Are books commodities?


It is one of the perennial debates in the books business.

Are books commodities?

Yes.  But they are commodities with a unique character.

To be sure, an author hopes his book will fly off the shelf just like a jug of detergent. And likewise, he recognizes no one will buy the jug with his name on it unless they know something about it, something they have learned through marketing and promotion.

Here is where the slope gets slippery.

Books are not like other commodities.

In a pinch any detergent will do.  A person can run down to the convenience store and purchase a container of brand x to make do.

Not so with books.

“I just finished A Farewell to Arms, honey. Can you stop by the bookstore and pick me up another copy?”

If books truly were commodities, any old book would do in a pinch.

If a thriller is a thriller, then it wouldn’t matter which one a person picked.

However, a thriller is not just a thriller, or one romance novel the same as another.

What readers buy is the author, not the book.


The reason for this is that every book is different, and the unifying factor that applies between one book and the next in a reader’s mind is the intangible thing referred to as “voice.”  Even within the same genre, authors’ voices run the gamut.

“If you like legal thrillers by John Grisham, you’ll love the new legal thriller by [insert author’s name],” the book description on Amazon may say.

Not so.

If a reader likes John Grisham’s books, she likes them because  John Grisham wrote them.

Or to go at another way, if a reader likes James Lee Burke’s writing, she will like the next Burke book.  To be sure she may like a Dave Robicheaux book more than she likes a Hackberry Holland, but she knows she will like either of them.

Because James Lee Burke wrote it.

What appeals to that reader is Burke’s slant on life, the elusive way he strings words together, the inner workings of the characters’ lives, the insight into life she takes away from one of his books.

What an author has for sale is not her books.  It is the author herself.

That’s why book branding is about the author,  not his latest book.

This is where it gets really tricky.

Although an author may make a lifelong friend or fan with one book, he can just as easily fail to make such a connection if the reader doesn’t like the first taste of his work.

Authors have a few sentences to establish their brand.  If they don’t accomplish that goal by the end of chapter one, they will never see that reader again.

So the branding process for an author comes down to one simple principle.

Every book he writes must not be as good as the last one.  It must be better.

No pressure.

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