“Fungible” ebooks

Posted on 17/05/2012 by


Lots of great material to argue and shout and scream at on the Web over the past week, but the one I want to look at? Konrath versus Lipskar, and the horror of “fungibility.”

JA Konrath’s post responds to Writers House president Simon Lipskar’s “all books are fungible” theory (written in support of big publishers and Apple over the DoJ suite), which claimed that “consumers can’t be harmed by some books being priced higher because books are essentially fungible.”

Konrath says, “on a personal note… Lipskar’s argument makes me sad.  Not just because, in suggesting that books are fungible, Lipskar implicitly devalues them.”

Of course, people are pissed at the idea of books being interchangeable, but is that the true sense of the matter—that all books are innately significant? And significant in an economic sense?

Is Lipskar devaluing books? Are all books implicitly “non-fungible”? What does the term “fungible,” in relation to a book, actually mean? Is it that all books must be equally important to all readers? Or that each, all things being equal, are of no real significance at all?

I would argue that at a Macro Level, books are indeed (effectively, if not literally) fungible!

Perhaps, when you do want to read and buy something important to you, then (and definitely according to Lipskar… ) you may find that particular item in the midlist (for a good price under the Agency model, and perhaps better than under Wholesale). However, this item, which is so important to you, may (and likely will) be wholly interchangeable to every other book to another reader. That is, unless it’s a bestseller, or possessing other social currency.

As the Active Voice says to Konrath:

if you give me a mass of 1,000 books I’ve never heard of before, by authors I’ve never heard of before, the books in that mass start out, in my mind, as fungible.

Lipskar’s argument was made to combat the claim that readers were being gouged by books being more expensive under the Agency model, by explaining that many books went down in price, too. Just not the bestsellers. He says, if you can’t afford a current bestseller, then you can find “another,” equally fungible book in the midlist for a more attractive price point. That’s the point of departure for many, that all books are the same—that the only consideration is price, and instead I would want to qualify that further: all books are fungible, except those produced to be otherwise. Ironically, bestsellers are those non-fungible items, but not for the reasons that proponents for unique books argue.

The trick to this argument is, not that the bestseller book you were after may be more expensive, but on why is it more? There are a few answers: one is that publishers (enabled by the Agency model) can charge more, and stiff you for it; however, from an economic angle, it is that what you are actually buying is the status of a “bestseller,” quite a different point from any “literary merit” entirely (“merit” not being a judgemental statement at all.) That’s a publisher argument, that if people want to buy-in to a bestseller—to the experience of it—they must pay for the timely access to the text. The ebook environment breaks this timeliness down somewhat (as it should!) but there is still something to be said for the status of reading a bestseller.

None of this is degrading literature, what it does set up, is that the concept of the “bestseller” is an industry-led program to heighten certain books for profit (well, “duh”). Further, the sense of a book being unique, and thus “non-fungible,” is that of communicability. While i have used the label “bestseller” here, it could be anything, it could be Shakespeare, but pivotally it is an item which has a great, non-transferrable meaning. King Lear is not The DaVinci Code, but my own favourites, The Flame Alphabet or House of Leaves are interchangeable to an uninformed reader, both lacking communicative social cachet. The paradoxical point is, that if a book is not to be “fungible,” it must “appeal” to a broader public to be seen as valuable (hence 50 Shades of Grey, and the latest Snooki book being “worth” a million. It’s. Appeal. Is. Generic. (Fairly gained or not.) And so it will sell.

The popular upshot of this is, if you as a reader actually want a “bestseller,” then you actually have to pay more to get one, to support the PR which communicates its certain branding—in fact, not paying more, will not support the industry which otherwise merely exists to create them in the first place (the “public relations” industry.)

It’s a bit of a vicious circle there, but it is an entertaining one.

Bestsellers cost more under the Agency model? Yes, because they then support the “bestseller” industry, which supports the mid-list. Take out the “industry,” and the midlist will find its own way (as Konrath does like to show), but don’t then bemoan the loss of the “must have” seasonal books, those that the whole of society deems as non-“fungible.”

What annoys me with Konrath’s response here, is that he obviously does have an axe to grind with publishing. No, I’m not going to say that his point of view isn’t actually quite valid, generally speaking, but that his ascribing publishers and agents as “evil,” in costing authors money, and putting unfair pressure on reader spending, is borderline paranoid. Perhaps what everyone is doing is just trying to find a “fair price” which will do the best for them, too?

Perhaps there is something to be said for trying to find a business solution to a fall in revenues, before just giving in to the digital inevitability? (Also note, there is a lot more that publishers could be doing to heighten their positions as well! But gleefully claiming we can do without their largesse, is ignoring that this “waste” does in fact add something to the whole field—as much as we may debate to what extent this value is—it is value—and in fact, I argument that their value is in social currency, in “importance,” in raising general awareness of an otherwise fungible item.

The fact is, big publishers and/or a big voice makes the zeitgeist, losing that may not be a bad thing, but it is definitely a “thing.”

Otherwise, books are fungible, and that may suit smaller, niche authors very well. In fact, this may not be arguing at all versus Konrath’s ultimate position, it may only be arguing against a certain bestseller genre that many do care about. Let that go, and books will sell, at a stepped price, much as both Agency and Wholesale models suggest.

View it like thus:

  • Traditional publishing stands for “non-fungible bestsellers,” supporting a false economy of costs and profits for all other book items.
  • Amazon stands for “fungible” (without value judgement on my, nor their parts). What they really do, is offer a level playing field for both socially current, and also non-transferable books.

That actually doesn’t bother me so much, but it is factual.

Posted in: Icky Theory, Paul