The fungibility of books

two shots of a woman reading books in a library stacks aisle with her mask on, In oe of the shots she is looking at the book, in another she is looking at the camera
COVID-19 safety with mask, gloves by Michael Neubert. Public domain.

I’m on a mailing list where we discuss book issues. There are authors, publishers, industry people, and librarians on this list. Recently we’ve been discussing the Internet Archive’s ongoing legal dispute with the AAP (Association of American Publishers). If you recall the Archive made many copyrighted books available on their website via the National Emergency Library (NEL) during COVID. Publishers did not appreciate this and sued them. There has been a lot of paperwork and blog posts going back and forth. Most recently the Archive requested “comps” or sales data for not only the 127 books that the Archive made available that are the core of this suit, but also similar books to get an idea of what sort of market effect the NEL had on these publishers. The publishers pushed back on this claiming “… since books are not fungible widgets [the request] rests on a false premise…. There is no such thing as a ‘comparable book’—even if ‘comparable’ is defined as some undefined period of sales data. Should Catcher in the Rye have similar sales to a bestselling cookbook, no one could plausibly contend the two works were ‘comparable.” I decided to push back a little on this idea, from a librarian perspective and talk about whether books are fungible….

I’m not 100% sure I understand fungibility, but at the library where I work people come in looking for one of two things for pleasure reading

– a specific book
– any book

People who want something specific, the latest Patterson or something they heard about on NPR, are usually looking for that thing and that thing only, this is why we have Interlibrary Loan. But, as I was telling Jane Friedman this week, some people just need something to read, they peruse the NEW shelf and sometimes go into the stacks, they have some loose criteria of what they like and just want something that fits those and it can be anything. And this is often how libraries “convert” people from anything-readers into being people who like or follow a certain author, a thing we don’t get a lot of credit for, to be honest.

So you have “widget” groups that are just

– any scifi book from the last five years that I haven’t read
– any book by a female author
– non-fiction about mushrooms
– any picture book about trucks

So the AAP’s point, that looking at comps for books (which the Archive is asking to do) because books aren’t the same as each other, that they’re all special snowflakes, is really not true for a huge class of readers and many books are, in fact, purchased for those readers as well as the people who follow specific authors or series.

The Archive’s request, I believe, comes from the perspective of a library. They make these books available to patrons as a bulk-ish deal, to have a collection appealing to patrons. Within that collection there needs to be a collection of items some of which are, basically, interchangeable and some of which are not. In fact, because of a looser “collection development” policy, I’d argue that the Archive’s collection of books is, in fact, more fungible than the average library’s, something that may be an important aspect of this ongoing dispute.

One thought on “The fungibility of books

  1. I don’t even know what to make of it that the publishing industry, which constantly uses comps in both its marketing copy and as the core of its calculations for advances, wants to argue here that no two books are comparable. I hope that line of argument gets destroyed in court for the disingenuous bullshit it is.

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