Followers of An American Editor read the previous post, eBooks: Has Amazon Turned eBooks into Commodities?, and probably groaned at my sacrilegious point of view while frantically shaking their heads “no, neither ebooks nor books are commodities.” The argument regarding the commoditization of books is an “old” one for me. A few years ago, Jack Lyon and I made presentations at a Communication Central conference in Rochester, NY and drove to Poughkeepsie, NY together — a 4.5-hour drive. On that drive, this was one of the weighty matters we discussed. Jack was adamant that books are not commodities

I used to think the same, but books, particularly fiction books, have gone the way of athletes and soda pop and become commodities. (By the way, if you haven’t seen the movie Moneyball, starring Jonah Hill and Brad Pitt, which is the story of a major league baseball team coming to the realization that with free agency, baseball players are now commodities, I highly recommend you see it. A true story that is well done as a movie.) What follows is Jack’s response to my commoditization view.


Books as Dish Soap
by Jack Lyon

In a previous post, Rich Adin discussed ebooks as commodities [see eBooks: Has Amazon Turned eBooks into Commodities?]. This ties into a discussion Rich and I had a couple of years ago about marketing. The conversation went like this:

Jack: I hate the whole corporate mindset that treats books as “product”—just a homogenous mass of words and pages. It’s like marketing dish soap.

Rich: That’s how books should be marketed.

Jack: What?!

Rich: Yep. Just like dish soap. How else would you do it?

I never did come up with a good answer to that question. Finally, I admitted that Rich was right—but I didn’t like it then, and I still don’t!

Let’s go back about 30 years to my first job as editor at a trade publishing house. I really admired the company president, who held not an MBA but a Ph.D. in English literature. Here was an executive who actually cared about books! In a speech to employees, I heard him say this:

“I love the opportunity we have to share what we do with others, to be able to face a customer and honestly say, ‘I love what I’m doing, and I can share something with you that can change your life forever. I can give you a friend that will never, ever leave you.’…It was at least ten years ago that I heard Charles Scribner say, ‘If books become obsolete, I will make candles.’ He didn’t explain his remark, but I think he had in mind that although the electric light has made candles obsolete, candlemaking today is a $100 million industry—not large, but it casts a lovely light, and, after all, books are candles.”

Shortly after that speech, the chairman of the board assigned the president a new position—as CEO of a department store. This man who loved books so much ended up selling kitchen appliances and underwear.

I see the commoditization of books as being analogous to the commoditization of everything else, including people. We no longer have personnel departments; instead, we have human resources. We no longer have leaders who understand a particular industry; instead, we have MBAs who are cranked out like sausages to manage corporations in any industry. With our narrow focus on the bottom line, we’ve ripped the heart out of our businesses—at least, those that used to have one.

So are books commodities, like dish soap? To some degree, yes. As Rich points out, if I can’t get my horror fix from Stephen King, I can easily turn to Dean Koontz. Their books are what economists call “substitute goods.”

If I can’t get Coca-Cola, I’m happy to drink Pepsi (although that’s not true of dedicated Coke drinkers like Rich). If I can’t use Dawn on my dishes, I’m happy to use Dove. Advertisers are aware of this, which is why they spend so much money promoting Coke over Pepsi (and vice versa). Other than the emotional appeal used in marketing, there’s not a lot of difference between one substitute good and another.

The same is true of many genre books, like romance, westerns, and science fiction. I’m usually just as happy to read Orson Scott Card as I am to read Gene Wolfe. But there are exceptions. To me, Wolfe’s There Are Doors is more than just your everyday science-fiction entertainment. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep speaks to me on a level that few other books attain.

And what do we do when a masterpiece like Moby Dick comes along—or The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnThe Little PrinceThe Mouse and His Child? Don’t you have a handful of books that have changed your life? I know I do. Such books truly are candles, and their glow illuminates the world in ways nothing else can. In spite of marketers’ promises, I don’t think that’s something dish soap will ever do.


Jack’s argument is less that books aren’t commodities than it is that some books rise above the level of being a commodity. But in the case of fiction, especially bestseller fiction of today, I still think books are substitutable. If they weren’t, what would I read in my favorite genres as I wait for the next book by a favorite author to become available? And what happens when that favorite author stops writing? Do I suddenly stop reading?

What do you think?

[Via An American Editor]


  1. I have been making the same point to my library colleagues for the past few years. AS one of the first librarians in the world to integrate ereaders and iPads into library collections it became immediately clear to me that book culture would never be the same. Unlike music culture, which is rooted in the connection to the actual content and the artist, book culture is deeply rooted in the physical object.

    Whenever a librarian gives me the same shocked denial you receive I use a simple illustration to drive this home, “You really dont see yourself handing over your flash drive with the works of Jane Austen to your grandchildren someday and expect them to get all sentimental do you?” It’s just a file. We don’t even know if it’s the original file…

    Books were all about content and physicality. The physicality of the book created a sense of connection and a human experience. I love my old books because I know on a deep human level that other people have loved and enjoyed that object. And they leave their mark on it. But a file is relatively sterile, even if margin notes and other user input becomes more acceptable. It still doesn’t have that human touch because it’s not physical. We just dont get sentimental about files, because we are physical creatures and need a physical object to attach that sentiment too. Music is already a deeply physical experience, which is why concerts attract so much more money and attention than public readings or book signings. Ebooks take away a lot of the physical and augment the cognitive, utilitarian aspect of the book. We will still have book clubs and fans, etc, but the actual file itself is a commodity.

    No way around that because we are physical beings.

  2. Comparing books to each other as commodities, and trying to draw a parallel to dish soaps, suggests you get the same thing out of a book, no matter what it is–the same way you get clean dishes whether you use Dawn or Dove. But do you? Is the only point to a book to just read it? Or does the uniqueness of each story give you something special that no other book will give you? If the latter is true, than maybe books aren’t commodities… except possibly those series that essentially promise the same experience, book after book, with only a few name changes.

    It also impacts how you might sell a book: Must you cater to obvious things like price, name recognition, page count to suggest a superior book; or can you appeal to a reader’s psyche, call attention to the artistic flair and personal care put into a story, create an emotional attraction to the subject? If the former, you’re dealing with a commodity; if the latter, you have a unique product.

  3. @Joseph: Looking at ebooks as utilitarian things removed from the desirable physical container is one way to look at it. I prefer to look at ebooks as distillations of the pure content of the book, free of the cumbersome physical container. In that case, the bound pile of papers is the commodity, the story is the real worth. No way around that because we are intellectual beings.

    I think the only thing that the commodities question really answers is the best way to sell a book; and which way you go really depends on–what else?–the book.

    And personally, if someone handed me their library of books on a flash drive, I’d be a lot more than sentimental about it. I’d be ecstatic.

  4. I’d say fiction ebooks are well along the scale to being commodities. I’ve got both my favorite authors and favorite genres.

    If I find an author I like, I follow him along and try to get everything he’s got (hint to those with backlists). Since I’ve got quite a few favorite authors, I can simply get what’s available; that’s a commodity to me.

    There’s only a couple genres I usual read. I pick up odds and ends from them, then see if I can convert an author into a favorite author.

    So, for me, fiction genre definitely falls into the commodity area, while authors only somewhat.

  5. Is food a commodity? Yout bet it is!
    Ever eaten something at an haute cuisine restaurant which added a new flavor or a new spice to your “taste experience”? Which touched you like a good poem would?
    Would you still call that meal (based on mere food) a commodity?

    (e)Books are produced, distributed, advertised, bought, sold and sometimes thrown away like any other commodity. Is a DVD with a movie a commodity? Sure. Could that movie have the potential to touch and inspire you? Sure as well. And still be a commodity.

    Face it: since Gutenberg (the fellow with the printig press) books are commodities. That way they became a democratic object and not just a piece of art for the chosen few (the 1% nowadays).

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