I was involved in a conversation on Twitter a couple of weeks ago about whether or not books are “substitutable”. The context was a patron going to browse books at a library. Would one book do just as well as another?
Differing views were expressed but I mainly ended up on the side that yes books are substitutable. Others felt that because the kind of book they were looking for was so rare, they were in no way substitutable.
Then a ruckus about something else happened and people were wrong on the internet all over the place but something clicked for me which brought me back to the substitutability argument.
We were talking on Twitter about equality (of people in relationships) and I made the comment that “equality” in this context does not mean “identical” but rather, “having equal value”.
And that’s where I had my epiphany about books and substitutability. Usually, at least, as I understand it, when people talk about this kind of thing, it is in reference to ‘widgets’. Because widgets are exactly the same item, there is substitutability between one widget and another. That is to say, it makes no difference whether you pick up widget A or widget B – they are the same thing and (if they’re not broken) they will provide the same experience/function.
Disclaimer: I’ve never studied economics (which I think will become obvious, if it isn’t already).
But books aren’t widgets. Unless there is something hinky going on, each specific title is a different book. And I realised that what I was talking about on Twitter the other night was that, at least until I’ve read it and can judge it on an empirical basis, for the most part*, each unread book has an equal value to me. Once I’ve read it, I know exactly how different it is from other books and it is no longer an item which is substitutable. In the context of say, agency pricing however, there were many books I didn’t buy because the price was prohibitive. I bought other books instead. So at the point of purchase I find books to be very much substitutable.
*There are some books which I would ascribe a higher value to unread – such as a book from a favourite author or a much-anticipated book in a series I have previously enjoyed. These books still have an element of being “Schrödinger’s book” however because even if you expect it to be good, until you’ve actually read it, you can’t know for sure.
When I’m looking for a book, I’m looking for a happy reading experience. And any number of books can provide that. There is no One True Book for me. (I have more than 1700 books on the TBR so this is self-evident). If I’m looking for a particular experience – such as the experience I get when I read Devilish by Jo Beverley, or Heartless by Mary Balogh, or Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley, I can obtain that experience only by re-reading those particular books. If I’m looking for an experience similar to Motorcycle Man well, then the field opens a bit and I have (at the least) Kristen Ashley’s other books to try – but still, until I’ve read it, I cannot be guaranteed that the experience will match my desire.
(Arguably, the net widens if what the person is looking for is not a “happy reading experience” but rather, “entertainment”; in which case it might be that playing a game, watching television, going to a movie OR reading a book have equal value. They are clearly very different activities requiring different effort, finance, time and skill but at this level they are “substitutable.”)
So, what does everyone think? Are books substitutable?
Do you think books have equal value? Or are some books more equal than others?
For me, an unknown book acquires differentiation in suspected value pretty quickly: what’s the title, what does the cover look like, who published it (or who edited it or is it professionally presented if it’s self-published), what does the blurb suggest about the plot and voice, where has the book been reviewed and how, how much does it cost, is it available to me, etc.
I pretty quickly sort books into two piles: books I might consider reading (which have more value) and books I won’t (which have none). Once you add in books by authors you’ve read or in series you’ve read, recommendations by friends, etc. and the vast world of unread books is definitely ranked by value–almost as much as the world of read books.
I absolutely agree with you that we don’t want to think about books as commodities, which of course they are. For sentimental or fetishistic reasons, we don’t want to class books as widgets. Even when the process of production is exposed because you can follow editors, publishers, agents and writers on Twitter, the author function has been quite resilient; books have a remarkable ability to maintain their auratic function.
I guess for me, books aren’t universally substitutable, but books within one tier of “hmm, that looks interesting” are probably substitutable with all the other books in that tier.
The idea of people as rational consumers and most products as interchangeable–which might bear as much relationship to actual economics as pop psychology does to actual psychology, I don’t know!–doesn’t really explain how people act in the market. I think we (and really just me) need new vocabulary for talking about how consumers make decisions.
I think I mostly agree with you. I don’t generally struggle to find enough books to read (hollow laugh of understatement) so this isn’t an argument about scarcity for me. That’s one reason why I tend to buy lower priced books – supply far exceeds demand.
But there are some books which are unsubstitutable. If I want to read the next Laura Florand or Sarah Morgan, it’s no good having 100 other books on the TBR pile. And so there are books which I’ll pay more for, or go to more trouble to get on my kindle, because those specific books have a higher value to me.
Interesting essay Kaetrin. If I understand your argument correctly I think I both agree and disagree with it. If I am looking for the “happy reading experience ” then sure almost all the books at the point of purchase would be substitutable for me. I can see that you made the distinction for the books by favorite authors and I certainly agree with that. However even if I am not searching for the book by favorite author, I almost never view my potential reading experience that broadly. At the very least I want to read something specific in terms of genre, so if at this specific point in time I want to read scifi , scifi book and let’s say mystery book won’t be substitutable for me even at the point of purchase. I rarely look at the publisher when I am looking for non romance book , but if I were to think that one of the Big six publishers would provide me with a better edited and overall better produced book same thing would happen – the books would not be substitutable even at the point of purchase.
So I guess I am more in disagreement overall – I rarely look for just any book to read. Even when I look for romance I usually narrow the search depending on what I am in the mood for . Thanks for the great essay.
I think that books might be more “substitutable” if we had better tools to make them “discoverable”.
By this I mean that I — like most of the other commenters — aren’t look for just a good reading experience, but for a particular good reading experience. This may mean I want heartwrenching angst, or a page-turning plot, or amusing banter, or … but not just any old “good read” will do.
That’s why “readers advisory” librarians put a lot of emphasis on what we call “appeal factors.” It isn’t enough to know that someone wants a romance; we need to know what the reader wants to get out of that romance. That is, if a patron is looking for a Julie James, they might be satisfied instead with Susan Elizabeth Phillips, or maybe a Jennifer Crusie might be a better choice, but I probably wouldn’t recommend Sherry Thomas.
And see what I did there? Because “warmth”, “zaniness”, “smart independent heroine”, “caretaking hero”, “Midwestern setting”, etc. etc. aren’t discoverable terms, searchable terms*, we still rely on stand-ins, like using “author” as a stand-in for a whole set of appeal factors.
Which doesn’t always work, of course; I’m thinking of Patricia Gaffney’s CROOKED HEARTS; I certainly wouldn’t recommend going to any of her other books if what the reader enjoyed was the wicked humor of that story — I’d recommend something like WELCOME TO TEMPTATION instead!
TL;DR: yes, to a certain extent books are substitutable; but the parameters are narrower than a simple genre designation can describe, and often include factors that require experience, time, and luck to make a satisfying substitution — resources that the reader may not be willing to spend.
*at least not yet. Many library catalogs and online readers advisory tools are experimenting with user tagging, which can be both helpful discovery and distracting clutter.
I can see what you’re saying about unknown books being substitutable (as opposed to looking for a new release by a favorite author). But as Emma says above, that window of substitutability is very short*.
Since I have so few “autobuy” authors—and that’s the experience I’m always looking for, discovering a new autobuy—I don’t really think the idea of substitutability works for me in any functional way. I don’t have a massive TBR. I don’t snatch up random FREE or 99-cent books because I might want to try them later. My time seems too valuable for that. I could be doing a host of other things rather than reading an okay book. So for me, books do not have equal value. There are books I want to read (which have value, and which I’m willing to pay normal book prices for) and books which I don’t have any interest in reading (which have no value, and which I won’t bother downloading for FREE).
*I just went on a quest to find new m/m books. I solicited recs on Twitter for books that avoided the tropes I already know don’t interest me, and downloaded 15 new to me authors. So for that brief space, all 15 books were substitutable with each other (but not with the larger pool of all m/m, since they’d been rec’d). But as soon as I started trying them, they quickly sorted themselves into “Read” and “Abandon”.
Personally, I tend to be picky about books, I am fairly aware of what I like and won’t like, I read reviews on DA and elsewhere, etc. So even before reading a book I have some sense of the value to me. Though as Emma said, there may be a few books I can club together for which I have an equal expectation of enjoyment, and those may be substitutable with each other.
But in the past, when I didn’t follow blogs, etc, then unread books were much more substitutable with each other. And those of my family who are more casual readers also seem to find books fairly substitutable.
The best I can say is “not really.” There are many books that I enjoy on the same level, and in that sense, I suppose you could say they’re substitutable. But if I walk into my local book store looking for the latest book by my favorite author only to discover it hasn’t arrived yet, I’m not going to buy a different book, even if it appears to be similar. I’m going to order it and then read something from the library or reread something I already own while I wait for it to come in. Which is a sort of a substitution, because I’m using my reading time for something else, but it’s not an exact substitution because I’m not spending the money I was planning to spend on something else. I also don’t buy books because they’re on sale, and if I’m deciding to buy one of two books, price is only going to be a factor if they’re both definitely something I want to read and I’m just picking which to buy at the moment.
I think your point about value is interesting. One of the ways I seem different from other book readers/book buyers, is that a read book often has more value to me than an unread book. I’m far more likely to buy a book I’ve already read — from the library, or an arc — because I already know I love it. When a book is an unknown quantity, they’re definitely much more substitutable for me.
Of course, as you say, other factors add value to an unread book, like it being by a favorite author or in an exciting series. Even so, it is still a Shroedinger’s book — great term! — and there’s a balancing act between how much I want to read it, and how much I don’t want to spend a lot of money or give house room or organizational time to yet another book.
Except my favorite authors/series, most books are substitutable for me. I mostly read Fantasy and Romance – I can’t substitute one genre for the other but I certainly can sub one unread/unknown book for another.
After reading Julie James…there’s a host of Contemporary Romances to glean from. After reading Tolkien, there is a host of Epic High Fantasy to choose from as well.
Interesting discussion Kaetrin! Yeah, I agree with everyone else that books are only substitutable when they’re at the discoverability phase. You’re in the mood for a certain trope or a type of book within a category line. Recently I asked on Twitter for recs on a good…um, capture romance that wouldn’t piss me off. (don’t judge) :) When I was given advice for a new book in that particular trope, any book would do, substitutions are expected. It’s when you lock in your faves, then starts the “no substitutions allowed” specific author obsession.
For example, over the weekend I went on the hunt (actually walking into a *gasp* brick and mortar B&N) for a print version of Motorcycle Man to gift to my mother. So substitution there! Hell, no!
I do tend to buy a lot of books and fully admit my TBR pile is out of control. This month I have been making myself “shop” in my Calibre library. I am trying to not buy any new books in various series until I at least try the first book or two in said series.
But I read by mood, so when I am trying to choose a book all unread books are not equal. As others have said a cozy mystery will not do when I am in the mood to read a futuristic sci fi.
Thx everyone for your opinions and thoughts. I am interested in how other people read – some of the people I talked to on Twitter about this subject didn’t have a TBR (!! I do not understand this phenomenon, I freely admit).
I do think the more specific your reading desire, the less substitutable books become. Maybe not many people buy books like I do but I very rarely buy a book and read it immediately. Most of the time I will buy a book because it looks like I might like it whenever I am in the mood for that particular subgenre.
But even within subgenres I think there is substitutability and my “revelation” of the morning (possibly because I wasn’t quite awake) was that it’s what authors struggle against when marketing their books. What makes Author A’s books stand out and be the book a consumer will buy over Author B’s books? Using New Adult as an example, if I was looking for an angsty NA read, I’d be faced with a huge pool to choose from and but for favourite authors (and also Badly Behaving Authors to Avoid), they’re pretty much all substitutable for me. (Which is potentially good for an author because I might pick their book to buy. And also not good because I might not and the odds are probably against them here.)
As soon as I read a book however, it’s a unique product and no longer substitutable for me – even if my “reading” is to DNF. (Then it’s just a unique product I do not want).
Some of the ladies I spoke to on Twitter (most especially the ones with no TBR (honestly the thought of not having a TBR is scary to me. I need ALL the books at my fingertips all the time!) had such specific requirements for their romance, that the pool for them was very very small. I’m not an economist so I didn’t know what the relationship between scarcity and substitutability is. That is, I didn’t know if the “problem” could be fairly described as once of scarcity or if it was also substitutability (that is, are they the same thing really? Or different?). I’d love it if someone could chime in and explain that to me (small words please – economics is a hop skip and a jump away from Maths *shudder*).
This is so interesting. I tend to choose books both for my mood and for specific situations – I want to read different books for my commute, the doctor’s office, airplane travel, and de-stressing after a shitty week, etc. I spend a lot of time and thought on choosing the perfect book to read when getting my routine mammogram, frex. But if I choose three books for my vacation, they are more or less interchangeable, until I start reading one.
My biggest problem with getting books using my library wait list is that sometimes the book becomes available to me when I’m not in the mood for it or it’s not the right time. I recently had to return Ancillary Justice unread and overdue (even though I still really want to read it) because it became available during a really busy time at work, when I only wanted to read super light and fluffy books that wouldn’t absorb too much of my time and attention. So in that case, Ancillary Justice couldn’t substitute for what I ended up reading, because it wasn’t right for the situation.
@Kaetrin – before I got my ereader, my TBR pile consisted of the books on my library shelf and a few random books I owned but hadn’t read yet. I tended to buy books and read them (at least I usually read all of my fiction books as soon as I bought them – non-fiction’s a little different). And then I bought my Nook and now I have a 200 or 300 books in my TBR folder. I feel more secure knowing that as long as I have my phone or my Nook with me, I will never be without reading material again.
@Kaetrin: The idea of no TBR is…not computing, lol. My TBR (owned) is…quite large. I buy books like they are going out of style. And like you, I don’t read the majority of them right away.
@cleo: LOL even when I was buying mostly paperbacks, I’d buy 10 or 15 at a time. (Partly this was to defray postage costs but only partly ;P)
off topic, but I don’t usually have a tbr pile. Right now, it’s 2 books: vixen in velvet and pia saves the day. this is unusual. I have recently been in a bookslump, reading reviews, watcha reading posts and creeping around amazon miserably looking for something to read. To tie into the discussion, all the unsuitable books I haven’t wanted to read have all been substitutable – I’ve been looking for an unsubstitutable book! Those two, by favourite authors are unsubstitutable. Pretty much like most other posters here.
@Des Livres: only 2 books on your TBR? How do you cope?
I have trouble finding books I like. Hence lurking about sites like this one. If only I loved the in death series or nalini singh. *sigh* (I don’t mind them, just don’t enjoy them enough to read them.)
Hmm, well I am an economist, so I guess I will give it a try :) Let’s take the two concepts separately first, and then the relationship. I apologize for the TL;DR nature of it :D
Scarcity in economics is basically the concept that people have infinite wants and desires, but there are limited resources to make stuff. So even if everyone in the world wants a massive house, fantastic healthcare, etc., it is not possible. A particular product would be considered scarce when people want a larger quantity of the good than can be made available. Most products are scarce, like housing, food etc. Scarce products usually have a price/cost, as there is a limited supply. In contrast, some things are abundant, like air. Air is everywhere, it is not scarce, and hence no one will pay money for it, it doesn’t have a price.
Now substitutability. Economists usually call products that can replace one another ‘substitutes’. These need not be exactly alike. A classic example is Coke and Pepsi. I prefer Pepsi, and might even pay a few cents extra for it. However, I won’t pay several dollars more-if the cost of Pepsi goes up dramatically, I will substitute and have Coke. Economists talk of some products as ‘perfect substitutes’, i.e. I am truly completely indifferent between different brands of these. Wikipedia’s example is writeable CDs. Most products are ‘imperfect substitutes’- I may prefer to drive a car to taking the bus, and will pay extra for it. However, at some point, if the price of gas goes up enough, then I will substitute and take the bus.
So, scarcity and substitutability and books! I don’t recall seeing these two concepts together, so the next bit is my musings and not some authoritative textbook type thing :D.
When Kaetrin says that most unread books are of equal value to her, this would be a case of ‘perfect substitutes’. When I say I am picky even about unread books, then for me they are ‘imperfect substitutes’- I may prefer particular books, but if the price of that book is high enough, I will substitute away from it. The more ‘imperfect’ it is, the more I want that exact book.
For the author/publisher, their goal is probably to have their books become as ‘imperfect’ substitutes as possible, for as many readers as possible. Let’s take Des Livres’ examples of JD Robb’s and Nalini Singh’s books. These are ‘imperfect substitutes’ for a lot of readers. That’s why they are published in hardcover, at high prices- even at $26, I will buy the latest Psy-Changeling hardcover. Now, if Berkeley charged $100, then many more readers would substitute away.
The more readers want an exact book, and the less substitutable the book is, the more publishers can charge. New authors, and even new series from an established author, are typically priced lower. Courtney Milan makes the first books in her series free, and presumably readers get hooked, and then the rest of the series is not substitutable (this is brilliant, by the way). Similarly many first books in long series are cheap.
Scarcity comes into it mainly because there is a limit on supply. If JD Robbs produced an In Death book every day (I know, I know, she practically does do this :D) then supply would be much greater, readers can’t read that many of them, so they don’t purchase very many, and prices would fall dramatically. The product would become less scarce. Also, its linked because in general, scarcity/demand/supply are foundational economic concepts, and all discussions of pricing is based in some way or the other on scarcity.
@Janhavi: That’s really interesting (and also really clear). Thank you!
Some people on Twitter were saying to me that they’re looking for a particular type of historical romance novel (IIRC, it was non spy, Regency, historically accurate… there was something else but I can’t remember) and they’d be lucky to find one per month. Therefore, for them, books were not substitutable. I guess that’s an example of scarcity affecting the substitutability.
For me, I buy so many books each month – more than I can possibly read (hence the ever growing giant TBR) so I find books not-exactly-perfect-but-quite-substitutable.
Thx again! :)
Oh good, I was not confident of clarity :D
For those readers, the kind of books they are looking for are not easily substitutable, and there is an overall scarcity of those particular requirements- not many of those books are published. Some years back in India, people working in education realized that there was just not enough cheap, child-focused reading material in regional languages. So a scarcity of this overall category, and it was hindering literacy. So they set up http://prathambooks.org/ which publishes extremely cheap children’s books in numerous Indian languages and distributes them everywhere.
Thinking about publisher’s decisions through this substitutability lens has been interesting. Apparently Patricia Briggs wanted the next Mercy Thompson world book to be about Tom and Moira (side characters). But she was contracted for a hardcover, and the publishers weren’t keen (I guess they thought readers would substitute away at hardcover prices). So the book will be about Charles and Anna, who are major characters, and apparently her next contract will include a MMP on Tom and Moira.
Iv also noticed that many novella anthologies are published in MMP even if the main books are hardcovers.
@Janhavi: Interesting about Briggs. For me, she’s non-substitutable. I’d buy anything in the Mercy Thompson world and I’ll happily pay the going HB rate for it.
Yeah, it was in this post:
I guess there aren’t enough people who think Tom and Moira are non-substitutable. Though I am a bit surprised because I believe they reissued the old Mercy Thompson books in hardcover, which to me seems like massive popularity.
@Janhavi: Fantastic comment and I’ll echo Kaetrin that it’s really clear.
One of the ways I think about it is in terms of the experience of (or benefit to) the individual that the good provides, rather than the inherent qualities of the good itself. With books, for example, if you’re looking for a “comfort read,” or an “emo read,” there are probably a few books that will fill the bill. The more specific your requirements get, the fewer books can address those requirements, to the point that there are no perfect (and few imperfect) substitutes.
A few of us are doing a Big Fat Book readalong next month. Some of us have a few books that fit, some have only one. But the overall goal is to read ONE big fat book, not a SPECIFIC Big Fat Book, so there is a possibility of substitute goods being available.
What I tend to say is that individual books may not be substitutable, but reading time is. Almost everyone will have more than one book they’re interested in reading. If they can’t get one, well, might as well read another instead. They can always read that other one later.
On a side note, I have been keenly following the reviews you and Jayne and others have been doing of the Mills and Boons India books. I quite enjoyed Secrets and Saris by Shoma Narayan but gave up midway on Adite Banerjee’s Indian Tycoon’s Marriage Deal. I should probably try again. And its definitely great to have authentic settings.
@Janhavi: I appreciate you saying that! Sometimes I feel as if I’m a one-note reviewer when I write about a bunch of India-set books in a row, but I don’t see them widely reviewed and I want readers to know about them. And I enjoy reading them, obviously. So I’m very glad you’re finding them worthwhile.
@Sunita: I am glad you are doing it. I find them quite different from books about Indian-Americansss set in the USA, or even different from most books written by Indians living abroad (of the ones I have read).
@Janhavi: Add me as another one who loved your comment.
And based on that explanation, I’d say that for me books are imperfect substitutes, and how imperfect hinges on a variety of factors, but one I’m thinking of at the moment is mood. Last year I was burned out on reading and one particular book was an important factor (but not the only factor) in getting me out of my reading slump. It reignited my love of reading.
I thought of this because two days ago I was bored, bored, bored with everything I was trying to read, until I tried one kindle sample that clicked with me. I wasn’t looking for a comfort read or an emo read or any particular type of reading experience just then because I really didn’t know what could lift me out of that bored and jaded state. Maybe what I was most looking for was freshness, but I didn’t know what form it would come in.
Thanks! I totally agree about mood. This whole substitutability thing really varies based on time, mood, etc.
I also find that for me, a decent substitute to reading a good book is talking about books :D Honestly, if I spent less time reading review blogs or lurking on twitter I could read a lot more!
LOL and +1.
Two things here. One is my TBR which is MUCH more convenient since I finally found both Goodreads and ebooks. I no longer have to purchase a book for my TBR pile, I can just have it saved and with the touch of a button purchase it from the cheapest vendor whenever I am finally in the mood. Secondly, on substitutability, I am kind of the same way, for the most part, excepting series I avidly follow or autobuy authors, books tend to be highly substitutable. I have very eclectic tastes with no real strong preference on sub-genre except my overall dislike of time travel, so I am flexible, if one book on my TBR is $5 and one is $7, I will almost always pick the $5 book first. Alternatively, if I am in the mood to spend no money, I am going to sort my TBR by publication date, open up a browser for openlibrary.org and find something I can read for free (older books tend to be available more often than newer books). The only time something is absolutely not substitutable for me is when I want to re-read something specific, as I am an avid re-reader.
My husband and I read very differently — I think he would definitely see books as substitutable within a genre, for example, because he reads by genre but doesn’t have a lot of particulars as to who or what he’s reading. He also doesn’t have a TBR, unless you count our entire connected account which is really all mine, heh.
I have some authors that are non-negotiable, and even series within that are the same, and I won’t substitute genres (if I want to read sci-fi nothing is going to engage me, if I want Romance then nothing else will do), and even then I might be picking between something light and fluffy or something deeper and destined to give me all the gut-feels. Length matters, for me, too — I like novellas a lot, and sometimes that is exactly what I want, and a short novel is in no way going to have the same effect.
My nephew also does not believe in book substitution. It is MOOSE or nothing. For the 54365412th time. It must be MOOSE or there will be consequences.
@Janhavi I do have one bone to pick. Coke is absolutely not substitutable for Pepsi (blech). It doesn’t matter now cheap it is, Pepsi just won’t do. (I expect many Pepsi lovers would say the reverse is true but clearly they are misguided.) ;P
@Kaetrin- Lol! If there were enough people like you I guess Coke would get a lot more expensive :p
@ Lindsay- hehe. May I know the author’s name of this MOOSE book? If its such a favourite I might pick it up for my niece.
I’m not sure if I’ve understood what you mean by ‘substitutable’.
When I’m in the mood for a ‘genre’ book (thriller or Harlequin or Sci-Fi, it doesn’t matter) I guess they are substitutable in the sense that I don’t care to read one or another. Any Harlequin will do if I’m in the mood for that kind of book. Of course, once I’ve read it it can be a very distinctive book and then it doesn’t blurr into the cloud of unmemorable books.
In ‘Literary fiction’ I don’t have exactly the same feeling. I tend to see that one book is completely different to another and nothing can be close to the exact book that I want to read.
I don’t think all books have equal value. Some are read & forgotten. Some stay with you forever. So I guess I’d say -in a sense- that ‘some books more equal than others’.
@Janhavi: It’s a Robert Munsch book! He’s a huge children’s author here in Canada and I’m always sad he hasn’t penetrated further into the world market, his books are fantastic and diverse and I grew up listening to him do live shows on tape. My favourites are PIGS!, Moira’s Birthday, and of course The Paper Bag Princess. MOOSE is pretty great too.
@Lindsay: Thanks! :)