If the London Book Fair had a spiritual representative, who would it be? Elephant-headed Ganesha, the Hindu deity venerated as a remover of obstacles? Or St Jude, patron saint of lost causes? As the Fair prepares to open its doors for the 41st year, T. Thurai considers a tricky question of metaphysics – and the current state of the publishing industry.

Publish and be …?

I once attended a publishing seminar where one of the speakers was a commissioning editor for a well-known publishing house. As he began his talk, he lapsed into starry-eyed reminiscence. He told us how, as a graduate freshly-recruited into the publishing industry, he had dreamed of lunches where he would engage in sparkling repartee with literary giants.

“I would be seated between the modern equivalents of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen,” he mused.

“But, of course, it’s not like that at all,” he added, sadly.

It was the prelude to a shocking admission: his current role consisted of representing former glamour model, Katie Price, better known for her appearances on Page 3 of The Sun than on the pages of a book.

This confession met first with a horrified intake of breath, followed by a mixture of mutinous murmuring and disparaging sniggers. For brave man that he was, the speaker was addressing an audience that consisted mainly of authors: many aspiring, all of them struggling. The merest mention of Katie Price in such company was like pouring lighter-fuel on a small flame. The room virtually exploded with indignation.

Celebrity authors are a cause of deep resentment among serious writers because many celebrities employ ghost-writers to do the hard slog for them. They rarely, if ever, set pen to paper but lack the honesty to admit it. Some have even won awards for services to reading and have had the gall to accept their prizes as if they had written the books themselves.

But the fault does not lie with celebrity authors. They are merely a symptom of a deep malaise within the publishing industry that has its cause elsewhere. Here is a brief summary of the revolution that has turned a traditional industry on its head.

In 1899, the Net Book Agreement (NBA) was introduced. This permitted publishers to set the minimum retail price for books. Despite its paternalistic approach, it allowed both large and small book-sellers to compete on equal terms. However, by the 1990s, chain bookstores had acquired a substantial presence on the High Street and were no longer content to abide by this benign form of price-fixing. Their vigorous campaign to outlaw the NBA bore fruit in 1997 when the Restrictive Practices Court declared it illegal.

Without restrictions on pricing, the chains were able to compete in a retail market in exactly the same way as supermarkets. The first casualties were the independent book-sellers. Within a couple of decades, over 500 had closed. However, the next victims were the chain bookshops themselves.

Without the protection of the NBA, books presented an attractive commodity to supermarkets which began to sell them at huge discounts, undercutting even the largest book-chains. Soon, it was the supermarkets – not the bookstores or the publishers – who were dictating what would fill the shelves. Hence the ceaseless flow of celebrity offerings and a narrow range of stack ‘em high, sell ‘em quick genres such as crime, gothic, romance, sci-fi and chick lit.

It was a development that was to prove an unmitigated disaster, not only for the book industry, but also for authors. Only those who represented a ready-made brand (i.e. celebrities) or wrote in one of the genres mentioned above had any real hope of being taken on by agents or publishers. No-one was taking a punt on original literary talent or devoting the time to nurturing new authors. The middle-range of authors who delivered works of literary merit - but not big bucks - virtually disappeared.

The industry was in a sorry state. There were dire predictions for Britain’s literary heritage. And then something extraordinary happened. Digital technology revolutionised the publishing industry. What is more, it democratised what formerly operated as an oligarchy.

With the growing accessibility of ebook formats and print-on-demand, authors found that they had more control over their work. While, on the negative side, digital media opened the flood-gates to all sorts of bad writing, it also threw a lifeline to serious, middle-range authors whose work would otherwise be lost.

From the smoking ruins of the publishing industry, a new Colossus emerged. Amazon. Unlike its traditional counterparts, Amazon was quick to embrace the digital revolution. And it is now reaping the rewards.

The last chapter in this saga is yet to be written. The question teasing the industry has been whether Amazon and traditional publishers could reach an accord ensuring comfortable co-habitation, if not co-operation: a kind of NBA for the 21st century.

A few weeks ago, the industry had its answer. In a move that sent shock-waves through the publishing world, Amazon removed over 4,000 Kindle eBooks from its site following a spat with the Independent Publishers’ Group. The ejected titles included some of the IPG’s best-sellers.

These are turbulent times for the industry. So, in answer to the question set in the introduction to this article, I think that two protective entities should be appointed to oversee London’s Book Fair: Ganesha for the authors and St Jude for the publishers.

The Devil Dancers by T. Thurai will be exhibited on the New Titles Showcase at the London Book Fair from 16 – 18 April. (The Showcase is located at the junction of the main exhibition halls, Earls Court One and Two).

The author will be Tweeting news from the London Book Fair next week. Follow her @T_Thurai.