The impact of the web on the world of the novel remains clouded in uncertainty, industry players at the Frankfurt book fair said Wednesday as they began discussing ways to weather the change.
Where the novel's heading in the digital age is still a big question
"Readers have taken to the Internet far quicker than the people who publish books," said Marco Olavarria from the German management consultants Kirchner and Robrecht as the world's biggest book fair opened here.
"There is huge demand, but everybody seems to have left Internet book sales to Amazon and the rest. There is no creative strategy because they have not realised the new demand of the new market," he added.
The slowest to catch up with the future have been the publishing houses that deal in literature, Olavarria said at a panel discussion.
"The people who deal in high art have remained focused on the book because that is what they know. But why not publish an audio file instead of an audiobook? The fact is that it will not win you any prizes but it will make you a lot of money."
By audio file, he was referring to a book that could be downloaded off the Internet in audio form, as music is now.
Small houses hurting
Although new technology has reduced the costs of publishing books, this has not led to a surge in success for smaller publishing houses, Olavarria said.
"Bookshops are full of books. If you take up a small space on the shelf, or only registered on page three of Amazon, the reality is that you will sell fewer books. That makes it very tough for small publishing houses."
This 57th edition of the annual fair has heard considerable talk about the possibility of a solidarity pact among smaller houses to enable them to survive in a global market that churns out 1.2 million new books every year.
Rowohlt publishing house logo
But the German market remains dominated by big houses such as Rowohlt and Suhrkamp, and smaller houses do not thrive or cooperate, Olavarria said.
Baumhaus is the only recent bright spot among smaller publisher, with a successful series of children's books.
Actes Sud, the small maverick French publishing house that has become a huge success, was a pioneer in the sense that its founder realized 25 years ago that a Paris address was not essential, and he set up shop in Arles in the south of France.
"It was a very good forecast of the future, to see that this will become possible in the field of publishing," Actes Sud editor Marie-Catherine Vacher told AFP.
In the beginning Actes Sud made its name with French translations of foreign authors, notably Scandinavians and later the likes of American novelist Paul Auster, Vacher said.
Today some 80 percent of its titles are still translations, but the company has also built up a stable of French writers, even if they are mostly younger authors and the big names tend to stay with the big houses.
French star writer Michel Houellebecq
"We can afford them now. If you look at the price of buying the rights for a translation, and then the cost of translating and publishing a book, we can pay a French writer, though I don't think we could afford (Michel) Houellebecq," she said of the new bad boy of French letters, who made his name with the novel "Atomized."
Smaller houses however still suffer from "snobbery" in the world of literature, she said.
"We have difficulty getting our titles reviewed -- the critics are wary of us because we made our name in translation, and with big-name authors we still have to prove to them that we are the place to be."
New publishing houses setting out are struggling to compete with established ones, and this has led smaller houses to consider banding together, she said.
"We want to create a federation where we can share production and distribution. The south of France is good for this in a way because you have the space to set up big printing plants."