On the “specialness” of books
We’re all familiar with the assertion that books are “special,” and therefore deserving of different treatment than other commercial products. I used believe it myself. Until, that is, folks like Jon Sargent and Authors United started using it to justify crap like agency pricing and the shunning of Amazon. To wit, compliments of Authors United:
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.
So does anyone actually believe that these authors don’t want to sell the most books possible – excuse me, the most new books possible? That if Amazon were still selling Hachette books and doing it alongside toasters and instant macaronic and cheese, that Authors United would even exist? Because I don’t.
Okay, so let’s break this down a little. Joanna Cabot of TeleRead articulates a good starting point for this analysis, I think:
. . . book production may not benefit from widgetization. But book SELLING does. This is the point many authors fail to realize—that you can’t conflate the two things. And when you separate them out, you can do each one of them better.
Yes, book production is, in large part, a creative process. Of course, ideas about what people will read – i.e. whether a book will sell enough to justify the publisher’s investment – also inform this process, and those ideas are related to how consumers will spend their money and how many books will likely sell. Just like selling books is largely a commercial endeavor, even though many booksellers will tell you that there’s an art to selling, and many readers have benefitted from a talented hand-seller. So the distinction isn’t quite as easy as Cabot makes it. Still, I think it’s important to note that when we get into discussions about selling books, we have to take into consideration the fact that publishers, authors, and retailers all want books to sell as many copies as possible. And one of the most coveted lists for an author to appear on is the New York Times Bestseller list, which doesn’t measure a book’s literary value, but rather how many copies are moving off the shelves.
Of course, a book that sells well may also be judged as one of value (a book like The Help, which is problematic in other ways, is a good example of how word of mouth and hand-selling can turn a book into a bestseller), but there are also huge bestsellers that continue to face derision (Fifty Shades, for example). Still, how many authors would refuse to have their books sold like other consumer goods if it would guarantee them a bestseller?
I think for me the real problem is that the whole “books are special” argument has become a hammer on the part of publishers and authors, where every reader is the proverbial nail. And we readers are being hit over the head with arguments about how we should accept agency pricing because books are special, or we should stop shopping at Amazon because books are special – or whatever the agenda happens to be at the moment. And underneath it all really seems to be the refrain that some books (or genres) are more special than others, and that we should all be in agreement on which are and are not.
If anyone should be deciding whether books are special, it should be readers. No, let me correct that. Anyone can believe that books are special. Authors, publishers, editors, cover artists, marketing advocates – whoever. But the only people who should be deciding for readers if and when and which books are special, are readers.
As a reader, what I see happening is that the books are special argument is being used to bolster the economic self-interest of publishers and authors, and, in many cases, to manipulate readers into using their power as consumers to a) turn a book into a bestseller, b) police reviews, often on behalf of an author who can’t stand his/her “baby” criticized by reviewers, c) pay more for a book than we otherwise might, d) participate in an author’s marketing process, perhaps by joining a street team or informally promoting a book to other readers, and e) perceiving our best interests to run parallel or entwined with those of the author and/or publisher.
Some of this might be harmless or even valid. A robust book market, for example, serves readers, authors, and publishers by providing multiple, diverse options. And reader loyalty can yield benefits like early access to content or free supplemental content that may be worth if to the reader. However, when readers are enlisted to act as foot soldiers for an author or a publisher, it may not all be so innocent, even if there is no bad intent.
Moreover, author and publisher interests do not always or even naturally align with reader interests. For example, it may be in Author X’s perceived best interest to place her books in front of Author Y’s books in the bookstore. That is definitely not in the interest of Author Y’s readers (or Author Y, for that matter). Publishers want to sell the most books at the greatest profit. Readers, on the other hand, want the most value for their money, whatever that may be (and the equation varies from reader to reader, book to book). We all pursue our own best interests — such is the nature of a competitive marketplace — but we don’t always acknowledge that those interests may conflict. And in situations where readers are being asked to participate in the marketing campaigns of authors, I think these potential conflicts need to be carefully considered.
For example, we’ve all seen examples of an author who reads a negative review of her book that – of course – she deems absolutely unjustified, and then encourages (directly or indirectly) her “loyal” readers to either shout down the review with positive reviews, or to directly challenge the reviewer, possibly creating a hostile and over-personalized stand-off over a book review. Or readers may be told that they will be locked out of an author’s Facebook page if they don’t buy a book. At that point, the book becomes more a weapon than anything else, and reader interests may actually stand in conflict to the author’s, even as the author is calling on readers to support his or her cause.
Of course, for readers, some books are special, but not every book is special to every reader. And not every kind of specialness is the same. However, that books can be many things to many people may be one source of their value. I honestly cannot think of an instance where readers have argued that there is no difference between a toaster and a novel. If anything, making that distinction seems to highlight the extent to which “value” is being conflated with “values,” such that valuing books is primarily a moral or ethical exercise that somehow determines the worth of the reader. In fact, the equation should be reversed: the economic value of a book may be estimated by the author/publisher, but its social, cultural, personal, or artistic value will always be determined by the reader, and that valuation will change from reader to reader and book to book. Authors and publishers cannot make readers value one book above another, or books in general above other things; in many instances the reader will even reject the equation between the price of a book and its prospective value. And there are books that some readers will argue have so little value as to be a detriment to the market.
This is not to say that books are unimportant or that they are not part of a society’s artistic expression. But importance and specialness are not the same thing. Importance is related to the way societies as a whole value cultural literacy, reading, and the availability of literature in the broadest sense. It’s not always about how much they’re loved or even valued by readers, even though the way individuals respond to books can be very powerful, even life-changing. Just as the discussions we have around books can be very powerful and significant in different ways. We can benefit intellectually from books, be enriched emotionally or psychologically, be challenged, educated, turned off, enraged, repulsed, or bored stiff by books. Without question, books also have a unique role to play as cultural artifacts, because they often speak to future generations about what the human imagination could conjure at any given moment in time.
For that alone, they are not identical to toasters or widgets. Reviewing books is not the same thing as reviewing a diet aid (I’m thinking of FTC regulation here), but neither is it the same thing as collecting keepsakes and chronicling all the firsts that parents do for their actual children. Books are unique as a category, and specific people have special relationships to specific books, but in many ways – now more than ever – books are also consumer goods, much in the way of computer games, magazines, toys, and other forms of entertainment people spend money to enjoy. In no way do readers owe any author or publisher a living, nor does the ability to make a living from writing and/or publishing automatically confer a special status anymore than the invention of a million dollar toaster does.
Can reading be special? Absolutely. Can some books be special to some readers? Absolutely. But as long as books are being made available within the stream of commerce, and their value determined at least in part by how much they cost and how many copies are sold, books are consumer goods. And really, I’m not sure I believe that any author or publisher wouldn’t want to be ranked #1 on Amazon, even if it meant being sold alongside a million dollar toaster.
So what do you think? Do you buy Authors United’s distinctions, and if so, why? What do books, reading, and talking about books mean to you? What book is most special to you, and why?