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.

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6 thoughts on “Books aren’t consumer goods, that is what’s wrong”

  1. I don’t understand your argument. The point made by John Connelly was that people don’t pay consumer good prices for books. That they are not even willing to pay a cappuchini price for a book.

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    1. The book has been packaged as a consumer good, but it isn’t one, so people have lost sight of the real seasons for buying them. If people were given those reasons back, they’d pay a lot more than the price of a latte..

      D

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  2. Blaming a bunch of authors for this mess is silly. Even major authors have no control over the business, never have, probably never will.

    The shift from the book as “sacred object” to just another widget to sell began when major corporations started buying every publisher in sight then each other. Corporate mentality took over.

    Short term bottom line became more important than building audience and growing authors.

    Cost cutting meant paying authors less and firing editors and the other people who actually created the books.

    Meanwhile, the same thing was happening to distribution. The small bookstores were being edged out by conglomerate box stores, and the distributors were being bought out by large companies or shut down. By the time the ebook revolution hit, production of books, their distribution, and retail locations were controlled by a few large companies.

    eBooks which should have opened up the bottleneck ended up in the hands of a few major distributors like Amazon.

    Now, the online pundits declare that books are just another business, not a “special snowflake” (their snarky term) so it’s okay for Amazon to squeeze every penny of profit possible out of the big publishers to lower the prices.

    Amazon and other distributors expect book publishers to act as most manufactures do by cutting costs to give them and Amazon more profit. Unfortunately, book publishers really aren’t manufacturers so they can’t ship all the jobs to a Third World country. (Anyone who has had to read an instruction manual from another country knows what I’m talking about.)

    Publishers are also trapped by the cheapness of their product. Book prices in the days before the conglomerate publishers were artificially low, and they’ve remained so despite some people’s belief that they are too expensive.

    Most manufactured goods have an incredible profit margin. Furniture, for example, has a 500% to 1000% profit margin which allows huge discounts with plenty of profit for everyone. Book publishing’s profit margin in 3% to 7% according to recent figures I’ve seen.

    Amazon and all those screaming that books are too expensive should consider this when they demand more profit and cheaper books.

    As we say in the American South, you can’t squeeze blood out of turnip, and book publishing is one seriously mangled turnip these days.

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