an event with the title "The New Reality – a world Without Books", but as Kindle and its kind appear poised to alter reality for those of us used to what a book-selling colleague refers to as "fat oblong bastards", the future does appear, as they say in economic forecasts, challenging.

Angus Konstam, Chair of the Scottish section of the Society of Authors, was almost equally challenged by the diverse opinions of his panel – Kate Pool, Deputy General Secretary of the Society of Authors, publisher and poetry professor Michael Schmidt and Nicola Morgan, author and blogger.

All, as one might expect, had opinions on the advent of the e-book and the frequently announced "death of the book". Although the panellists’ contributions diverged, there was also an underlying degree of consensus in some areas. Schmidt was bullish on the potentials and possibilities e-books may come to offer, especially in the field of academic publishing. An alarming £100 million per annum is spent by UK universities alone on purchasing academic journals in hard copy. Pool acknowledged that the publication of these, at least, could be more effectively done electronically.

There is a largely unacknowledged difference between the publication of (in particular) "literary" novels and academic and other knowledge publication. As an e-reader was passed among the foregathered, discussion turned to the phenomenon who is Andrew Wylie. Wylie, a British agent, has brokered a sweet deal (for his authors) via Amazon and its espousal of the Kindle e-reader. Authors with Wylie can have their back-lists converted to e-books courtesy of Amazon/Kindle and enjoy (very) modest royalties on the results.

As one U.S. publisher once observed, two major problems for any publisher are inventory – the back stock carried, and rent – essentially everything else that has to be paid for up front. E-books do appear to address much of the first and some of the second. However, with change there is also loss. Proof-reading and editing already appear to suffer, while e-books eliminate the need for cover design and colophon (publishing history and thus the book’s origins becomes irrelevant).

Mention of loss brings to mind the greatest danger of all; this week has marked the loss of Professor Frank Kermode, Edwin Morgan and Jimmy Reid. Their erudition was the result of what Kermode called "splattering" – the results of wide reading made available to all through their various writings. The narrowing of experience we seem to be witnessing bodes ill not only for the book, but for the enquiring non-specialists who sustained it.