In the days before social media – and, presumably, media training – Gerald Ratner’s description of some of the products sold in his chain of jewellers as “total crap” became a byword for the corporate gaffe. Recently the chief executive of publisher Hachette Livre, Arnaud Nourry, seems to have suffered his own “Ratner moment” when he described ebooks in an interview with an Indian news site as a “stupid product”.
The interview, which was intended to address the future of digital publishing and specific issues facing the Indian publishing market, was widely misquoted and Nourry’s comments taken out of context. But there is no denying the fact that the publisher criticises his own industry (“We’re not doing very well”) and attacks ebooks for lacking creativity, not enhancing the reading experience in any way and not offering readers a “real” digital experience.
Some commenters on social media welcomed Nourry’s comments for their honesty. They highlight his seeming support for the idea that publishers should be championing writers and artists working to exploit the creative potential of digital formats to provide readers with experiences that may be challenging and disruptive, but also exhilarating and boundary pushing.
But many of the 1,000-plus commenters reacting to coverage of the story on The Guardian’s website spoke out against “fiddling for the sake of it” – claiming they were not interested in enhanced features or “gamified dancing baloney” borrowed from other media. They also listed the many practical enhancements that ebooks and ereaders do offer. The obvious one is the ability to instantly download books in remote locations where there are no bricks and mortar bookstores. But there are other less obvious enhancements, including being able to instantly access dictionary and encyclopedia entries (at least if you have wifi access) and the option to have the book read to you if you have visual impairments.
Elsewhere, Australian researcher Tully Barnett has shown how users of Kindle ereaders adapt features such as Highlights and Public Notes for social networking, demonstrating that even if ebooks are not that intrinsically innovative or creative, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t be made so by imaginative users.
Nourry clearly isn’t averse to the provocative soundbite – in the same interview he went on to say: “I’m not a good swallower” when asked about mergers and conglomeration in the publishing industry. On the other hand, he also seems very aware of the special place of books and reading in “culture, education, democracy” – so his use of the word “stupid” in this context is particularly inflammatory and insensitive.
My research on digital reading has taught me that debating books vs ereaders is always likely to arouse strong passions and emotions. Merely mentioning the word Kindle has led in some instances to my being shouted at – and readers of “dead tree” books are rightly protective and passionate about the sensory and aesthetic qualities of physical books that the digital version possibly can’t compete with.
But, equally, my research has shown that enhancements in terms of accessibility and mobility offer a lifeline to readers who might not be able to indulge their passion for reading without the digital.
In my latest project, academics from Bournemouth and Brighton universities, in collaboration with Digitales (a participatory media company), worked with readers to produce digital stories based on their reading lives and histories. A recurring theme, especially among older participants, was the scarcity of books in their homes and the fact that literacy and education couldn’t be taken for granted. Our stories also demonstrated how intimately reading is connected with self-worth and helps transform lives disrupted by physical and mental health issues – making comments about any reading as “stupid” particularly damaging and offensive.
I would like to know if Nourry would still call ebooks stupid products after watching Mary Bish’s story: My Life in Books from our project. A lifelong reader who grew up in a home in industrial South Wales with few books, Mary calls her iPad her “best friend” and reflects how before the digital age her reading life would have been cut short by macular degeneration.
As well as demonstrating that fairly basic digital tools can be used to create powerful stories, our project showed that the digital also makes us appreciate anew those features of the physical book we may take for granted, the touch, smell and feel of paper and the special place that a book handed down from generation to generation has in the context of family life.