The book is dead? Long live the book, authors say

JAIPUR, India Sat Jan 22, 2011 7:08am EST

JAIPUR, India Jan 22 (Reuters Life!) - Rubbishing those who hail the digital age as the end for books, publishing industry players and best-selling authors on Saturday hailed a new dawn for publishing, with India's voracious readers at its forefront.

Book sales have been squeezed in recent years by e-books and the huge success of Amazon.Com's (AMZN.O) Kindle reader, but India's booming publishing market is proof of the physical book's staying power, said participants at Asia's largest literary event, the DSC Jaipur Literary Festival.

"You read something on Twitter and you know it is ephemeral," said Patrick French, a best-selling historian and biographer who has written extensively on Asia. "Yet the book is a solid thing. The book endures."

Regional language novelists and poets rubbed shoulders with Nobel laureates and Booker Prize winners at the seventh festival to be held in the historical pink-tinged city of Jaipur, the capital of India's northwestern Rajasthan state.

Hundreds of book lovers attended a debate on the fate of printed books in the sun-drenched grounds of a former palace as part of the free five-day event.

"The idea of the book dying comes up all the time. It's wrong. I think this is a wonderful time for books, to enlarge the audience of the book and draw in more readers," said John Makinson, Chairman and CEO of the Penguin Group of publishers.

"Books matter more in India than anywhere else we publish them," added Makinson, whose Penguin Group is one of the world's largest English-language publishers.

While book sales slip in most western countries, the non-academic book market in India is currently growing at a rate of 15 to 18 percent annually, as rapid economic growth swells literacy rates and adds millions to the middle class every year.

At the festival, schoolchildren from around the country chased their authorly heroes through the lunch queues to get autographs on newly-purchased books.

Makinson noted that the pressure on physical bookshops in countries like the United States -- where bookseller Borders Group Inc BGP.N is in talks to secure a $500 million credit line -- doesn't exist in India, adding that books have a key role to play in Indian society.

"In India books define and create the social conversation. In China, the books that sell well are self-improvement titles. Popular books in India are of explanations, explaining the world. The inquisitive nature of India is unique."

Indian critic Sunil Sethi, who presents India's most popular television programme on books, said the digital age presented an opportunity, rather than a threat, for printed matter. "Even before I finish my show, the authors are on Twitter to say they are on TV talking about their book. Technology is merging things, but the book is still at the centre," Sethi said.

French agreed that technology, if well-managed, could actually help win books new friends and wider sales.

"Digital e-books have created a space for discussion. Books now have websites and forums, and so reading books on electronic devices has created communities and interaction," he said.

Nearly 50,000 writers, critics, publishers and fans are expected to attend the festival.

(Editing by Elaine Lies)

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