Independent Bath Literature Festival: The book has a future – but what will it look like?

Authors ask what happens next for publishing as figures reveal print sales are down 18 per cent
  • @johnhenrywalsh

"Is the book doomed?" was the blunt question addressed in the Independent Voices debate yesterday. After a blizzard of glum statistics, the surprising and heartening answer turned out to be "No".

Nicola Solomon, general secretary of the Society of Authors, most of whose members earn less than £10,000 a year, told the audience that, in digital circles, actual books with pages and dust jackets are now known as "legacy media". She gave the figures like a depressing health bulletin. Print sales are down 18 per cent on last year, one third of undergraduates confess they're "not interested in print books," and 20 per cent of school leavers claim they've never read a book at all. On the other hand, she said, Kindle sales (1 million at Christmas) are slowing and may have plateaued – and more people are now interested in books than ever before. It's just that the market has become increasingly fragmented.

Flanking Ms Solomon on the panel were two impresarios of the new book market, Neil Blair, JK Rowling's agent, and Charlie Redmayne, CEO of Pottermore, her extra-bits website. Mr Blair and Mr Redmayne alarmed the audience by speaking in high-tech gobbledegook ("It's a web-based proposition", "a content-selling vehicle," "an e-commerce platform") but it was fascinating to hear their prognoses.

In future, books will be "just a vehicle for carrying content," will be as long or short as you like ("print books are now on average 300-400 pages for commercial reasons – they don't have to be") paperbacks will disappear, ebooks will be as popular as mobile phones, "enhanced with a new functionality, with apps and web propositions."

Hardback books will be things of beauty, read at home. And authors will be "branded" and expected to sell 10 or a dozen books in a "branded" form – like thrillers, in which the readers knows just what they're getting.

Mr Redmayne suggested that publishers should learn from the fate of the music world. Just as record companies make money only by sending artists out to play live, book publishers will expect authors to promote themselves more – to have a media "presence," acquire followers on Facebook and Twitter, interface with current readers and fans and establish a "community" to buy their books on Day One.

And spend a lot of time at literary festivals. It was not, all agreed, a good life for anyone who has a day-job. By the end, though, all were in agreement that, in 10 years, there will still be print books and e-books – and shops to "hand-sell" books – just a lot fewer authors.

The uneasy relationship between camera and audience put into focus

Francine Stock, presenter of Radio 4's "The Film Programme", commandeered the stage of Bath's Little Theatre Cinema to present a tour d'horizon of 20th-century cinema. Beginning with the 1910 silent, "Afgrunden" (The Abyss) whose female lead, the tempestuous Asta Nielsen, became the first international film star, to Michael Powell's universally reviled "Peeping Tom" in 1960, about a killer who films his victim's death throes, she teased out the relation between the camera lens and the audience whose attention is being drawn by it.

And she produced a significant fact: "I've talked to neuroscientists who say the amount of time we spend in REM [ie dreaming] sleep is about 90 minutes..."

John Walsh

What's on: Today's highlights

10am 100 Women. To celebrate the 100th International Women's Day, members of the public are invited to read from the works of 100 admired women writers. Dame Harriet Walter kicks off this epic eight-hour read at 10am. At St Michael's Without church.

1pm Samuel Palmer. The Times's art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston discusses the life and work of the eccentric, mystic, Blake-inspired painter Samuel Palmer.

6.15pm Joanna Briscoe and Esther Freud. Two of the nation's most brilliant novelists discuss truth and fictions.

8pm Stella Rimington. The bestselling author of spy thrillers, and incidentally former head of MI5, talks about her life.