If the publishing industry seems like just another traditional media dinosaur – waiting, like the music world before it, for the guillotine to fall – well, it's easy to banish the thought in Frankfurt in October.
Walking into one of eight cavernous, stadium-sized halls at the Frankfurt Book Fair, amid the hustle of thousands of people erecting stands lined with books, I'm greeted by an enormous portrait of the very recently departed Steve Jobs.
It's advertising the American journalist Walter Isaacson's biography of the Apple founder, set to be released tomorrow. And even though it turns out the rights have been snapped up before the fair even started, it seems like a sign of something. The enduring cachet of the book, perhaps. Or the way even monolithic industries can move quickly when they need to.
The Frankfurt Book Fair is the world's biggest book festival. Primarily a trade fair, but also part cultural festival and part think-tank conference, it draws something like 300,000 visitors and 7500 exhibitors from 160 countries every year. (Here's another way of thinking about the scale of the thing: they have buses to ferry people from hall to hall.)
It's an international media bazaar – the place where a debut novel can go from complete anonymity to global hot property in a couple of days. This time, if you're wondering, it seems that honour goes to American author Scott Hutchins' A Working Theory of Love, which starts with a young man going through his dead father's belongings and moves towards the building of a human-like robot.
All of the Kiwi publishers I speak to concur: Frankfurt is the mother of all book fairs, a lodestar for the industry. (It's also taking on special significance for New Zealand as the "guest of honour" country for next year's fair – a role that comes with a 2300m2 pavilion and acres of German media attention.)
So how is the publishing world feeling about the future of the book, when sales figures are hopeless, new technologies slow to pay off and internet behemoths like Amazon eager to seize its territory?
Ambivalent, I think is right. Or at least, not as completely gloomy as you might have thought.
Sure, there's a dose of pessimism. In a conference held just before the fair kicked off, former UK Borders chief Philip Downer told publishers they could not "assume people will always love books" and warned the traditional book could be "lost among a welter of apps on a tablet screen".
The head of the German publishers' association, Gottfried Honnefelder, kicks off the fair with the twin messages that e-books are still a tiny part of the European book market (about 1% of sales) – and that more books are already being pirated than sold. Fair director Juergen Boos echoes him, saying he thinks the piracy problem is bigger still.
"The whole chain is being broken up," he says. "The industry is reinventing everything – authors, readers, publishers."
But then he sounds a strong note of optimism too. Children's books are selling as well as they ever have, he says. The book is starting to overlap with games, music, film, interactive designs.
"We have to understand where the book becomes an interactive object," Boos says. "Some say `The traditional book works perfectly well', but our children have already changed. They deal with all this as if it were a toy."
Some of this stuff – the "enhanced book" – sounds pretty woolly, but it's a big feature of the fair. Worldwide Penguin boss John Makinson reportedly told one conference that while the physical book market is declining, "if you take consumption of our intellectual property, of what we produce as a whole, then it isn't decreasing at all".
"But we will have to adapt – to introduce social media elements, gaming elements – and that is what we are doing."
Inside a futuristic dome, the fair even includes two days of panel discussions with experts in film, gaming and "trans-media" (a new buzzword for telling stories across platforms).
Some of these panels are awful – one group of nine German creative professionals presents a tortuous vision of a murder-thriller that sprawls across an online dating website, YouTube, books, and even real life. Who could be bothered?
But others are more intelligible. Canadian producer Louis-Pierre Pharand helped take the mega-popular game Assassin's Creed and spin it off into a set of comics, four novels, an encyclopaedia and a couple of short films. The trick is to make each piece stand alone, he says, make it high-quality, and make sure someone will pay for it.
"If you give it away for free, it's marketing."
Publishers like Faber & Faber and Canongate are joining up with multimedia producers and film companies to work on combined projects. (An interactive app version of TS Eliot's The Wasteland was one of the first successful fruits of this approach.)
Harry Potter producer David Heyman, the clever guy who snapped up the film rights to the series before the book even went to print, explains that the "ancillaries" for film – DVDs, book spin-offs, even theme parks – are now vital.
At the more recognisably bookish end of this spectrum is a company like New Zealand's Booktrack, which has generated huge international publicity and support from heavyweight authors like Salman Rushdie and Jay McInerney. The idea is simple – a customised soundtrack for a book. And as co-founder Mark Cameron explains it before he lets me put the headphones on, it's supposed to take a back-seat while you read, providing an immersive but unobtrusive aural experience.
"The reality of it is, we don't have silence in our lives very often these days anyway." (As for my test-drive, I was sceptical beforehand and tentatively impressed afterwards; I'm not sure I need it, but it seemed to have been done with great care.)
Which brings us back to the plain old e-book, still the biggest thing transforming the industry. And on this at least, the publishers don't seem to be wringing their hands any more. It's happening – they're accepting it.
Publisher Bloomsbury estimates 75% of its titles are now available online, with the rest mostly held up in wrangles with authors and estates. Spokesman Evan Schnittman tells one conference there are great possibilities for both publishers and readers in the electronic age – "Backlist is now frontlist," he says, meaning soon there'll be no such thing as a book being out of print.
Victoria University Press's Fergus Barrowman says while e-book sales are still poor, people are getting their head around the technology.
"I think there's a growing sense that publishers will be able to make digital work for them – as long as they manage their contracts."
He suspects e-books, while important, won't replace the physical book entirely.
"They'll reach a sort of equilibrium – in the same way that TV never killed the movies, and video never killed the movies, but they found a way to co-exist."
He also thinks they'll have to throw out the kitsch – the mock spiral-binding and the "pages" that flick across the screen.
There are still concerns, of course. Publishers investing in "enhanced books" aren't seeing consumers willing to pay for that kind of effort. Amazon keeps exerting an intractable downward pressure on prices – great for consumers, but tough on traditional publishers.
But there's energy at Frankfurt too. Maybe it's just the momentum as the book world goes out into thin air off the end of a cliff, maybe they're kidding themselves, but the sheer sense of commerce at the fair is undeniable.
"The publisher is well-trained in understanding new ideas," says Boos, the fair's director. They have to be to pick a great new book before it takes off. Now, he says, they have to apply the same skills to their whole industry.
"We've been talking a lot. Now is the time to change."
THEY KNOW WHAT YOU'LL BE READING NEXT SUMMER ...
The Frankfurt Book Fair is renowned as the place where books take off. There's a whole hall devoted to the feverish negotiations of agents and editors – representing authors and publishing houses respectively.
Kevin Chapman, president of the Publishers Association of New Zealand, says the deals don't quite go down as they used to. In tougher economic times, editors don't have the discretion to buy on the spot as they once did.
So there was no "seven-figure whale" this year, as one industry magazine put it – a million-dollar rights deal that would set the fair spinning. But there was a whole tier of agreements not too far below that.
Among the hot property was a set of recently found, unpublished 19th-century notebooks by Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula.
The American rights to South African writer Lauren Beukes' The Shining Girls sold for $600,000. According to the publisher, it's about "a violent, time-travelling drifter who, beginning in the 1930s, goes on a 60-year murder spree".
Other titles to attract press included a new volume of a memoir from Kenya's Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a new novel from British Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslam and Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a tale about a British senior citizen who walks the country to deliver a letter to a dying friend.
Communicating with the dead was something of a theme this year. Deadmail, by Laurie Frankel, is the story of a computer genius who comes up with a way to email those in the afterlife, while Scott Hutchins' A Working Theory of Love follows a son as he goes through his dead father's stuff before using it as the basis for a highly intelligent robot.
Also causing excitement this year was the news that Arthur Conan Doyle's estate had given permission for his Dr Watson character to be revived. The Perfection of War will see Sherlock Holmes' trusty assistant on the front lines during World War I, trying to work out why a British soldier has been killed by his own men.
Kiwi readers might be interested to know there's a new historical novel about Everest explorer George Mallory's wife forthcoming – Tanis Rideout's Above All Things.
And finally, for followers of the Booker prize, one British agent caused a stir this year by announcing a rival gong. The "Literature Prize" is setting itself up as a more high-brow alternative to the famous prize, after concerns the Booker is being judged for "readability" and popular appeal.
With a support crew including former Booker winners John Banville and Pat Barker, who knows? That might turn out to influence what you read for years to come.
- Sunday Star Times