Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Publishing’s Ratner moment: why eBooks are not ‘stupid’

Publishing’s Ratner moment: why eBooks are not ‘stupid

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.

Dear reader

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.

Mother and daughter Barbara and Jenni Creswell enjoyed Anne of Green Gables in both print and ebook format. Ray GibsonAuthor provided

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.

Private Eye circulation soars as readers turn to satire – funny that

Private Eye circulation soars as readers turn to satire – funny that

Fifty years of poking fun and holding power to account. Private Eye
It’s a fair bet that champagne corks have been popping at Gnome House, the abode of Lord Gnome, the (fictional) proprietor of the satirical magazine, Private Eye since the latest circulation figures were released. This is because, running contrary to the usual news about the moribund printed press, the Eye recently recorded its largest-ever circulation figures.
And, according to reports in the Press Gazette the 2016 Christmas issue was a real blockbuster selling some 287,334 copies and weighing in as the biggest single sale in the 55-year-old magazine’s existence.
Understandably, Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye since 1986, did little to contain his delight. He told the Press Gazette that there had been no additional marketing, such as bulk giveaways involved in the achievement – people really were just buying the magazine. He added:
I know we are niche and we are fortnightly but it is about having confidence in the reading public. I do think if people will pay £2.50 for a cup of coffee then they will pay [£1.80] for a copy of the Eye.
Private Eye is not alone. The Economist, in a generally glowing six-monthly report, revealed in June 2016 that print sales were up 2.1% year-on-year while The Spectator reports that its UK print sales are up by 10% in a year – which builds upon the success of 2016 when the political magazine broke circulation records and sold more copies than at any time in its 189-year history. Also doing well are The Week, the New Statesman and Prospect.
And in France, Le Canard enchaîné, which recently celebrated its 100th birthday, is also in rude health despite carrying no advertising and a relatively low cover price of €1.20 (£1) per copy.

Bonding with readers

So what is it about these current affairs magazines that sees them buck the trend? First of all, the relationship between the reader and their periodical has always been unique. The connection is ritualistic and forged on a bond of trust. The reader knows exactly what they will get from one week to the next. This is why advertisers have traditionally been attracted to advertising in magazines. A close and tangible bond between reader and text renders, in theory anyway, the customer to the advertiser in a receptive frame of mind.
Private Eye’s online presence is minimal, just a taster – to get the full experience you simply have to buy a copy of the printed magazine. And many people do – the subscription model is key to the Eye’s success – as Campaign magazine reported recently, 57.1% of Private Eye’s worldwide sales come from subscriptions.
Bond with readers: Private Eye editor Ian Hislop.Featureflash Photo Agency
Hislop is right to say that the Eye is niche. But the magazine enjoys an especially close bond with its readership, defined by a series of codes and in-jokes. Whichever party is in power – and however vicious or ridiculous the political landscape – the Eye is there with its regular features and, to the casual reader, impenetrable series of cryptic references and stock phrases.
Herein lies one of the secrets of its success. For Private Eye to be fully understood, readers need to persevere. There’s a certain (some might say smug?) satisfaction at getting jokes that others may not. It creates a shared intimacy between the Eye’s editorial team and its readers. As media academics Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik assert in their book about comedy, such jokes “create a communal bonding between the participants which establishes a relationship of power, of inclusion and exclusion”.
But Private Eye is not just about jokes, cartoons and newspaper misprints. A fundamental part of the magazine’s appeal lies in its commitment to investigative journalism. Over the years it has built its reputation by challenging the rich and powerful – frequently exposing itself to expensive libel cases. Quite often Private Eye has led where the conventional press has feared to tread.
Beginning with the Profumo case in 1963 and through the work of the late Paul Foot, the magazine has never been afraid to tackle public figures (James Goldsmith, Robert Maxwell) and address issues (the deaths at Deepcut barracks) that would have in all likelihood remained uninvestigated. In this sense the Eye remains, to the majority of its readers, a trustworthy source of information.

Truth to power

We may also be living through a golden age of satire and Hislop partially attributes the recent success of Private Eye to the “extraordinary” 2016 and the rise of Trump and the Brexit vote. Just about everything, he told the Guardian, makes good satire.
As Guardian columnist and sociologist Anne Karpf recently put it, laughing at powerful elites makes them seem less omnipotent. While the long-term effectiveness of satire to contribute to political change is open to question, some of the most powerful critiques are coming from the scathingly brilliant Frankie Boyle in the UK and the relentlessly dedicated Saturday Night Live team on NBC television in the US.
Melissa McCarthy’s superbly realised impersonation of Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary and communications director at the White House, has to date been viewed nearly 23m times on YouTube. You could argue that Spicer has been architect of his own misery but SNL’s habitual takedowns of Trump and his allies have certainly added to a prevailing attitude of outright ridicule and disdain which now seems to be directed at the White House from cultural quarters.
But back to Private Eye. As media academic Steven Wagg noted, though the Eye has always been at the heart of British satire it has been steadfastly conservative on cultural questions. But it is also responsible for, as part of a wider satirical tradition, creating an environment where those in power can be both lampooned for their idiocies and held to account for their excesses.
Perhaps it is this dual purpose, in this post-truth era, which is at the root of Private Eye’s continuing success.