The Printed Book is Dead, Long Live the E-book...Right? Wrong!

Panorama of Matera

The death of the printed book? That and other portentous matters were discussed at the WFF in Matera (Italy) last week (23-26 September 2010). WFF? Sounds good and very international... some kind of new United Nations agency?


No, nothing as boring as that. WFF is the Women's Fiction Festival, a meeting of writers, editors, publishers and literary agents from the US, UK and Italy (not to mention bloggers and journalists). Now in its seventh year, it has achieved the enviable status of "BEST writers' meeting in continental Europe", drawing such heavy weights as Man Booker Prize finalist Simon Mawer with his extraordinary The Glass Room and Eileen Dreyer, New York Times best selling author and winner of numerous awards in not one but three completely different genres (medical thrillers, fantasy and historicals).

But it doesn't stop there. WFF is not limited to English speakers. It has drawn publishers from Italy, Germany and Holland and some important Italian writers, such as Licia Troisi, the immensely successful young author of three fantasy trilogies that have sold across the world (Germany, France, Russia etc) who also happens to be...an astrophysicist, currently working on her Ph.D. And Enrica Bonaccorti, a writer, actress and TV personality who came to present her latest novel, L'uomo immobile, a harrowing story about a man immobilized after a car accident. WFF has also helped considerably in discovering and promoting new authors, such as Gabriella Genisi, Cristina Obber and Alessandra Oddi Baglioni.

All this thanks to the dynamism and organizational genius of a very special lady, Elisabeth Jennings, who started life as a translator and has become a successful published writer in her own right. Having followed her husband to Matera, she decided that this was the perfect place for a writers' conference, particularly one focussed on romance writers. A wild bet, yet how right she proved to be! With its extraordinary location over a canyon and filled with stone-age houses, it certainly is a uniquely romantic town in Europe - not to be missed should you visit Italy. And Liz Jennings has managed to involve the local authorities and national sponsors such as the publisher Harlequin Mondadori, all to create a remarkably well organized festival, including good food, music, fireworks and excellent simultaneous English-Italian translation. Bravo to Liz and her team!

With this stellar cast, you can easily imagine that the discussions were lively - the public was composed not only of aspiring writers but many already successfully published, including those from the English Writers in Italy,a group formed in 2006 bringing together all English and American authors living in Italy. Topics ranged far and wide, from fine points in how to do forensic or historical research to the changing role of literary agents in the United States and Europe as e-publishing is fast taking a hold.

For that was the really HOT TOPIC: e-publishing. A published writer and expert in digital publishing, Charles Jones told us that, the way he saw it, the advent of the e-book did not spell the death knell of publishing. He saw it as a golden opportunity for aspiring writers.

Maybe.

Actually, for the moment, things don't look good at all: traditional publishers are in a panic, laying off staff - particularly editors - and fighting with Amazon.com over their "business model" (i.e. their cut). As a fallback position, they have chosen to publish authors with a "platform" (i.e. people with a strong following because they are celebrities or key professionals in their field) rather than debut authors. Better safe than sorry seems to be their motto. More the pity, because literature, like any human endeavour, needs new blood to go forward. Newspapers aren't doing any better, cutting back on their book reviews - most notably the New York Times. The only major American paper that has  decided to go counter trend is the Wall Street Journal: it is coming out these days with a new book review section. We'll see how it goes, but, as I said, most major actors on the publishing scene are feeling gloomy.

I wonder why. To my mind, e-books cannot replace the printed version. It's just another distribution channel, and a highly effective one. It is able (unlike the printed word) to reach out to the most distant and isolated areas of our planet. E-readers are fabulous portable libraries - and since we have all become travellers, they are the only comfortable way to carry novels on the plane or to the beach. And you can read whenever you are stuck somewhere - in traffic, queuing up at the post office, waiting for the doctor. If you drive, you can use the audio version and listen to your favorite novel.

In short, reading opportunities are multipled. E-books don't reduce the book market, they EXPAND it! It is odd that such a simple notion hasn't occurred to traditional publishers - nor even to Amazon.com who's at the heart of it with its Kindle. Because if the market is an expanding one, then the pricing strategy should be changed to take that fact into account.What Amazon should do (and other librairies too) is to offer prices that are structurally linked: whomever has bought an e-book should be able to get the printed version at a discount and vice-versa. That way, you'd be riding the tiger of an expanding market. I've had the experience of really liking a book in economics that I had bought for reading on my Kindle, and being discouraged from buying the printed version by the price. It was galling to have to pay for it all over again.

Yet, for a certain type of book, you really do want the printed version. To use as a reference, as something to share with your friends, as an object to put on your shelf at home. For all these things, an e-book doesn't work and the printed version is irreplaceable. Why can't publishers understand this? Their business is not threatened, far from it, it's expanding. People have NEVER read so much as they do now: Americans are up to reading on average a whopping 22,000 words a day and spending 11.8 hours a day absorbing all kinds of written information. 22,000 words a day! It makes one dream (remember novels average 80 to 100,000 words). Why should such a small portion of it be allocated to novels? It's all a question of marketing and adjusting to the digital age!

As the Italians say: coraggio!
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