The Chief Executive of Hachette Livre, the world’s third largest publisher, was reported in the Guardian yesterday as saying that ebooks are ‘a stupid product’, that is unlikely to see further growth.

Now I have a lot of time for Hachette, they were the company that stood up to the mighty Amazon after all, and stopped the decline of content reward to zero. They refused to cede control of pricing to Amazon and thus put a temporary dent in the onward march of a potential monopolist retail giant (after all Capitalism requires competition to thrive right?).

However I am not entirely sure Arnaud Nourry has got it quite right this time. Don’t get me wrong, the ebook market has plateaued and is if anything on a downward (a slight downward) gradient and I can see lots of reasons for that continuing, but Nourry’s reasoning looks a little odd although it contains nuggets of truth.

He reckons that ‘as publishers’ they have not done a great job of going digital, and I think he is probably correct, but his reasoning from there, the details of why growth has stalled is flawed. He thinks the problem lies in lack of imagination and digital know how, hence Hachette’s acquisition of three digital game companies over the last couple of years.

Is he right?

Well the holy grail a while back when video games started making it big, was open ended interactive storylines that went where you wanted them to and each person’s Mutant Ninja Zombie Rabbit IV would be a unique discourse. A truly postmodern retelling with each reading if you will.

It hasn’t worked yet as far as I know. I am not a big video game fan so I cannot say definitively that there are not wonder products that deliver exactly that experience out there, but I think they would have made more of a cultural splash if there were. Call Of Duty Modern Warfare Remastered for example starts and ends at the same place whatever you do inbetween. Indeed there are whole episodes where whatever you choose to do, if you wish to progress you have to fulfil certain plot conditions. This may a stunningly clever philosophical commentary on the inevitability of human action and the false illusion of freedom of will, or it may be a product of lack of processing power and the need to deliver a marketable game where (spoiler alert) the good guys win in the last reel.

Having said that you could go for the 3D, multi path, envisioned view of the ebook, but is it still a book? One of his criticisms of the ebook was ‘The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience.’

And of course there is the appeal for book lovers. If we want film we’ll watch it. If we want music with our reading we’ll pick it thanks very much (‘no thanks’ generally for me – reading is an immersive experience which occupies all my faculties if it is good enough, I don’t want distractions). I want the author’s vision of the experience, be it action, character development, plot, descriptive power or authorial world view, rather than a computer programmer’s. (I know there are creative developers who direct the story, plot, graphics etc but they are working with technical parameters moderated by experts. The more collaboration involved the more like a camel the thing gets – look at movies/films/TV).

The problems with ebooks that are killing growth are:
Pricing (who wants to go the music route where ‘content providers’, the actual creative raison d’être of the ‘industry,’ are treated as incidental to the process and paid virtually nothing for their efforts and sales?

Ownership. It has dawned on many people that their purchases of books are not purchases. They are rentals, and providers who get pernickety about consumer behaviour have been known to suddenly withdraw access to whole libraries of books. I have paid thousands of pounds for my books and they are mine. I can do what I like with them. Ebooks on the other hand are not yours. And you have them available at the whim of someone else. Not the author, not the publisher in most cases but the retailer. Imagine if a high street retailer’s van pulled up outside your house one morning and said they thought you might be letting other people read your books and they were taking your entire library back?

Sort your marketing model out before you start creating an ebook ‘experience’ that is no longer a book.

There is also the problem of ‘flicking’ back and forth between pages. Generally in fiction not much of a problem – unless you want to try and find where Pierre Bezuhov first comes into the story – but in non-fiction and say rules for games (a personal bugbear of mine) it is a killer –there are ways of sorting it, do it.

He was right however when he said that allowing ebook prices to drop to $2 is going to kill the infrastructure and author’s revenues. Modern supermarket approaches to bookselling have already caused a massive thinning out of the infrastructure of publishing with big houses gobbling up small independent publishers and small bookshops gone. Titles are remaindered before they hit the shelves in a bid to cut perceived losses based on weird pre sale review algorithms and a fire sale mentality.

Ebooks may be a ‘stupid’ product but the problem lies not in the idea of a portable compact reading library but in tech companies interference in marketing models.

A ‘smart’ product may be whizzy and bright and may have geek appeal, but it won’t be a book.

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