February 21, 2018

Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry thinks e-books are “a stupid product”

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It’s been ten years since Amazon’s Kindle introduced e-books as a major component of the publishing market, and four-ish years since Hachette and Simon & Schuster successfully negotiated with Amazon to secure agency pricing on e-books. Which means we finally have the perspective and maturity to dispassionately assess the e-book and its position in the publishing ecosystem. The verdict? According to Arnaud Nourry, CEO of Lagardère Publishing’s flagship imprint Hachette Livre: “Ebooks are a stupid product.”

Which is exactly the kind of cutting insight you expect from a man who gets paid millions of dollars to guide one of the world’s largest publishing houses. The future is in good hands.

Nourry’s not-so-bon mot was delivered in a wide-ranging interview with Harsimran Gill on Scroll.in, as part of his evaluation of the state of e-book publishing. In context, it’s a pretty reasonable take. According to Nourry’s analysis, the current market share of the ebook—about twenty percent in the US and UK—is largely the result of Amazon’s early attempts to establish the format as a sharply discounted alternative to print books. In markets outside of the US and UK, ebooks account for five to seven percent, “because in these places the prices never went down to such a level that the ebook market would get significant traction.”

Which is actually a pretty interesting angle: the recent downtick in e-book sales is really the result of the stabilized, agency prices that Hachette and others were able to negotiate. If you assume that the market in other territories is closer to the “natural” state of affairs (though there are plenty of reasons not to assume this), that makes total sense. For Nourry, it also suggests that this “plateau, or rather slight decline” isn’t temporary, and may in fact continue or accelerate, barring any developments in pricing trends.

Nourry’s remarks are also striking in that they’re a pretty blunt and bleak assessment of the industry’s difficulties offering added value in the e-book format. As Nourry says, an e-book is “exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience… We’ve not done very well.”

Nourry goes on to clarify that Hachette isn’t against e-books, and that, for what they are, and at the prices that have been established, they “work,” which is to say that there’s a stable readership that isn’t totally cannibalizing or destabilizing traditional print publishing.

He also has some interesting things to say about Google and Facebook — namely that they aren’t really a big deal. Google is “a tiny partner” and Facebook “does not deeply transform our business.” Which is some charming sang-froid, consider it’s a take on two of the four corporate horsemen of the apocalypse.

Lastly, but not leastly, Nourry addresses the question of Hachette’s recent, acquisition-driven growth, and the difficulty of absorbing different publishing cultures. Asked about the effect it has “when smaller publishing houses end up under the umbrella of a larger conglomerate, sometimes swallowed by it?”, Nourry responds, “You’ve used a word I hate — conglomerate. I’m not a very good swallower.”

 

 

Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.

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