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Friday, December 3, 2010

Books Versus Soup

Here's a link to “Books After Amazon,” an article by Onnesha Roychouduri about the economic and cultural impact of the growing power of Jeff Bezos, online selling, and the Kindle.  It's an interesting article about which I may have more to say when I get time, but for the moment let me just quote the words that are used throughout the article as a kind of indignant, wounded refrain: "You can’t sell a book the same way you sell a can of soup."

Of course, we've seen this metaphor many times before, but I must say it rubs me the wrong way.  What exactly is so demeaning about selling a book like a can of soup?  Soup is food.  It nourishes people, sustains life, and when well-made it provides significant physical and esthetic enjoyment.  Producing and selling soup provides an important and valuable service to humankind.

Maybe we in the book business like to imagine that our work is far more noble, exalted, and high-minded than selling soup.  If so, we should get over ourselves.  (And maybe we would sell more books if we spent as much time and energy thinking about the needs and wants of readers as soup companies spend thinking about the nutritional requirements and flavor preferences of their customers.)


  1. Interesting post, Karl. I agree that publishers need more systematic ways of finding out what readers need and want. I'd always been told that publishers couldn't afford to do the kind of market research, focus groups, and surveys that other businesses have routinely used (and spent untold amounts of $ on) to get metrics on public opinion/product reactions/product development information. It might have been budgetary, but I think it may also have something to do with publishing's roots, which were nurtured not so much by businesspeople as by bibliophiles. Much of the tension I see in publishing today comes from the clash between this original identity/mindset/purpose and the mandates of recent decades to function as profitable entertainment purveyors. Publishing is fundamentally at odds with itself and is still figuring out how to integrate these two foci, now under the pressure of yet another revolution/evolution of content. I'd like to see publishers standardize more of what can be standardized and keep personal and individualized what must remain that way: the relationship with the author and the understanding of the author's unique message, embodied in the book.

  2. Your comment is an astute and thoughtful one, Toni. Aside from budget, I guess another reason publishers don't do "market research" like other businesses is that every book is about a different topic--whereas Procter & Gamble can research "cleaning" and come up with ideas that will apply to a dozen products.

  3. Good point. And how inconvenient of books (and authors) to be that way :)!