Books aren’t consumer goods, that is what’s wrong

Crime author John Connolly condensed down a popular sentiment in to a single tweet recently, that I think is worth unpacking and considering in some detail.

There’s a fundamental problem with the logic underlying Connolly’s argument. And when you work it through you find that the problem sits, not with the people unwilling to pay $2.99 for a book, but with the industry that has devalued the book to that point.

Greetings cards and wrapping paper are consumer goods. You have an immediate need or desire, and purchasing this product meets that need or desire. You need to show a relative you care about their birthday. $5 on a greeting card? Deal. You want to relax for thirty minutes after your big meeting at work. $4 for a mocha latte? Deal. You’re hungry and want something easy to eat. $1 for a tin of beans? Deal.

Books are not consumer goods. What’s the consumer need or desire satisfied by purchasing a classic edition of Baccaccio’s Decameron right this moment? What emotional need is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt likely to serve? Where is the instant gratification in Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming To Dover? I’m not arguing that there isn’t any, but it might only appear in rare and splendid circumstances.

The are common situations where a book can become a consumer purchase. On a long journey a book serves an immediate need, so booksellers of “airport thrillers” do well at train stations and airports. But the further you move from a captive audience satisfying a consumer need or desire, to a free audience whose desires and needs are largely fulfilled, the stranger and more esoteric book buying becomes.

I bought a copy of Home At Grassmere by Dorothy Wordsworth recently. I was drawn to it on the shelf and after a few pages realised the narrative voice reminded me of an old friend. The first time I read Haruki Murakami was because I was sent Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Amazon by mistake. Now he is my favourite writer. I often fall in love with and buy books for obscure, indirect reasons that have nothing to do with the dynamics of consumer marketing. And I’m certainly not alone in this.

But there isn’t much money in selling books to people based on random, obscure chance. So publishers, as businesses, have done their damnedest to turn books in to consumer goods. Modern genres like sci-fi, crime, and horror are all about turning books in to products. Predictable, marketable products. Brand name authors like John Grisham succeed in this environment because they produce books that can be sold like consumer goods. Like a tin of beans, a John Grisham legal thriller can be stacked high and sold cheap.

And so here we are, at a point where books have been so effectively repackaged as consumer goods that consumers now can’t see the qualitative difference between them and a venti cappuccino. If you relentlessly devalue something, even something as intrinsically valuable as a book, it will eventually lose all value.

A whole group of authors including John Grisham, Scott Turow, Clive Cussler and James Patterson wrote a complaint letter to Amazon this week. All these authors have happily exploited the devaluing of the books as a consumer good to make their own personal fortunes. Now, like Connolly, they are wondering what is wrong. Well, sorry to break it to you chaps, but you’re what is wrong. Amazon is just the logical next step in the process of devaluing books you;ve been complicit in your whole careers. Call me a hard hearted bastard, but I struggle to find sympathy for people who are simply reaping what they have sown.