Last of the shelf-fillers: A publisher's employee arranges books on a display at the Frankfurt Book Fair
E-books: the end of the word as we know it
It's the busiest week in the publishing calendar – with a host of events from the Frankfurt Book Fair to the Man Booker Prize. But this year, there's only one topic of conversation at the awards ceremonies and public receptions...
By John Walsh
Today, in the endless, cavernous halls of the Frankfurt Book Fair, British publishers and agents are dealing in next year's books. They're buying and selling the rights to Kiran Desai's follow-up to her Booker Prize-winning The Inheritance of Loss. Martin Amis's new novel State of England: Lionel Asbo, Lotto Lout, despite its heinously awful title, is much discussed. The air is thick with hype, spin, competition.
Meanwhile, in Stockholm later this afternoon, will come the announcement of who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature – always an important moment in the books year, and a guarantee of sales, no matter how obscure the recipient.
And next Tuesday is Man Booker Prize Night. At 9.45pm, at a candlelit dinner in London's Guildhall, Sir Andrew Motion, chairman of the judges, will announce whether Peter Carey has won the prize for the third time. The winning book will be reverentially brandished. Publishers and agents will congratulate or console one another, while the nation's top booksellers will beam at the prospect of massive sales in coming weeks, as the trade gears up for Christmas.
Books – their writing, publishing, sale and celebration – make up a rich weave in the nation's cultural quilt. But who, looking at the faces in Frankfurt or Stockholm or at the Guildhall could tell that the industry that produces them is in disarray? Is this the last time that all these people (and these large, solid books) will exist in the same professional relation to each other? Will these authors, agents, publishers and booksellers be speaking to each other next year, after the current toxic dust has settled? Will they all, by then, be doing each other's jobs? Or just doing each other out of a job?
British publishing is in a parlous state. Year-on-year sales of books are down. Guaranteed-bestseller celebrity memoirs are no longer bestselling. Discounts to booksellers are unhealthily bulky, margins are narrowing, profits are down, cash advances are a fraction of their former munificence and acquisitions of exciting new books have dropped to a rumoured one per day. But worse is the turmoil into which these sensitive men and women have been thrown by the advent of the electronic book (or e-book).
"Technology has made virtually anything possible," says Neill Denny, editor-in-chief of the publishing industry magazine The Bookseller. "If you look at it conceptually – there's a five-link chain between the person who writes and the person who reads. You've got Author-Agent- Publisher-Retailer-Reader. Theoretically, the three middle bits could all now vanish and the author could write online directly to the reader."
However, he continues, "A more likely possibility is that just one of the three central links will vanish on-line. It could be that Amazon, the retailer, becomes the publisher. Or that the agent becomes the publisher, or the publisher becomes the retailer, and you go to a publisher's site to buy the book. One of those links will certainly disappear on-line. We just don't know which."