Arifa Akbar: Death-defying authors in a digital age

The week in books
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Turning up to a UNESCO briefing on the future of books in Paris this week, I was surprised to hear warnings about the imminent death of the author. Hadn't the author already died in a smoke-filled Parisian café in 1967?

Perhaps for Barthes, but now it would seem, for a panel of European bibliophiles at UNESCO headquarters, authorship as we know it could be on its way out, in digital terms.

One delegate attending the conference - a drum-roll event for a three-day gathering this summer which will deliberate on the future of the written word - suggested that digitisation would return us to the Medieval concept of writers as disembodied storytelling collectives. Milagros del Corral, the former director of Biblioteca Nacional de España, and president of the conference in June, equated the scribes of the Middle Ages to writers in our e-future. "When printing emerged in the 15th century, technology made it possible for the text to be printed so that it could not be changed. It also led authors to acquire fame. [Now] it's as if we are going back to the Middle Ages. Authorship becomes almost collective and it's the reader who is centre stage."

One modern-day author was proving himself to be a resilient species of the dying breed. Far removed from UNESCO's concrete ramparts, David Mitchell was sitting in front of his computer in rural Ireland, negotiating a marketing campaign conducted almost entirely through social networking sites that has brought him into direct exchange with 1,000 readers. The nerve-centre of the online forum is its Facebook page, and it allows readers to respond to his latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by uploading YouTube style videos, pictures or even – as quaint as it may seem – by writing online reviews.

Mitchell is not alone in harnessing digital technology to publicise a novel, although his campaign has certainly pushed boundaries further than most. Authors have their own message boards and Facebook pages. Stephen Fry, a huge e-success story, has such a strong virtual identity that it could almost put on a smart suit and go on its own lecture tour.

Far from authorial death, Mitchell's endeavour appears to give him - and not just his books - far greater exposure. It also cuts out the middle men – publishers and marketing gurus – so that self-branding becomes quicker, easier, and free of charge. In Mitchell's prototype model, the head most likely to roll is that of the publisher (although in his case, Sceptre came up with the bright idea). "I don't really understand the UNESCO fear," he says. "Is an author's identity really bound up (pun intended) in a printed book, it's design and author picture? Surely, the source of an author's identity is his or her text, and the vehicle is our petabyte-channelling media?" Mitchell does agree with UNESCO bods on one count: that the reader will become more characterful, less anonymous, electronically: "It used to be the case that a writer worked alone in a room for x years, delivered the manuscript, and with the exception of festivals and the odd fan letter, that was the end of it. Unlike musicians - towards whom writers have often felt a visceral envy - our audience remained out there and anonymous. The internet is bringing writers' audiences to our laptops," he reflects.

It is also interesting to dwell on Ms del Corral's concept of a multi-tiered sytem for authors in the future - those like Mitchell who adapt to survive digitally, others whose identities remain paper-bound: "There could be two different categories of authors for two different categories of business", she says. So what about her 'Medieval throwbacks' ? None of the present evidence suggests that the author is being subsumed in a reader-centred ether. Yet Mitchell's campaign could be a sign of things to come - authors adapting themselves to the electronic age in the Survival of the Techiest.

The development of the e-book might be as Darwinian, suggests del Corral, if the publishing industry wants to save itself from illegal downloading and file-sharing that is paralysing the music industry and increasingly infecting the e-book economy. "I'm convinced when eBooks really become what they can become, providing new possibilities for readers - the user will have added value with a multi-media book which will include aspects of film, TV series and novels - that they will want to buy the book. Right now, all we have are clones."

Surely, the next challenge for Mitchell: a 3D pop-up of A Thousand Autumns, beamed directly to our Kindles. - the new site for The Book Tomorrow: the Future of the Written Word conference in Monza

Beb's Master Georgie come lately

Undoubtedly the late Beryl Bainbridge would have liked to have been in the room when she was awarded theMan Booker "Best of Beryl" prize. She was five times shortlisted in her lifetime for the Man Booker but was awarded this special prize posthumously this week. Sixth time lucky, you might say. And it helps if you're no longer around, cynics could add. Her grandson, Charlie Russell, cast an amusing light on it all when he recounted the time his grandmother "Beb" took him, aged 15, to the prize's ceremony (for her fourth nomination) and urged him to "get very drunk". One imagines she might happily have been doing the same. "She didn't mind a bit that she hadn't won," he added.

'Tis no pity for it's publicity

There might be one sure way of attracting publicity for a modern day production of the 17th century tragedy, ''Tis Pity She's a Whore': by placing an image of the Virgin Mary in the publicity poster and ensuring that its marketing campaign coincides with Easter. Churchmen have unsurprisingly become agitated by the proximity of her beatific image with the word 'whore' and West Yorkshire Playhouse, who have already plastered the city of Leeds with 500 such posters, have now agreed to remove the 20ft by 9ft image from the theatre itself, after the Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds wrote to its director.

The posters feature a replica of The Pieta, a statue of Mary embracing Jesus from the cross. The theatre's banner has been replaced by one which reads: "Judge the Play, Not the Poster". It's hard to pass judgment either way - the church is predictably offended and the theatre has to drum up interest. I just wonder if the play might not come as an anti-climax for John Ford virgins after all the fuss.