Coming down and calming down from two hectic days at the London Book Fair, I’m sitting in our Harlech office looking out at the waves and the wind and the sunshine, and contemplating the immense power of books.

There’s no doubt the publishing world is in turmoil, with fewer people buying books, ebooks taking an ever larger slice of the pie, bookshops closing every week and a general air of uncertainty hanging over everything. This of course adds to the excitement, and there is, as always in publishing, this sense of ambiguity — are we in the right business? Should we be looking forward? Or over our shoulders?

Two companies expressed an interest, however veiled, in acquiring fotoLibra. Of course there’s a world of difference between acquiring and buying, but it’s interesting to see that some firms are discreetly expanding, and not necessarily in their core disciplines. I should add that these are the first signals of this type we’ve seen in nine years. Flattering, I guess.

To get an indication of the measure of hope in the business, I posed a theoretical question: “If you personally had fifty thousand to invest, would you put it in a firm making printing machinery or a firm making screens?” No one answered directly. Everyone nodded slowly.

There is a rearguard action. At the fair advertising king Maurice Saatchi launched his Books Are My Bag campaign, claimed to be the biggest ever promotion of bookshops. Who doesn’t love a bookshop? But we’re all buying online, and condemning them to a slow, lingering death. Asked to name my favourite bookshop, I hesitated — there used to be two in Crouch End, now there are none.

It’s not because everyone is buying ebooks. An ebook is still a book; it’s just presented differently. And the only ebooks that are selling are fiction. Illustrated ebooks, as we have found out to our cost, are hard to shift. Heritage Ebooks, which we launched with great hope and wonderful images from fotoLibra photographers, has struggled to find a market. We did a deal with The Folly Fellowship, an organisation concerned with the history and preservation of this curious aspect of Britain’s architectural heritage, to give their members a thumping great discount on the purchase of any of our forty Follies of England ebook titles. How many folly enthusiasts took up the offer? None. Not one. Zilch. That is disheartening.

But The Guardian tells me they’re now doing a feature on our Heritage Ebooks, illustrating ten of our ebook covers. That would be nice. I’ll believe it when I see it. BREAKING NEWS: They’re not doing it. Our ebook covers are Portrait format, and they said they needed Landscape. The covers have lettering on them — the book titles, actually — and they wanted them without lettering. It turns out what they really wanted was ten free photographs of follies.

Despite all this doom and gloom, the London Book Fair was humming. Large companies had dozens of tables, each one with four people talking intently with heads bowed. Business was being done. Smaller firms were concentrating just as hard. The only oases of quiet were to be found in the Arab quarter: huge, lavish, glittering, empty national stands, as depopulated as the deserts.

I captioned this piece The Power Of The Word. The word has more power to stimulate the imagination than the image, I regret to admit. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “People remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, and 50% of what they see and hear.” But we’re not told what sort of people they asked. These aren’t book people.

Book people feed on words. I’ll give you an example. I’ve known my old pal Mike for over forty years. We haven’t been in touch a lot since he left publishing, but we hooked up last Christmas and resumed normal service. For a Significant Birthday he was planning a tour of Japan. His highlight was going to be queuing outside a bookshop to be the first to buy Haruki Murakami’s new novel. That was, to borrow a phrase from Gilbert Harding, his Sole Purpose of Visit. What power can there be in words to drag a foreigner halfway around the world — literally! — to join (or in Mike’s case, form) a queue outside a Japanese bookshop? I wish I had readers like that. He’s still out there, by the way, and blogging about it as he travels around the country. You can read his adventures here. Oh — and he left book publishing to become a film-maker. Images for words.

So this week was the book fair. fotoLibra’s major source of income is from book publishers. Next week will be the picture buyers’ fair, fotoFringe in King’s Cross. It will be a busy week for us. And there will be some interesting NEWS from fotoLibra.

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26 Responses to “The Power Of The Word”

  1. Jamie Waddell says:

    We’ve also had a book fair in Bangkok with the city being awarded as book capital of the world which is strange is very few this read books. We even had a ship library dock here, a big ship full of books which was actually received very well.

    For avid readers such as myself and I guess other e pats kindle is ideal as p&p is very expensive.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      Ah, shipping! People used to go into shops and buy stuff. Now they can sit at home and have it delivered. Which allows you to live in Bangkok, I guess!

  2. susan says:

    The world is turning digital,which has positive and negative effects,but the power of word still remains powerful.

  3. Judith Martin says:

    I would say I avoid strenuously buying online, but only yesterday I ordered three books from the Guardian website. Now I feel doubly guilty. But I do definitely avoid Amazon, and feel rage when I contemplate them buying Abebooks.
    My favourite bookshop is probably Broadway Books in Hackney – it would be P&G Wells in Winchester, who are actually my first port of call for anything I know I’ll almost certainly have to order, but being the official bookshop of Winchester College I don’t feel they really need my help.
    As for the Gilbert Harding quote – I’d heard it was Gore Vidal, presumably on entering the US from Italy, so I looked it up. I’m left convinced you’re right, but the following, with embodied urban myth, is a nice read. Not often you come across G&S and the Nazis in the same piece. I suppose it’s a good job it wasn’t the Pirates of Plymouth, along the coast, as that was rendered unrecognisable and not wholly by bombers.

    http://www.quentinlangley.net/article.php?id=105

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      I don’t think there’s much dispute about the atrocities town planners have perpetrated on Britain in the past 70 years. But I confess I did look up the Gilbert Harding quote, as I assumed GBS and Yvonne thought Oscar Wilde.

      And I claim to have single-handedly changed the UK Passport questionnaire. I applied for my first passport at the age of 13, and next to the question that demanded “Passport required for travelling to?” I wrote ” … and fro.” The passport was issued without comment and the question was subsequently dropped.

  4. When all the apples and macs and blackberries and kindles and pads and pods have fruit fly aka a virus..there will always be “THE BOOK” made of paper with heiroglyphics and all manner of art. Silently waiting to be picked up.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      In 2007 I spent £140 on a DVD of the Birds of Britain and Europe. Fantastic. It had song clips, footage of the birds in flight, photographs, audio descriptions, active maps — it was a model of what future ebooks were going to be (except for the price).

      But it’s not compatible with Mac OS X 10.8.3. So I can’t use it at all. It has become a very expensive drinks coaster.

  5. Brian Murray says:

    Strange, because if pushed, I would have confidently stated that the vast majority only look at the pictures in books. And websites and ebooks.

    Given the well known belief that the modern attention span gets shorter and shorter, and that unless it’s in “bit sized” chunks, people won’t read, I am surprised that the written word has much impact at all.

    I suppose I should find your findings heartening, and then I remember that stuff like “50 shades of Grey” is what is considered literature these days.

    I must be getting old.

  6. fernando says:

    buenos días claro la palabra tiene poder de cambiar, de hacer que uno pueda dejar muchas cosas y hacer otras es como cuando uno esta enamorando a una chica cuanta palabras dice en un rato, cuanto cuento le hecha para hacer que cambien o que tome una decision eso es la praxis filosifica

  7. We are longtime contributors here at Fotolibra. We totally agree with you on “The Power of the Word” and the power is still out there and it will be there forever, in a different format. Now, we have social media and authors are taking advantages of it. However, the core of the business is the same. We need authors to write the books, the blogs and the ideas. With internet, books contents become more interactive and the industry is still trying to figure out how to harness the power of it.

    I would like to take this opportunity to share with you about a young author, David. He is an early and avid reader, consuming hundreds of books each year. He published his first and second children fiction chapter books when he was 7 and 8 respectively. He is a good example of using words and imaginations to inspire young children to read and write more often. He got a lot of compliments on his first two books and is working on his third. According to David, his third book is going to have 15,000 words. At his age (9), he really is harnessing The Power of the Word and continues to inspire many children and parents every day.

    He has an author blog at http://booksrfun.infomages.com/

  8. Infomages Photography says:

    We just added comments but it didn’t show up at all.

  9. We are longtime contributors here at Fotolibra. We totally agree with you on “The Power of the Word” and the power is still out there and it will be there forever, in a different format. Now, we have social media and authors are taking advantages of it. However, the core of the business is the same. We need authors to write the books, the blogs and the ideas. With internet, books contents become more interactive and the industry is still trying to figure out how to harness the power of it.

  10. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you about a young author, David. He is an early and avid reader. He published his first and second children fictions when he was 7 and 8 respectively. He is a good example of using words and imaginations to inspire young children to read and write more often. He got a lot of compliments on his first two books and is working on his third. According to David, his third book is going to have 15,000 words. At his age (9), he really is harnessing The Power of the Word and continues to inspire many children and parents every day.

    He has an author blog at http://booksrfun.infomages.com/

  11. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you about a young author, David. He is an early and avid reader. He published his first and second children fictions when he was 7 and 8 respectively. He is a good example of using words and imaginations to inspire young children to read and write more often. He got a lot of compliments on his first two books and is working on his third. According to David, his third book is going to have 15,000 words. At his age (9), he really is harnessing The Power of the Word and continues to inspire many children and parents every day.

    He has an author blog at booksrfun.infomages.com

  12. I’m an indie author and can say that e-books have been great for me. The playing field of publishing is now level, so the words of more authors can be heared. Surely that is a good thing.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      Agreed, it’s easier and cheaper than ever before to get published. But the whole point of being published is to be read. And for that you need great publicity, either paid for or by word of mouth. It’s easier for a publisher to get publicity than an independent. A good editor is an amazing help — look what happened to Jeffery Archer — as well as picking up on things like ‘heared’ for ‘heard’. And changing ‘words’ to ‘voice’. You see — it’s not as easy as some may think.

  13. jan says:

    I have had a kindle for 18 months and found it very unfriendly as a read. I enjoy researching things and having to search back through kindle for information an d trying to read a text with all the info on characters etc at the front or at the back makes what should be an entertaining, informative, usually nonfiction – a total no-no.
    I love to hold a real book go back or forwards to read maps. charts etc., with pleasure and ease – haven’t used the kindle for nearly 18 months!

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      They can only get better as time goes on. The Kindle Fire is HD and colour, the latest iPad has a retina screen, soon we’ll have folding and flexible screens, and I shall probably be dead.

  14. Mike Mumford says:

    I agree with Gwyn times are changing, my smartphone is telling me why. To shop around your inter-net-worldwide for the best value, is a good thing for you pocket. But what rules your head? It has to be a good taste of quality will drive your taste in subject matter and imagery. Both have a huge part to play in the book, or newsprint. Page 3 may well sell newspapers, but not on every page please. Let our tastes be more refined, more wholesome, more learned. My own published books and images say MORE with LESS. So when young prove to them selves be in the vast lane, with time will mature and read more they will enjoy the value added life to the full.

  15. Len Sparrow says:

    Although it as disappointing that you were not able to make any sales to the Folly Fellowship despite offering a good deal I don’t think it was the price that put them off but more likely the fact that they did not have a Kindle Fire. I tried the original Kindle but was disappointed with black and white images. Perhaps you should have suggested that they took advantage of a free Kindle download and watch in colour on their PC as I have done

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      Colour is a crucial component of Follies of England. Trouble is most Fellowship members are as old as me, or older. And some were very set in their ways — one member was so formal he could barely wait for the four-piece suit to be invented.