Book to the Future

Book to the Future

Author Rodge Glass considers the demise of the paperback and the bright future of multi-platform publishing

It’s not quite meltdown yet. The good news is, some stories are projected to sell well in the coming year – the adventures of a young magician, the new Dan Brown, also some book called The Bible (sometimes bought in two parts, doubling sales potential). But a combination of the worldwide recession and the virtual implosion of the music industry has made the rest of the book industry nervous. Will literature be next? Will books die out?

While writers were distracted by the Kelman-inspired Quality vs Popularity debate, much of the talk among insiders at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival was about whether there would soon be any industry at all. There’s general agreement to learn from the mistakes of the music business, but how? Publishers are concerned that downloadable ebooks will increasingly be shared, like music files, and publishers will get bypassed. The next generation of readers will just download new books and enjoy them on their ereaders for nothing. There are some interesting pockets of evidence, though, which suggest possible ways forward. Not everyone is hoping technology will just quietly go away. And one Scottish publisher is faster than most when it comes to preparing for the future.

Edinburgh’s Canongate has grown hugely since its breakthrough 2001 Booker success, The Life of Pi. Since then it has looked for radical ways to not only adapt to the changing literary landscape but also to form it. Last month Nick Cave’s fantastic new novel The Death of Bunny Munro was a Canongate world-first, a multi-platform release appearing as book, ebook, 7CD audio book replete with Cave-penned soundtrack, and also as an app for the iPhone. Not everyone can write their own soundtrack for their books, but Canongate also has plans to release David Simon’s books for The Wire as downloadable audio books too, as well as a little-known author from Hawaii, Barack Obama.

Canongate’s Digital Editor, Dan Franklin, is at the forefront of these innovations. He says: ‘As more readers are distracted by other mediums, we need to find ways to reach people through the internet.’ But will this mean the end of old-fashioned books on paper? Franklin doesn’t think so: ‘The relationship between ebooks and books is developing all the time, but they’re not in competition with each other. Ebooks just provide another medium for stories to be told.’

All of which bodes well for the future health of the industry. Meanwhile, there’s another interesting development taking place, at the other end of the technological scale. All this online spread has also led to a burgeoning of the live scene, with authors infiltrating music festivals like Latitude, inspired by the European tradition made famous by Denmark’s Roskilde, which has been including writers for years alongside comedy and music. This performance aspect, especially among young writers, is something particularly evident in Scotland, where the amount of Book Festivals, book launches and crossover nights has mushroomed in the last decade.

Canongate’s Head Editor, Francis Bickmore, who runs his own live night in Edinburgh, ‘Kin’, believes this is another important development. He says: ‘At a time when we’re increasingly beholden to our screens, there has been an explosion in people going out and enjoying the live experience. I think it’s a lovely counterpoint.’

So maybe publishers shouldn’t be jumping out of their office windows in despair just yet. Every crisis provides an opportunity. As the arts increasingly bleed into each other, and as technology makes it easier for people to choose how they want to experience literature, perhaps the publishing industry shouldn’t fear change, it should be brave and actually embrace it.

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