Jan 31, 2012

Interpreting purchases & the problem of ebooks

One of my favorite explanations for why people buy Christian fiction is slowly withering away. It's slowly, increasingly become less plausible as -- before our eyes! -- the Christian fiction market is changing.

This is what's great about data, and what's challenging about scholarship.

The theory is that at least some of religious fiction's sales can be attributed to conspicuous consumption. I.e., that it's purchased as an act of identity. This is interesting because it takes the purchase as semiotically meaningful, and assumes the act of buying a book has to be interpreted before one can even get to questions about reading.

This theory takes two forms:
The first -- which Daniel Radosh argues -- is that we live in a consumer society where identity is consumer identity, and therefore buying products that are marked and marketed as "Christian" is a basic way in which Christians in a consumer society form and express their identity as Christians. It doesn't matter, according to this idea, whether or not one likes the product, or whether or not one reads the book. The act of purchasing is itself meaningful, and valuable to the purchaser in the way it positions them towards the rest of society. I.e., in how it (the purchase) gives a cultural position meaning.

It's thought of as a good use of buying power.

The second -- which Amy Frykholm talks about -- is that being publicly seen with the book is understood by the evangelical book-buyer as valuable because it's a possible opening for proselytization. This isn't entirely different than the first thoery, and could work along with it. Here, though, it's understood to be more conscious. I.e., the person buys the book, carries the book around, has it in the car where people can see or on their desk at work because, as with Radosh, it works as a conspicuously consumed object to express an identity, but, additionally, that public mark is understood by the marked person as being a conversation starter. It's thought of as being public about one's faith. Maybe in such a way as to create an interest. Possibly so as to prompt someone to ask to be witnessed to.

Call it consumption as evangelism.

Frykholm has at least one of the readers she interviews in her book tell her this was conscious behavior, a wish the reader had while toting the book around (whether it worked or not is another question entirely).

Here's the problem, though: ebook sales.

Publishers Weekly recently noted that 30 percent of the Christian fiction sold is ebooks. That's a number that's continued to grow, even while other genre's of ebook sales have steadied off or declined. The increase in Christian fiction ebooks apparently "dwarfs results from all other segments."

That's 30 percent of a more than $500 million in annual sales. Which makes Christian fiction ebooks worth about $150 million in yearly sales.

While there are still $350 million worth of actual paper books sold, which could be interpreted as one or another version of conspicuous consumption, there's quite a sizable portion of sales here that are inconspicuous. Thirty percent are read wrapped in the digital equivalent of brown paper.

It may even be possible to correlate what looks like a sales boom in erotic fiction to an increase in Christian fiction sales, arguing that both result from the anonymity allowed the reader of ebooks.
Anonymity, here, equaling freedom. I haven't found the numbers to confirm that, but there are indications it could be the case, and it seems at least plausible given the numbers I have.

It may still be the case, of course, that some of these sales or even possibly 70 percent of Christian fiction sales are explainable on one or another theory of conspicuous consumption, but if more people are buying (and reading?) fiction when they can do it essentially secretly, then we'd have to rethink that explanation. And if it's not more people, but the same people shifting to ebooks, it'd be hard to explain how the conspicuousness of their consumption of this fiction was important to them but isn't anymore. If, further, as some research suggests, the people who buy ebooks also buy paper books, then one would have to explain how the conspicuousness of buying Christian fiction is important sometimes and not at others.

All this means we require a rethinking of what, at first, for me, seemed like a fascinating account that took into account a number of important factors ignored before.

I still think it's the case it's necessary to think about the meaning of the act of buying one of these books, and not just jump straight to interpreting the act of reading. The question, who buys Christian fiction, has to come before the more common one, who reads Christian fiction? But the changing market and the new data have messed up what seemed like a good theory for answer that first question.

Now to come at it again.

Which is what's challenging about data and great about scholarship.