The Rise of E-Books (EIBF Review)

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Peter Burns, Maggie McKernan, Nicola Solomon, Angus Konstam (chair)
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The e-book, along with content-containing apps and an increasing range of electronic and digital methods of media delivery is changing the publishing industry and threatening the future of books as we know them. Or perhaps not as much as we imagine. Discuss.

Nicola Solomon of the Society of Authors, Peter Burns the e-content manager for publishers Birlinn and literary agent Maggie McKernan did just that at this event, chaired by Angus Konstam, chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland. A quick straw poll found between a third and half of the audience owned Kindles or other e-reading devices, although enthusiasm for e-books over ‘real’ books was less so.

The views of the three main contributors proved equally ambivalent. Unsurprising, perhaps, when the book trade is experiencing rapid and unpredictable change. All were anxious for the future of the ‘mid list’ author – those whose sales may be steady but are unremarkable, and who have previously provided publishers with a stable income base from which to gamble on other authors.

As a result, the future of literary agency and publishing itself is open to question, certainly as these roles have been practised and understood up to now. The rapid rise of self-publishing caused all three some concern, as some 30,000 self-published titles are now coming on to the market every month. Barely touched on was the issue of maintain quality of production in such a highly commodified market. Design, typography, book jacket and illustrative art work become the casualties new technology creates and readers are impoverished when these skills are disregarded.

The dominance of digitising was a further concern, and the ambitions of Google and Amazon to carve out ‘market share’ by making even the deservedly out of print available raises ethical as well as commercial considerations. What is the actual value of tens of thousands of works being electronically available if they are racist, sexist, outdated, and third rate?

This raised the question of out of print titles and ‘orphan’ work (within the copyright time restrictions but without a traceable author or publisher). The potential for electronic and digital media to empower the author seemed clear, but also the potential for authors to become enslaved to highly capitalised organisations such as Amazon controlling remuneration, presentation and content.

A brief remark toward the close of this stimulating and informative debate left this reviewer wondering how many e-reading individuals had fully grasped that e-books, unlike the ‘real thing’ attract 20% VAT? A further point to ponder as we headed out into another kind of inclement environment.