On the Interchangeability of Books
Although the interests of readers, authors, and publishers are interconnected, they are not always aligned or even friendly. For example, when an author believes it is in her interest to market her book aggressively on social media, and a reader believes that this marketing is intrusive and off-putting, interests are in conflict. DRM is a good example of how publisher and reader interests are often unfriendly to one another.
For the most part I think readers and authors do not expect or perceive publisher interests to be in perfect alignment with theirs. However, in our good faith efforts to muddle along with each other, especially with so much social media interaction, we may minimize or overlook some natural and/or inevitable points of divergence in author and reader interests, which may lead to secondary, and unnecessary, conflicts.
Case in point: two weeks ago I wrote a post on why book price is not a good measure of value, and one of the issues that came out of the ensuing (and really great) discussion was that of the “widgetization” of books:
[W]hy in the world would anyone ever pay $$ for a book when they can get a different one for so much less?
Because books are not interchangeable widgets. If I want the new Author X book, a cheaper book by Author Y isn’t going to cut it. If I want to find a new author to glom, I’m unlikely to make random choices based on price point. I’ll ask for rec’s from friends. I’ll read blurbs. I’ll download samples. And then I’ll pick something and plonk down my money.
@Isobel Carr: But I think that’s actually the problem – some readers DO see books as interchangeable widgets, thus the reason they balk at paying any price over $1.99. There are simply so many books that if one is priced too high, there are plenty of alternatives out there. No, those alternatives may not be the *exact* same book or story, but especially if the writer is not a particular favorite or is outright new to the reader, they don’t see that they’ve given up anything. The sheer glut of books on the market has caused them to become almost a commodity product.
How few authors are there now that have enough name recognition and mass following that they can charge more for their books and know that readers are more than willing to pay the up-cost? When I think about which writers I follow faithfully and am willing to pay top dollar for their latest release, the number is actually pretty low. Not that I think all books should be so cheap, just that there are few writers who can inspire me to cross my own personally set book budget line.
The widget analogy is not new, but it seems to have gotten more play since the petition Authors United sent to Amazon over its dispute with Hachette:
Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. But books are not mere consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to another country. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual, a person whose living depends on his or her book finding readers. This is the process Amazon endangers when it uses its tremendous power to separate authors from their readership.
As I’ve argued before, I think the distinction AU is drawing here between consumer goods and books is both artificial and reliant on the conflation of book as creative content and book as a product that is launched into the stream of commerce. But the exchange between Isobel Carr and Lynn M is particularly perceptive because it hits on what may be the most fundamental difference between the way readers and authors relate to books: for an author, their book is a uniquely known quantity and special for that in its own right; for a reader, a book is an unknown quantity until they read and thus know it, and therefore potentially interchangeable with any number of other books.
For the purposes of this discussion, I am referring to “author” and “reader” as roles, because authors are sometimes readers and vice versa. This is also why I’m constructing the dynamic as one between an author and her own book, and that book’s prospective readers, most of whom will be unknown to the author at the point of purchase or reading.
Indeed, when it comes to the sale and purchase (or borrowing) of books, we often overlook the crucial fact that most readers purchase books on speculation, because the reader does not know the book in question, nor whether she will or will not like it. And while books are returnable under certain circumstances, a fully read and disliked book is generally not going back to the store for a refund.
Despite Lynn M’s language above, I don’t think most readers think of books as “interchangeable widgets,” but I do think that there are circumstances under which books are interchangeable to readers, especially given the speculation involved in buying books. And more importantly, I don’t think that reflects a devaluation of books or even a bad or unnatural thing. Rather, I think it reflects the nature of book writing v. book buying and the different ways readers experience books.
If you’ve ever had something you’ve written plagiarized, you know how fundamental, almost primal, the sense of ownership over one’s words can be. The author knows her work, has likely lived with it for some time, and she has a strong proprietary interest over it as creator. Because writing is, at least in part, self-expressive, there is often a very personal connection between an author and her work, and it’s understandable that she perceives it to be unique and valuable – and that she wants others to value it, as well. Even books with similar characters, plots, and tropes will not seem interchangeable to their authors in any substantive sense, because the author’s connection to her work is unique, even perhaps special.
But for the reader, unread books are never a known quantity. Authors can be a known quantity to some extent, but, as every shocked and disappointed reader knows, not every book by every author is going to be a hit for every reader. And until a book is read, its value, uniqueness, specialness, and even character is unknown. The book doesn’t even exist for the reader except as an expectation or desire for a particular reading experience. Our relationship with unread books, even by our favorite authors, is stubbornly unrequited.
What this means is that there is an element of risk in every book choice. Readers are often more willing to speculate – and perhaps at a higher price point – on an author whose other books are known and enjoyed than on an author whose books are an unknown quantity. New authors without established reputations will be unknown on two counts, making the relationship readers have with unread books even more remote. At the point where a reader confronts a slew of new books written by new-to-them authors, the relationship is profoundly impersonal. Contrast this with the fact that authors have the most personal relationship with the books they produce. How easily this mismatch in interests can become conflict, especially when readers articulate the impersonality of this relationship, by, say, talking about books as interchangeable.
But, at this distance, books appear to be pretty interchangeable, simply because the reader has insufficient experience with them to know them in any substantive and substantial way. And let’s face it: not every book read creates a special bond between book and reader. Sometimes the book succeeds for a reader because it provides a certain type of experience: a fun interlude; an escape from the stresses of the day; temporary transportation into another reality; immersion in a romantic fantasy; immersion in a sexual fantasy, etc. In the sense that books may deliver specific experiences, it’s possible that any number of books might fit that bill. Which is yet another level of interchangeability.
This doesn’t mean that readers don’t value books, or even the specific books they choose and read. But it does mean that the speculation involved in buying and reading books means that readers will necessarily have a different relationship to a selection of books than the authors who created those books will have.
I think all of this is natural – even necessary – in terms of how authors and readers relate to books. Unfortunately, I think it can exacerbate the sense of resentment authors may feel when they hear readers speak so casually of the interchangeability of books. And it can exacerbate the sense of frustration readers have when they hear authors speak so passionately about the specialness of books (theirs or others). Authors may feel that readers don’t value the work and creativity that goes into their books, while readers may feel that authors overestimate the value of their own books.
I think these conflicts are unnecessary, arising out of our unwillingness to accept that a certain discordance between reader and author interests is natural, even healthy, both for the market and for maintaining a reasonable distance between authors and readers. I don’t know if this issue is more prevalent in the Romance community, where the fan relationship between reader and author has been so deliberately cultivated (like the way readers routinely refer to authors by their first names), and where self-publishing has placed authors and readers in even closer proximity. But I do think it can set readers and authors against each other over what is essentially a Big Misunderstanding due to a difference in perception.
A more crowded marketplace may exacerbate tensions, especially with suggestions that authors study other authors’ books like this, and the inevitable trends we see when a particular book is successful. Remember all those grey covers after Fifty Shades of said color? Or the tactic of tagging books to bring up ‘similar’ authors and books? There is an extent to which imitation is rewarded in genre fiction, especially within Romance. Does this mean all books are the same? No. But since a reader can’t know a book until she’s read it, and an author cannot un-know a book she’s written, our perspectives will likely always be opposed on this point. Can’t that be okay?