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18 April 2007 Entry: "The future of books"

I went down to the London Book Fair with Independent Northern Press, I had two hats: one as a small press editor and the other as an author. I had no idea what to expect and didn’t really know how to prepare. There were all sorts of seminars and author events you could choose to attend, with titles like ‘Digitise or Die’ and ‘The internet as a marketing tool’, ‘The Orange Prize Breakfast’. As you arrived you were given a fat book that listed all the presses and publishers with stands at Earls Court.

It was like a visit to the Tower of Babel! Spanish, Italian, children’s books, medical books, comics, graphic novels, Art and computer books, digital printing services and of course the big publishers with giant photos of their latest book covers and authors - it was all there, plus any number of coffee and fast food outlets round the edges. There was a strange race of young men in black wandering around with black rucksacks and belts with cups stuffed in them. They were mobile water and hot drinks sellers - they looked like futuristic emergency services spacemen or extras out of a Kung Fu film or am I thinking of characters in those alien worlds Han Solo visits in Star Wars?

The first day I dithered in a bit of a daze, before I got the hang of the layout (each aisle had a letter and stands were numbered) and worked out how to get up to the seminar rooms on a mezzanine level. It was worthy of a classical labyrinth - you think you’d cracked it, only to find yourself coming out of a door and not knowing where the hell you were. However, I did meet friendly Bill at Central Books about distributing the new Ropes Anthology. Speaking face to face about your ideas and your books is much better.

I went to a very interesting discussion on sustainability and publishing. Being naive I thought it was going to be about how small presses survive with small budgets, but it was actually about how to make the publishing business more green. There was talk about using recycled paper, and not pulping unsold books by printing to demand, so less waste. I came back determined to see if I can source some recycled paper for diamond twig books in future.

There was a big divide about Google who are trying to create a Book Search service where they scan every book possible so the public can find them and dip into them online. On the one hand Google were saying ‘This is about freedom of information, we don’t make money out of it’ and on the other there were publishers saying ‘What about copyright? How do authors gain from this?’ The world wide web has changed the face of publishing for ever, and we all have to take on board what it means for the future of books and readers.

There was even talk about doing away with books altogether - that writing would only ever exist on-line, once they’d invented the readers equivalent of the i-pod. And I thought, novels online? only existing in some ethereal nether world, never in a lovely smooth book with that fresh papery smell ? Impossible. But of course, as I type this, I realise blogs are exactly that. Stories and words with no ‘hard’ home.
I’ve often wondered if anyone out there ever reads this. Well, I got an e-mail today from someone who does - so thanks Sam - this is for you.

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