It seems there is a new report every 5 minutes telling us that ebook use is declining or rising, now there is a new one telling us that audiobook and ebook use is rising in the USA. The link below is to an article reporting on the rise.
In the days before social media – and, presumably, media training – Gerald Ratner’s description of some of the products sold in his chain of jewellers as “total crap” became a byword for the corporate gaffe. Recently the chief executive of publisher Hachette Livre, Arnaud Nourry, seems to have suffered his own “Ratner moment” when he described ebooks in an interview with an Indian news site as a “stupid product”.
The interview, which was intended to address the future of digital publishing and specific issues facing the Indian publishing market, was widely misquoted and Nourry’s comments taken out of context. But there is no denying the fact that the publisher criticises his own industry (“We’re not doing very well”) and attacks ebooks for lacking creativity, not enhancing the reading experience in any way and not offering readers a “real” digital experience.
Some commenters on social media welcomed Nourry’s comments for their honesty. They highlight his seeming support for the idea that publishers should be championing writers and artists working to exploit the creative potential of digital formats to provide readers with experiences that may be challenging and disruptive, but also exhilarating and boundary pushing.
But many of the 1,000-plus commenters reacting to coverage of the story on The Guardian’s website spoke out against “fiddling for the sake of it” – claiming they were not interested in enhanced features or “gamified dancing baloney” borrowed from other media. They also listed the many practical enhancements that ebooks and ereaders do offer. The obvious one is the ability to instantly download books in remote locations where there are no bricks and mortar bookstores. But there are other less obvious enhancements, including being able to instantly access dictionary and encyclopedia entries (at least if you have wifi access) and the option to have the book read to you if you have visual impairments.
Elsewhere, Australian researcher Tully Barnett has shown how users of Kindle ereaders adapt features such as Highlights and Public Notes for social networking, demonstrating that even if ebooks are not that intrinsically innovative or creative, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t be made so by imaginative users.
Nourry clearly isn’t averse to the provocative soundbite – in the same interview he went on to say: “I’m not a good swallower” when asked about mergers and conglomeration in the publishing industry. On the other hand, he also seems very aware of the special place of books and reading in “culture, education, democracy” – so his use of the word “stupid” in this context is particularly inflammatory and insensitive.
My research on digital reading has taught me that debating books vs ereaders is always likely to arouse strong passions and emotions. Merely mentioning the word Kindle has led in some instances to my being shouted at – and readers of “dead tree” books are rightly protective and passionate about the sensory and aesthetic qualities of physical books that the digital version possibly can’t compete with.
But, equally, my research has shown that enhancements in terms of accessibility and mobility offer a lifeline to readers who might not be able to indulge their passion for reading without the digital.
In my latest project, academics from Bournemouth and Brighton universities, in collaboration with Digitales (a participatory media company), worked with readers to produce digital stories based on their reading lives and histories. A recurring theme, especially among older participants, was the scarcity of books in their homes and the fact that literacy and education couldn’t be taken for granted. Our stories also demonstrated how intimately reading is connected with self-worth and helps transform lives disrupted by physical and mental health issues – making comments about any reading as “stupid” particularly damaging and offensive.
I would like to know if Nourry would still call ebooks stupid products after watching Mary Bish’s story: My Life in Books from our project. A lifelong reader who grew up in a home in industrial South Wales with few books, Mary calls her iPad her “best friend” and reflects how before the digital age her reading life would have been cut short by macular degeneration.
As well as demonstrating that fairly basic digital tools can be used to create powerful stories, our project showed that the digital also makes us appreciate anew those features of the physical book we may take for granted, the touch, smell and feel of paper and the special place that a book handed down from generation to generation has in the context of family life.
Australia’s consumer laws aren’t adequately protecting Australians who buy digital products such as e-books and digital music. If a TV doesn’t work, or an iPod or computer is faulty, the law provides a remedy. The same is true for physical books and music media – but not for their online counterparts.
Under Australian law consumers are entitled to receive goods that are of acceptable quality and fit for their purposes, and that correspond with their description, among other legally enforceable consumer guarantees. But these guarantees apply only to “goods” and “services”.
How digital products fit (or don’t fit) into the goods and services categories has been debated for decades, and the law still hasn’t properly accommodated them.
Australia’s consumer laws went through a major update in 2010, but remain out of date. The digital world moves fast, but our consumer laws remain rooted in a system that assumes “goods” and “services” are the only types of trade. These laws still owe much to sale of goods legislation passed in the United Kingdom all the way back in 1893.
What are consumer laws?
The law generally expects that people and companies entering into contracts are able to look after their own interests. Consumer laws exist to provide additional legal protection to consumers, who are usually in an unequal bargaining position compared to the companies they deal with.
A consumer is someone who acquires goods or services that are ordinarily bought for personal, domestic or household use, or for a price of A$40,000 or less.
Consumer purchases include a range of items – TVs, iPods and computers are just some examples. Where a consumer purchases goods, the law requires that those goods comply with particular consumer guarantees, no matter what the terms and conditions of sale say.
If a new “smart TV” won’t connect to wifi, or if an iPod or computer’s battery doesn’t last as long as it should, the consumer guarantees provide a remedy.
It was during the 1980s and through to the 2000s that initial questions arose over how the law treated software. The question at this time was whether software counted as “goods”. A series of court cases found that software was considered goods only if it was supplied within a tangible object – for example, on a disk (later, on a CD or DVD).
Because of this, when consumers started downloading software over the internet they were left without many protections. If software downloaded directly from the internet didn’t do what it was supposed to do, they might have no effective legal rights at all.
In 2010, with the Competition and Consumer Act, the definition of goods was finally amended to include “computer software”. But this still excludes many common digital products, such as e-books and digital music. These do not constitute “computer software” as the law understands it.
Recent court proceedings highlight the large gap in the Australian consumer law.
In 2016, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission brought a Federal Court case against Valve Corporation, alleging it misrepresented consumers’ rights concerning content bought through the Steam video game platform.
Justice Edelman found that Valve Corporation had supplied “goods”, being “computer software”, but also found that “non-executable data was not computer software”, and that such non-executable data could include “music and html images”.
In other words, the computer games were “goods” (attracting the law’s protection) because they were executable programs. This part of the Federal Court’s decision was not challenged in the Full Court of the Federal Court, which dismissed Valve Corp’s appeal in December 2017.
If this definition of computer software is applied in future cases, then there is a legal gap when it comes to other types of digital products. E-books and digital music (among others) require executable files to work, but aren’t themselves executable files, so would not constitute computer software.
If they don’t constitute computer software, they also aren’t goods under the law. And if they aren’t goods, consumers who acquire these digital products don’t obtain the protections and guarantees of Australia’s consumer laws.
The wider consequences of inequality in the law
Beyond this problem for consumers, this legal gap also creates an inequality for retailers. Retailers that deal in physical books and music (whether they are “bricks and mortar” or online) are required to comply with the guarantees and protections under Australian consumer law.
This means that businesses dealing in physical goods incur costs that those that sell only digital equivalents (apart from software) can avoid. Australia is in effect subsidising those who sell only digital products (many of them foreign companies) by not subjecting them to the same legal liabilities.
A simple legislative amendment can easily solve this problem. Rather than providing that goods includes “computer software”, a legal provision stipulating that goods include “computer software and other types of digital products” would capture the broader range of products we see in the marketplace today.
We can learn from the United Kingdom, where digital products are given their own dedicated consumer rights regime. The United Kingdom has a series of consumer rights applicable to the supply of goods, the supply of services, and also to the supply of digital content.
The link below is to an article that explores the issue of link rot in ebooks.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at a start-up called ‘Serial Box,’ that blends reading with audio.
The link below is to an article that asks the question, ‘do we really need books anymore?’
There has been a recent controversy surrounding remarks by Arnaud Nourry, chief executive of Hachette Livre, concerning ‘stupid ebooks.’ The links below are first to an article reporting on the remarks and the second link is a response to them. I think the response is brilliant – though more could be said.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article that responds to Hachette’s CEO and his ebooks are stupid remarks.
The link below is to an article that reports on comments from the Hachette CEO, in which he basically says ebooks are stupid.