Monday, May 07, 2012

Tim Cornwell: The future for books makes gloomy reading

The Scotsman- Monday 7 May 2012 

IN EVELYN Waugh’s classic satirical novel Decline and Fall, the headmaster of a fictional Welsh boys’ boarding school, Llanaba Castle, makes sure to invite the local newspaper to a school sports day where things are certain to go calamitously wrong.

“That means whisky,” he says. “I remember at one of our sports I omitted to offer whisky to the press.” The result was the publication of a “most unfortunate photograph” taken during the obstacle race.
The whisky was not free at the first Colonsay Book Festival, on the Inner Hebridean island last month, and neither was anything else. Not the excellent bed and breakfast, or the mouth-watering island oysters (£10 for more than 12 of the shuck-em-yourself variety, one of which I managed to run over with my car, but that’s another story).
Memo to anyone launching a book or indeed any other kind of festival: at the risk of stating the obvious, to get really positive reviews you must ensure visiting press are well whiskied and watered, at anyone’s expense but their own.

To matters more serious. In a closing session with the writers on Colonsay – who ranged from Alexander McCall Smith (left) to the historical novelist and former head of creative writing at the University of Strathclyde, Margaret Elphinstone – the topic wandered briefly over island writing and then zeroed in firmly on the future of publishing. Here, in the somewhat unlikely setting of the island’s village hall, is what some of Scotland’s top authors had to say.
McCall Smith – a one-man publishing phenomenon with a prodigious output – suggests that books could go two ways.
They will survive in hardback as cherished objects made with higher production values. Paperbacks, however, are made for the e-book, which suggests a further decline in the number of bookshops. Publishers will need new methods of communication and costly advertising to get titles out there, which will discourage smaller publishers. One or two book distributors would be poised to decide what you get and what you read, which he calls “very worrying, and disturbing”.
Some of the writers talked up the few healthy independent bookshops, like the Watermill in Aberfeldy, which mixes a bookshop rich in travel and art with an art gallery and homewares. But the author James Robertson, who has carved out a career as a leading Scottish novelist, is more practically concerned about the health of bigger operations.
If there’s only one book store chain left in the country, he says, and if that were to fail or shrink, then publishers would face the economics of supplying only smaller independent shops, something that was also “really worrying”.
There may be hope for “democratising” trends in self-publishing on the internet, where authors can peddle their wares via websites or the big e-book distributors. But author Sophie Cooke suggests publishing may be even more of a closed shop than it was 20 years ago; publishing is so much less lucrative that firms cannot afford to invest, or take risks, on authors.
Asked if the outlook for the next generation of writers will be tougher, all agreed that it was. The suggestion is that iTunes song tasters, or viral videos, won’t generate a buzz for novels in the same way because you can’t really taste them in snatches. Cut-price deals or Twitter raves can presumably drive them up e-book best-seller lists, but if publishers die off, their sifting role – sorting out the literary chaff – will leave readers lost for real guides to the book market.
Elphinstone summed up this unhappy picture: she was so glad to get her start in the 1980s, she said, because now it would be “really, really difficult to get your voice heard”.
Poetry might ride the internet better, in my view; in an era of attention-span deficit, you can enjoy it in single poems or verses, if you can slow down long enough. Poetry publishing has never been commercial.
The last word on the writers’ debate went to Scotland’s Makar, Liz Lochhead. She loves her Kindle for reading novels on the go, but reckons poetry sits better in a book.
So what’s the message for aspiring writers? “All that we can do about it,” she said, “is try and write as well as we can.” 

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