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That’s one rather surprising conclusion from the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and one that probably has lessons for literary festivals, and festival organizers, everywhere.

In this 17-day bookfest with over 800 writers participating, two bustling onsite bookstores, and queues all the way round Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square Gardens for author signings, there wasn’t one Kindle, Nook or Kobo on display. E-readers were represented by two debates on the huge program, one of which, on “Being a Writer in the Digital Age,” became a sometimes angry standoff between authors and publishers.

Author signing at the Festival

Of course, a major, well-established, well-attended and well-sponsored book festival has good reason to stick to what it does best and pitch its tent the traditional way. The public clearly love it. (Every session l saw was packed.) Publishers and participating organizations clearly have little to complain about either. The Festival managed to generate many headlines from its participating authors, quite a few of them nothing to do with books.

All the same, from bookshops and their staff and customers across Edinburgh, it’s clear that e-books and e-readers are front of mind for many readers and book people these days. The Festival’s own bookshop and children’s book tent, managed by the Festival itself, do not offer e-readers, but everybody else seems to.

Nook display at Edinburgh’s Blackwells

UNESCO’s first City of Literature is filled with e-readers, from leading local bookstore Blackwells, which has standardized on Nooks, to Waterstones with its generic Kindle displays. Staff told me that bookshop customers are always asking about e-books and e-readers, though they are leaving the question of platform choice more to outlet and availability than to brand recognition and feature comparison. Many customers, it seems, will just go with the device they see in front of  them.

So with all this groundswell of interest, isn’t an opportunity being missed? I’m as surprised at Amazon, B&N, Kobo and others of that ilk as at the Festival itself. Why aren’t they falling over themselves to advertise at and sponsor such events? Is it because they come closer to the bookseller or distributor category, rather than the publishers that are the usual counterparties for festival organizers?

Some might object that e-readers will rob festival-goers of the hands-on experience of author signings, but I don’t buy that argument. Most signees are clearly there to meet the author more than to get his or her spoor on a copy of their latest, no matter what publishers might fondly hope. And when it comes to digital signings, as we all know, there’s an app for that—or several.

And above all, a book festival should fairly reflect how books are now, and how we get and read them. That likely could help to redress the age balance in the Festival, which was tilted a bit towards the older end of the range, despite the excellent comics stream. Being an institution doesn’t mean you have to become a relic.

Incidentally, the most prominent e-readers in the Festival were static displays at the entrance from Guardian Books offering online signups to win-a-Kindle lucky draws—on iPads. Oops…

 
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