Hachette CEO Calls the E-Book a “Stupid Product"

In an interview with India-based news service Scroll, Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry made headlines this week when he called the e-book a “stupid” product. That’s since been interpreted by some as Nourry calling e-books (or even digital reading) stupid, which of course isn’t what he said. Here’s the passage:

“In the U.S. and U.K. the e-book market is about 20% of the total book market, everywhere else it is 5%-7% because in these places the prices never went down to such a level that the e-book market would get significant traction. I think the plateau, or, rather the slight decline that we’re seeing in the U.S. and U.K. is not going to reverse. It’s the limit of the e-book format. The e-book 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. We, as publishers, have not done a great job going digital. We’ve tried. We’ve tried enhanced or enriched e-books—didn’t work. We’ve tried apps, websites with our content—we have one or two successes among a hundred failures. I’m talking about the entire industry. We’ve not done very well.”

First, it's worth pointing out that Nourry is clearly talking about trade e-books, like novels, and not educational or informational texts. And in the trade segment of the market, Nourry is of course right: the e-book as a digital “product” (at least as imagined by traditional publishers like the Big Five) is, to be kind, not terribly inspiring. But that's not because e-books don't have more digital bells and whistles, as he suggests, but because the trade e-book market has been designed more to protect publishers' legacy print businesses than to serve the needs, wants, and expectations of digital readers.

I understand why that is. "You have to defend the logic of your market against the interests of the big technology companies and their business models," Nourry explained to Scroll. Nevertheless, you have to admit that's not exactly a winning digital strategy. And it's a little disingenuous for a publisher like Nourry to bemoan the lack of innovation in the publishing industry's digital products when the industry itself insists that those digital products be designed to mimic their analog counterparts, even including analog-era "friction."

But what stands out most to me in Nourry’s comments is not that he calls e-books stupid products, but how little he seems interested in changing that reality. Hey, we tried, Nourry says, before going on to mention that Hachette has now pivoted to buying video game companies. Okaybut what about digital reading? Most e-book consumers I know could care less about "enhanced" or multimedia e-books. They just want the convenience of reading (and having their library) on their phones. And nowhere is the frustration with the e-book as a product more apparent than in the library space, where the demand for digital books is still on the rise, yet e-books remain more expensive, restrictive, complicated, and difficult to manage than their print counterparts.

That Nourry says he doesn't see the current "decline" in traditional publishers' e-book revenues reversing itself is telling. It says to me that publishers are content to see digital reading restrained in order to prop up their print businesses. Maybe that's a transitional strategy, and will change. But it's not without risk as kids grow up with increasing competition for their attention.

Nourry's comments brought to mind a memorable talk at the London Book Fair’s Digital Minds Conference in 2014, by BBC tech journalist Bill Thompson, who gently chided publishers for their slow embrace of technology.

“This is not a new game,” Thompson said. “We’ve had 70 years of digital, 40 years of e-books, 30 years of the Internet, 25 years of the web, 10 years of Facebook, and the iPhone is 7 years old,” he chided. “This is not new technology. We should be horrified at how slow we are to adapt to something that has been changing the world for seven decades."

Library Budgets Holding Steady, but Uncertainty Looms

Library Journal late last week released its 2018 Budget Survey—which shows mixed news for libraries nationwide. The good news: overall, library budgets are continuing to increase slightly. The not so good news, uncertainty over federal funding, and tax reform are raising concerns.

According to LJ’s Lisa Peet the survey of U.S. public libraries found a 2.8% increase in 2017’s total operating budgets, with 77% of the 329 responding libraries reporting an increase in total operating budgets from 2016 to 2017. However, both materials and technology budgets saw slower growth. Some 85% reported an increase in personnel budgets from the previous year—however, Peet reports, much of this went toward pay raises for existing workers rather than adding new staff.

State funding, meanwhile, was the revenue source hit hardest in 2017, down -5.8% from 2016, more than doubled FY16’s net decline of -2.7%. And the impact of the new federal tax law could put a damper on future revenues.

So, how are librarians feeling about next year? Surprisingly optimistic, Peet reports:

“Despite the uncertainty of federal, state, and grant funding, when asked to forecast for 2018, libraries predicted an average increase of 1.9%—slightly more upbeat than last year’s prediction of 1.4% but still lagging next year’s projected inflation rate of 2.38%. Respondents from moderately large library systems, serving populations of 500,000–999,999, had the most optimistic outlook for 2018, anticipating a 3.7% gain. Those in the 250,000–499,999 range anticipated a 0.8% uptick. Midwestern libraries projected a 2.8% increase, although they saw the smallest increases in local and tax dollars last year after the Northeast and the sharpest decline in state funding after the West/Mountain region.”

As usual, LJ's annual budget survey is packed with interesting findings, and offers an important gauge of the health of America’s libraries.

Boston Athenaeum Rare Books Curator Reflects on His Career

My favorite read of the week comes from Atlas Obscura, where Cara Giaimo has a fascinating interview with Stanley Ellis Cushing, who recently retired after a 47-year career at the Boston Athenaeum, starting first as a bookbinder, then a conservator, and finally as the library's first-ever curator of rare books.

“The Boston Athenaeum—a 211-year-old independent library in the center of Beacon Hill—is home to about 150,000 rare books. Some are old, and some are brand new. Some are huge, and some are tiny. Some are made of lead, some are made of shredded army uniforms, and one is, famously, made of human skin. Until recently, Stanley Ellis Cushing was in charge of all of them.”

Will San Diego Public Library Be the Latest to End Library Late Fees?

Once a radical idea, the idea of eliminating library late fees is gaining traction around the country. And this week, the San Diego Public Library is said to be considering a proposal to end the practice. According to a report in the Times of San Diego, library director Misty Jones told a committee of local lawmakers she is proposing the elimination of fines for overdue library books “in an effort to restore access to literacy resources in low-income communities, where as many as 57% of cardholders have been barred from checking out books because of outstanding bills.”

“The ultimate goal is for us to eliminate barriers to usage for all patrons,” she said. In addition, she said that collecting the fines actually costs more in terms of staff time and effort than forgiving them. According to the Times, Jones is proposing a model where an overdue item would be automatically renewed five times, and collection efforts would step up after that. The committee voted unanimously to study the issue.

Are the Books Teenagers Read Challenging Enough?

Its one thing to get teenagers to read books in the first place, but a new study conducted in 4,364 schools across the U.K. raises questions about the level difficulty of the books they are actually reading.

The author of the study, Keith Topping, a professor of education and social research at the University of Dundee, presented his findings in an article on Wednesday published on the Conversion. “The books that young people read—and how difficult they are— can have a massive impact on their ability to understand exam questions, tell fake news apart from real news and get informed and involved in society,” he wrote.

In One Iowa Town, a Petition Wants the Library to "Separate" LGBTQ Collections from Main Collection

Earlier this week, some residents of Orange City, Iowa, gathered in the basement of the Orange City Public Library to discuss a petition calling for the library to separate books with LGBTQ themes from the main collection and halt the acquisition of other such materials.

The Sioux City Journal reports the petition was started by Terry Chi, an assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern College. In addition to calling for a content rating system for materials that deal with LGBTQ themes--but don’t necessarily condone them, the petition proposes required public input for the acquisition of any new materials.

Dan Chibnall, the Iowa Library Association's president-elect, told reporters that libraries should avoid such labels. "We believe people should have access to as much material as possible, and it’s up to them as a community to decide what they should read and what they should and should not read with their families," he said.

The library’s board of trustees said they were working with the Iowa Library Association to review the collection development policy. The Orange City Library, meanwhile, has adopted the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights, which states “materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

Tragic Lesson: Parkland School Librarian Learned From Friend’s Experience at Sandy Hook

How sad a commentary on the state of American life: Reuters this week has an article on how Diana Haneski, a librarian at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, knew what to do when an intruder with an assault rifle attacked her school, because her friend endured the same experience.

“She was there that day in Sandy Hook and because of her I knew what to do,” Haneski told Reuters, referring to her longtime friend Yvonne Cech, the librarian on duty that tragic day in Newtown, Connecticut. Learning from Cech’s experience, Haneski quickly “herded 50 students and five adults into a media equipment room in the rear of the library” and locked the doors.

“People said to me: ‘What an incredible coincidence that you have such a close friend who could have the same experience’,” Cech told Reuters. “I feel angry that anyone had to experience that horror.”