We’re all still reeling a bit from Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry’s casually dropped judgement from his recent interview with Scroll, to the effect that “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.” However, reading on, I’m forced to the conclusion that what Mr Nourry really thinks is stupid is not the ebook itself so much as book publishers’ attempts to develop it; that the ebook as we’ve presented it is “unintelligent” — lacks the intelligence that the digital format so obviously invites. As he goes on to say: “I’m convinced there is something we can invent using our content and digital properties beyond ebooks but I reached the conclusion that we don’t really have the skills and talents in our companies because publishers and editors are accustomed to picking a manuscript and creating a design on a flat page. They don’t really know the full potential of 3-D and digital. So we acquired three video game companies in the last two years to attract talent from different industries and see how we can nurture one another and how we can go beyond the ebook on digital. We need to offer different experiences to our consumers.” 

Now of course a man in charge of a world-wide media conglomerate should one might assume be able to express himself clearly and without ambiguity. To say the ebook is stupid is really no different from saying the paperback format is stupid. It just doesn’t have a lot of meaning. Worse, it provides a red rag to the commentariat who can read Mr Nourry’s remark as another example of publishers’ benighted prejudice against the digital hordes. So glaringly obvious is this “error” that one is tempted to assume that Mr Nourry may in fact have been misquoted: surely, whatever you might believe about the relative desirability of print and digital, it’s unlikely that “stupid” would be the word you’d choose.

It is true that the ebook hasn’t really changed anything much — access yes, but the basic experience, not so much. Reading an ebook or a print book ends up being basically the same experience: it’s the book that you’re reading, and the effect on you of War and Peace is liable to be very similar whether you read it on an iPhone, on a Kindle, as a hardback, as a paperback or even as an audiobook. The economics of TV and cinema make watching War and Peace quite different though, and what Mr Nourry is perhaps stumbling towards is a book-based product which differs from the original to a similar extent. Not sure I feel in need of such a thing, but of course I don’t really know what I’m talking about as it hasn’t been invented yet.

It’s not that people aren’t trying. “Between the web and social media, I read more than I ever have — and yet I read fewer books than ever. Reading over all my notes about the future of reading, I see I have reported it out of hope that books will evolve to repair what other technologies have started to break: my ability to concentrate over hundreds of pages.” Thus Casey Newton in his pean to Amazon on The Verge. His piece reports on developments under way at the Kindle lab in Sunnyvale, CA. I must admit that such changes as he mentions seem incremental rather than transformative. Transformative seems however to be what Craig Mod is after (and perhaps Mr Nourry). In his much referenced piece at Aeon Mr Mod blames Amazon for not developing the Kindle more than they have. Fiona Smith-Strickland echoes Mod’s complaint at Gizmodo. Mod shows (at the very end) one fairly dramatic ebook development at Bret Victor’s Communications Design Group research laboratory in San Francisco. But who is going to pay for this sort of work? These sorts of thing are always nice as R&D, but in the real world people probably just aren’t willing to fund them by paying more for their ebooks, are they? Not me, anyway.

Echoing Casey Newton’s plaint, Hugh McGuire says he now can’t read more than four books a year in this Medium piece. He defines his “problem” thus:

  1. I cannot read books because my brain has been trained to want a constant hit of dopamine, which a digital interruption will provide
  2. This digital dopamine addiction means I have trouble focusing: on books, work, family and friends.

People like to write this sort of stuff, but it doesn’t have to mean what they think it means. This inability to concentrate on a book is blamed by the writer on the internet and the pleasure hit he gets when he follows up a link. But there’s really a much simpler explanation: he has two daughters, aged four and two. What reasonable human being thinks there’s any chance of their reading more than four books a year under these conditions? Your focus (thank goodness, Hugh) is elsewhere. The solutions you propose for your supposed problem are radical (no TV after dinner? — What about the World Series?) and they will help, but not in the way you think. They’ll help because with kids you need more sleep.

Of course all this will have settled down and seem quaint when we have moved on and invented the “whizzblook” or whatever the as yet uninvented electronic extension of the book book turns out to be named. I’m sure the invention will happen, just as I’m sure it’ll have as little to do with books as movies do today. After the “whizzblook” has come along I suspect book publishers will get on with publishing their books pretty much as they do today in all the stupid formats we’ve learned to love: hardback, paperback, ebook, and anything else we will have dreamed up by then.