Celebrating reading

THERE was a lot of debate earlier this year over sales of real books over e-books – Kindle, Nook and the like – with a general conclusion that predictions of the demise of the book were premature but so were suggestions that e-books were dead.

The debate was started by James Daunt of Waterstones who reported that sales of books had increased by 5 per cent in December 2014 compared with December 2013. He said Waterstones had been seeing “modest sales growth” for some months. This was, of course, after a steep decline over several years.

Sam Husain, the chief executive of Foyles, similarly reported a December 2014 jump (8.1 per cent) and the well-known Bath bookseller Robert Topping, who also has a bookshop in the cathedral city of Ely, opened a third bookshop in St Andrews, just before Christmas. He was reported as being “utterly confident that there is life in books” and describing e-books as “hyped up nonsense.” Mr Topping told the Telegraph that he thought people were increasingly talking about supporting local businesses rather than spending their money with “American tax dodgers.” He also made the very good point that most of us spend our working lives staring at a computer screen and don’t want to do that at home too.

Practically there is also the simple fact that most people who want an e-book reader now have one or have installed e-book reading apps on their tablets or smartphones.

A recent contributor to a radio book discussion commented that the average person reads five books a year, which is down from a figure of 9.8 per cent quoted in 2009. But the 2015 figure was apparently based on sales of physical books, and if e-books were taken into account, we may now be reading more. So it is probably safe to say that the written word is not dead – what has changed is how we “consume” it.

What is also quite safe to say is that the literary festival is a growth industry. Each year there seems to be a new one, just in this corner of the West Country. The best line-ups this autumn are at Wells and Bridport, but Yeovil (a relatively recent arrival), Sherborne and this year’s newcomer Dorchester all have speakers that you would want to hear and meet.

Wells Festival of Literature (9th to 17th October) is run by a brilliant locally-based writer, Emma Craigie, and is part of a thriving festival scene in this beautiful cathedral city. The literature festival also has events outside October, this year including an inventive weekend in March of short plays/monologues by actors from the Show of Strength company.

Judith Spelman, director of the Sherborne Literary Festival (14th to 18th October), says their aim has always been to focus on books and not celebrities, but she still has some pretty big names, including Princess Michael of Kent, John Julius Norwich, Victoria Hislop and John Suchet.

Some festivals have high profile patrons or presidents, often writers who live in the area – including Hilary Mantel at Budleigh Salterton, Tracy Chevalier at Dorchester and Rachel Billington at Sherborne.

The director of Bridport Literary Festival (8th to 15th November) is Tanya Bruce-Lockhart who for years ran the diverse and constantly interesting Beaminster Festival (music, visual arts, talks etc). She has remarkable contacts within the literary world, reflected in the speakers who come to Bridport, and her deep knowledge of West Dorset also ensures that the local content of the festival is very strong.

Not all the towns that have thriving literary festivals have independent bookshops, but some have a good Waterstones (with a manager who is committed to promoting books and writers, as at Yeovil) so there will be book-stands at festival events, encouraging audiences not only to buy a signed copy of books by that event’s speaker but to try books from other festival guests.

Which brings me to one very good reason for running a literary festival and for supporting your local festival – every physical book sold by a local bookseller is contributing not only to the viability of that shop but to the local economy.

Festivals – literary and arts – bring in day visitors and tourists who stay overnight or even for the whole weekend or week. So that is good for local restaurants, pubs, B&Bs and hotels. At Bridport, for example, The Riverside restaurant and Sladers Yard Gallery and Cafe at West Bay and the new Seaside Boarding House at Burton Bradstock are all among the venues and the Bull Hotel in the town is the centre of activities.

So literary festivals are a win-win for everyone – you, the reader, get to meet your literary heroes and perhaps discover some new ones, the bookshops benefit from sales of real books rather than seeing customers migrate to the on-line retail sites, individual businesses in the towns enjoy increased spending from locals and visitors and the economy of the area gets a significant boost.

And one final thought – many of our local festivals have events for children, and Bath actually has a whole festival of children’s literature. Quite right – start by reading to your child long before he or she can read and make sure they see you reading and you will have created a reader for life. Books are a companion in a waiting room or on a long journey; they are a source of knowledge, fun, laughter, tears and thought; you are never alone with a book.

The great Groucho Marx pretty much sums it up: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” So, walk the dog, and then settle down with a book!

For more details of the 2015 Wells Festival of Literature see the Words Words section of this website.

Fanny Charles