The Amazon Kindle e-book reader (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It wasn’t just me saying it – no less a figure than Arnaud Nourry, head of Hachette, said it in a 2018 interview: “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.” It’s worth reading his quote in full:

“We, as publishers, have not done a great job going digital. We’ve tried. We’ve tried enhanced or enriched ebooks—didn’t work. We’ve tried apps, Web sites 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.”

What did M Nourry mean? I think he meant that the vast majority of e-books show little variation from the print format, which represents in his view a failure. Presumably in his view we should have been more innovative with our e-book development.

Armand Nourry’s startling quote about e-books being “stupid” was included by Charles Watkinson, chair of a UKSG webinar entitled Digital Scholarship and the Future of the Book, in his introductory remarks. I will return to that event in another post. What intrigued me was that the whole event could be viewed as a commentary on Arnaud Nourry’s statement. The webinar described various “enhanced or enriched” e-book formats, almost as if the basic e-book was too simple to dwell on.

Well, I agree that e-books have in many ways been a failure. They have not replaced print sales as widely feared; but this is not because the e-book is not enhanced or enriched. There is something of a paradox here: on the one hand people complain about the e-book experience being inferior to reading print. On the other hand, e-books are lambasted because they don’t do many more thing than print books do. Let’s try to clarify things a bit. What do we want from e-books?

As far as I am concerned, I simply want the same experience I have from print books: a running text of the book. In many subtle ways the e-book is already delivering many more things than the print can do:

  • E-books are portable. I wouldn’t dream of taking a print version of War and Peace with me on a business trip.
  • The font size and display are adjustable to suit your preferences and the device you are reading on. If it is dark, you can increase the brightness.
  • The same title is available on several devices, and often you can continue reading on one device, say a smartphone, from the very point where you left off on your laptop. No need for bookmarks!
  • Numbered Endnotes don’t require several fingers and losing your place in the book. They are usually, hyperlinks and you can jump backwards and forwards as often as you like.
  • Some e-book readers, notably the Amazon Kindle, provide a note-taking function so that you can annotate the book as you go along. Later, you can search in your notes.
  • Finally, and probably the most important of all, you can search in the text for any word or phrase. This means I can go back in a non-fiction book to where a term was first defined (if it was defined at all, but that’s another matter). It means that when I read a novel, I can find all the references to one character. I can check notorious issues in famous novels, such as the colour of Emma Bovary’s eyes, in a matter of minutes, without having to re-read the novel.

Given all these advantages, how are e-books a failure? Some main reasons occur to me:

  1. Publishers have disgracefully dropped their standards when providing e-books. Content pages are often not hyperlinks to chapter boundaries in the text. Again and again I read e-books from major publishers that have spelling errors in them, because they take the e-book format for granted. It’s as if publishers have double standards: the print version has to be correct, but the e-book isn’t so important; we can give that job to a junior to check.
  2. There is no common standard for e-books, so the Kindle does not easily play e-books captured in a different format. I am probably typical in that I have three or four collections of e-books on each device I own, including Adobe Digital Editions, and Kindle. Each reader follows different standards, each uses slightly different processes. The result is confusion, like the competing railway gauges in Africa: to travel from one end of Africa to the other you will need to switch to three or four different widths of rail. The confusion about e-book formats ensures they remain a niche. I can never remember which reader I have saved my books on. I support initiatives such as Calibre, but it remains small-scale.
  3. Illustrated books have never entirely satisfactorily been transferred to the e-book platform. Illustrations remain stubbornly too big or too small or not keyed to the text to which they refer.
  4. Some of the devices I read e-books on have tiny screens, such as my Smartphone. But if I couldn’t access an e-book on my smartphone, I would probably never get round to reading it at all.

Independently of all the above, the idea of “digital scholarship” has become widespread, without it being helpful. Words and phrases become fashionable over time, and in the end become used so frequently and in so many contexts that they lose much of their meaning. The word “digital” in the phrase “digital scholarship” is an example. For some years, “digital” was a buzzword. It represented all the clever ways we could transform our boring heritage (“print” was almost a term of abuse) into something more exciting. UK Premier Harold Wilson was doing something very similar when he talked about “the white heat of technology” as long ago as 1963 – it must be good technology if it operates at white heat. When we talk about “digital scholarship”, what exactly does the “digital” mean? We don’t talk about scholarship with a pen, or scholarship with library records. No, what we imply by “digital scholarship” is none of the simple benefits as stated above; we believe we can do something far cleverer, straining at the boundaries of what is technically possible. Unfortunately, such innovations are usually vastly expensive to create, have a steep learning curve for new users, and do not appeal to mainstream audiences. If readers used the above simple functionality well, with interoperable standards, so that you really could read on any of your devices the same e-book from any vendor, then scholarship would be simpler. The Digital Scholarship webinar was not about this simple functionality. Instead, it focused on new platforms, such as Fulcrum, which “supports authors who want to push the boundaries of the book”.

With respect to M Nourry, I don’t think we want to push the boundaries of the book. Providing the above simple functionality, and providing it well, would be quite enough for me. If a digital platform could provide a well curated text of the works of a writer, comprising all the relevant information, and all searchable – imagine a kind of digital Pléiade edition of any major writer! It would transform scholarship, without pushing any boundaries. Full text has been available for over 50 years, and we still aren’t making the most of it.