The recent interview that Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry gave to Indian news site has been a sort of nine-day wonder of the ebook world lately. In this interview, Nourry called the ebook a “stupid product” because it’s “exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience.”

He added that publishers have tried enhanced or enriched ebooks time and time again, and they simply haven’t worked. As a result, he came to the conclusion that publishers simply don’t have the necessary skill set to enhance ebooks because they’re too stuck on the printed page and don’t know where to go from there.

There’s so much to address in this, though to some extent I already did when I addressed Random House CEO Markus Dohle’s similar opinions a few months ago. Reading over this particular article actually reminds me a lot of an anecdote from the late Douglas Adams’s best-known work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The Nutri-Matic Publishers

Episode 9 of the radio drama touches on the Nutri-Matic Drink Dispenser, an automated and sentient machine that runs complicated taste analyses on its customer, but then invariably dispenses an unpalatable beverage that is “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.” In this episode, Arthur Dent and friends on the starship Heart of Gold are on the run from a fleet of enemy starships intent on their destruction, when Arthur gets into an argument with the shipboard machine.

While ranting at the machine, Dent asks, “And you know why I want a cup of tea?” The Nutri-Matic machine immediately starts trying to compute the answer to that, tying up all the computing power on board the ship so it can’t activate its Infinite Improbability Drive and escape—a dilemma that eventually ends up requiring supernatural intervention to sort out.

This machine seems to be the perfect metaphor for the Big Five traditional publishers, of which Hachette is one. Both the Nutri-Matic and the publishers are supposed to determine exactly what their customers want, and then profit by supplying it to them—but they also both seem to have the hardest time actually figuring it out. For the Nutri-Matic, Douglas Adams just wanted to get some laughter from the audience and make a few more jokes at poor Arthur Dent’s expense. What’s the publishers’ excuse?

Who Needs Enhancement?

Einstein supposedly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. How many times have the major publishers, hopeful start-ups, inventors, and others repeatedly tackled this problem of the “enhanced” ebook? And yet after all this, the only lesson that Nourry—the head of one of the biggest publishing companies on the planet—can take from it is that publishers just don’t have the skill set to do it right. (And this reminds me of another anecdote from Adams—the pundits Vroomfondel and Majikthise deciding that they didn’t think of a fairly obvious idea because their minds were “too highly specialized.”)

The lesson publishers should be learning is that the format of the plain-vanilla prose book—by which I mean both paper books and ebooks—is just so close to being perfect that it can’t easily be improved upon.

The only differences between prose ebooks and paper books are a matter of format; the content of both is a series of words that are meant to be read sequentially from beginning to end. When people reach for a book, that’s what they want—whether it’s on print media that doesn’t require batteries and can be easily riffled through, or on digital media that can have text resized and reflowed and searched. They just want to read words sequentially. They don’t want some “enhanced” multimedia experience, any more than Arthur Dent wanted a Nutri-Matic “unlike tea” beverage.

If It’s Stupid But It Works…

And just how “stupid” can ebooks be if they make up 20% of the traditional market, and would make up more of it if publishers would drop the prices further? Not to mention making up something like 90% of unit sales of self-published books according to Author Earnings, though this is probably due in part to how much harder it is to self-publish in print than electronically.

The fact that 1 in every 5 traditionally published books and 9 in every 10 self-published books are electronic should suggest they’re anything but a “stupid” failure—even leaving aside how Amazon built a significant amount of its current reputation on the Kindle, and has effectively conquered the American ebook market and significant portions of the rest of the world’s. As the aphorism goes, “If it’s stupid but it works, it’s not stupid.”

So, how about these publishers develop a little more faith in their own product? How about they maybe not call “stupid” something that makes up a fifth of their sales, and would make up more if they’d adopt a little more realistic attitude toward pricing their books? If they got over themselves and actually devoted attention to pushing ebook sales, they might be surprised just how many people actually do want them. (I do wonder what percentage of Baen’s sales are made up by ebooks, given that they do have a more realistic price structure for them than the Big Five. Perhaps I’ll ask Toni Weisskopf and see if she’ll tell me.)

But then, it’s old news that publishers have always wanted to protect those print sales from cannibalization by ebook sales at all costs. That’s why, in that article I rebutted earlier, Dohle was so happy that they were keeping ebook sales down to 20%. I wonder if that will change if and when Barnes & Noble goes under?

Update: Or Maybe I’m Just Stupid

It’s been pointed out elsewhere that Nourry probably actually wasn’t using the term “stupid” as a value judgement, but simply as an indication of how bereft of added digital features (like multimedia) the format is. He didn’t do the best job of making it clear (perhaps because English isn’t his primary language?), and most places that have covered the piece seem to have jumped to the same value judgement conclusion I did. It might have been more apt for him to call ebooks “dumb,” like computers can have “dumb terminals” that interface with mainframe computers.

In any case, even if he didn’t mean to call them “stupid” as a value judgement, publishers have clearly shown enough lack of interest in supporting and promoting plain-vanilla ebooks that I think the fundamental points still stand. If ebooks are “dumb” and unenhanced, it just shows that “dumb” is the way people want them.

I Fought the Google, and…Wait, What?

That main point is so breathtaking in its short-sightedness that it’s almost not worth touching on anything else in the article. But all the same, there are a couple of other points worth considering.

For starters, there’s this gem. In the middle of an answer about what kind of impact Facebook and Google have had on publishing, Nourry says, “Of course, Google ten years ago had the crazy idea of digitising all books without permission. We collectively fought that and won.”

Actually, no, Arnaud, you didn’t. Google Books was ruled fair use (and rightly so), and continues chugging right along.

Wresting Price Control from Amazon

Also, I couldn’t help noticing how breathlessly the interviewer gave Hachette, and Nourry took, credit for wresting control over ebook pricing from Amazon via the big Amazon/Hachette dispute in 2014—while at the same time not saying one word about the way that a few years earlier, Hachette and the other five Big Six publishers were slapped down by the Justice Department, and Apple was sued and lost, for illegally conspiring to wrest control over ebook pricing from Amazon.

Nourry insists that, from the very moment ebooks came to their market in 2006-2007, he was in favor of keeping control over the price—which makes it seem rather odd in hindsight that neither Hachette nor anyone else actually even tried to keep control over price back then—they just gave Amazon the same wholesale deal on ebooks that they did on print books, patted Jeff Bezos on the head, and told him to go out in the yard and play and be sure to wash his hands before he came in for dinner. It was years before Hachette joined that illegal price-fixing conspiracy, hastily settled, and then imposed agency pricing again once the settlement terms permitted.

But you wouldn’t know any of that to listen to Nourry talk. He adds:

It’s not that we’re against ebooks. People have to pay a price that is about 40% lower than the print price. And it works. The ebook market has gone down a little bit, not much, from say 25% to 20% in some countries. There is still a readership for ebooks but at a price that keeps the ecosystem alive. That’s absolutely key because the music business has lost half of its turnover in ten years. I love music but books are about culture, education, democracy, so it’s even more important to keep the diversity in book publishing, more so than music publishing.

Ah yes, the “books as special snowflakes” argument. How is it that only books are allowed to be about “culture, education, democracy”? Are movies and television suddenly chopped liver? (Just look at the reactions to Black Panther, which has successfully infused a Marvel superhero movie with a heaping shovel-full of social justice issues, and say that books are somehow unique in being able to discuss those things.)

And then there’s the “price that keeps the ecosystem alive” which, if you read between the lines, actually means the “price that keeps them from cannibalizing print book sales any further.” And it’s funny how even Nourry admits that “there is still a readership for ebooks” just a couple of paragraphs before he goes on to call them a “stupid” format. Is Nourry so delusional that he actually believes all this stuff?

Will we see more sense out of the publishers when this older generation eventually retires and younger blood—that grew up with ebooks—takes the reins? It will be interesting to find out. Right now, it’s hard to imagine how any publisher can get by with a CEO who clearly doesn’t fully understand the product that he sells.