The Great Ebook Drama of 2018

It’s the shot heard round the literary world.

“It’s the limit of the ebook format. 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.”

-Arnaud Nourry, chief executive of Hachette Livre

The initial sensationalization of his comments on ebooks make it out to be less than it is, which is often the case with all news these days. I’m loathe to admit that, after reading the actual interview, I partially agree with the pessimism that Nourry exudes.

But I don’t believe ebook stagnation is a cause, but rather a symptom. Uninspired platforms, device limits, and a lack of innovation have damaged the possibilities.

Meet the New Book, Same as the Old Book

The desire to emulate normal books has stifled the creative elixir required for innovation. Instead of asking “How far can we reach?” places like Amazon tout thinner, more stripped Kindle eReaders that can do little more than what a normal book already does.

I get it. The initial appeal of e-readers are how you can take what would be a library and shrink it down to the size of a PalmPilot.

When I heard of digital novels for the first time, my imagination soared. Think of how much more interactive reading could be. With in-line links that could take the reader to a map; a Wiki page; a short description that never takes away from the experience.

Books with instrumental, atmospheric music playing? Why the hell not? And, in fact, I believe I remember a time when some novels did try doing that. With the removal of physical constraints, the possibilities were endless.

Please Ignore the Creative Convergence

As the internet rose, the creative communities converged. Except, it seems, books have excluded themselves in large part from the shared community.

But, once again, the limitations of the platforms killed the dream.

Of course, in a rebuke of the claim that the ebook is a stupid product, Erin Kelly made her argument for why ebooks don’t suck. And, in an unsurprising start, the argument of having a library in your pocket forges the narrative.

Then, in a completely unexpected turn, Kelly brought in a solid point: Ebooks allow readers easy consumption of all an author’s work. Instead of finishing a novel, and moving onto something else, you can download the next installment in a series or the new hit by the author.

It’s a harsh dichotomy. Sales are down, but individual sales seem to be easier than ever to attain.

Now, I’m about to put a quote inside of a quote inside of a quote from Kelly’s rebuttal:

““It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience,” said Nourry. Fake news! The built-in, one-tap dictionary is a boon for Will Self fans. And as an author, I’m fascinated by the facility that shows you phrases other readers have highlighted; what is it about this sentence that resonated with dozens of humans? It’s an illicit glimpse into the one place even a writer’s imagination can never really go: readers’ minds. And Kindle’s Whispersync facility lets the reader fluidly alternate between reading a book and listening to it. What are these if not enhancements to the reading experience?”

A built-in dictionary is amazing, and something I use constantly when reading. Being able to see other reader’s most highlighted passages is neat but, at the same time, it distracts from the experience. When I see those dotted lines coming, all I can think is “Oh, gee, can’t wait to see whatever poignant moment is coming up.” Is it different from highlighting a sad moment in bright red as a heads-up?

And Whispersync. You know, the revolutionary ability to switch between reading and listening to an ebook so long as you shell out an extra $15 for the audio.

Another Day at the Playground

While Kelly’s argument is 100% valid, I can’t help but feel that neither side of the argument understands that ebooks are capable of so much more. Instead, a juvenile combat is taking place.

“Ebooks suck.”
“Nuh-uh!”
“Well, my Kindle fits a billion books!”
“Not if I beat it up!”

Newer platforms like Wattpad, Tapas, and other web/app-based readers make it easier than ever to realize the broken promise of ebooks. Much like blogs, these sites operate on the serialization of novels and short stories. Multimedia can be imported and placed anywhere in the text, without much limitation.

So, yeah, ebooks suck, but they also don’t, yet the greatest point to be taken from this is that ebooks are absolutely, unequivocally becoming a relic.

And maybe that speaks the truth behind Nourry’s salacious comment.

Often, publishers failed to adapt as the industry fractured and changed. Now, their sales suffer while new, actually innovative competition eats their lunch.

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