There is very little wrong with the Edinburgh Book Festival; the rain and the white wine to be precise. The cramped seating doesn’t worry me as long as I have an aisle seat but why, oh why do I always end up sitting in front of the plankton whose mother was drunk the day she was supposed to tell them to “COVER YOUR MOUTH WHEN YOU COUGH!” When you feel your hair parting with the force of someone’s germ ridden breath you ought to be able to respond with extreme violence.
I attended two events last night and was coughed on in both.
The first: The Rise of the eBook, featured a panel discussion with Maggie McKernan, literary agent, Nicola Solomon, copyright lawyer and General Secretary of the Society of Lawyers and Peter Burns, manager of eBooks at the lovely Birlinn publishers.
The first question was the most crucial and the most direct: are eBooks heralding the demise of the book? The consensus seems to be no. Business models are changing and while there is fear and terror of the unknown, the huge strides in technology means there are new and different ways of using the content. We should Peter Burns believes, be excited.
Angus Konstam of the Society of Authors as chair, asked the full house to raise their hands if they owned a Kindle or other reader. About a third of us raised our hands. “And now keep your hand up if you prefer your eBook to your traditional book.” Most of us put our hands down.
There are certain reasons for preferring the eBook to the book. Although my pocket Sony Reader has an annoyingly small screen, I no longer have to pay horrendous charges for holiday luggage, weighed down by 8-12 books. One chap explained how his Kindle has enabled him to read in bed now he no longer has to hold a heavy tome and turn pages. Another reason – one I hadn’t thought of – is the joy of anonymous reading. When you read a book in public everyone can judge you by your cover. With an eBook, nobody knows. Apparently porn is the biggest selling genre in eBooks and Mills and Boon have discovered a hitherto untapped niche market in adolescent boys looking for thrills and tips. We all agreed books would have to remain in existence if only so we could read in the bath.
Nicola Solomon pointed out the importance of value attached to the eBook. Self-publishing, often producing a raw, unedited product sold at 99p, will eventually affect the quality of content and writing. Interestingly, the tangibility of a book came up, not just as an object that can be gifted, but as part of our cultural heritage.
I had thought the eBook might slowly kill off the hardback, but it seems I have this back to front. The victim in all probability will be the paperback while hardbacks, limited editions, coffee table books will become specialty books. The rise of the graphic novel perhaps?
The ability for writers to self-publish raised a number of interesting points, not least the continuing roles of the agent and publisher. Maggie stole my heart when she asked who cares if the agent and the publisher goes out of business; as long as we still have a writer and reader. Peter Burns made a brief yet measured case for the continuing presence of the publisher, outlining the main advantages of editing, niche marketing and turning a manuscript into a polished marketable product – in both e and traditional formats.
While the panel agreed the changes will probably best benefit the author, it seems there will be a greater divide between the powerful bestselling author and mid-list writers. Nobody mentioned new writers which was a little unsettling. Presumably these latter two groups will still need the protection of an agent.
At my second event, I savoured the melodic tones of David Miller in conversation with Sarah Crown of the Guardian, and reading from his debut novel, Today. I first met David nearly two years ago on my first day of the Edinburgh Napier University MA Creative Writing course and he returned this year with Kate Summerscale to talk to our non-fiction class. I find reading in public a fascinating field, not just because so many writers seem utterly deluded in their ability to read in public. I know I can’t, but David Miller definitely can.
Sarah Crown asked him about the transition from agent to writer, but he was quick to say there was no transition: he was an agent who happened to write a novel. Echoing Peter Burns earlier, David – as a writer – had learned more about the role of publishers than he had as an agent. Publishers, he said, are very bad at telling us what they do and he sees the role of publishing just as valid with the rise of the eBook.
I was interested in Peter Burns distinction between a non-fiction and fiction author. Apparently while the first may spend years researching, it is only the latter who has poured their soul into their work. Hmmm.