The Book Industry is NOT the music industry.

I’m getting tired of people saying that the book industry has the advantage of seeing what happened when the music industry went digital, or that the book industry is going the way of the music industry because of the digital revolution. The two are not really so alike. Yes, both are/were threatened by their impeding digitalization. But that’s just about where the similarities end.

Music is, in essence, a digital format. It’s created as a file and always was, in it’s recorded format, digital. Also, it’s biggest problem when it came to the internet was pirating.

Textbooks are really the only books where this may end up a serious issue.

The Herald National Tribune article circulated by Bosacks today printed,

“The book business model is under siege, just as the music industry earlier came under siege,” said Eileen Gittins, chief executive of Blurb, a Silicon Valley company that helps people publish their own books, using the Internet. “The book publishing business has had a front-row seat to see what happened to the music industry.”

But, thankfully, they followed that up by disagreeing with Eileen.

So far, book publishing has been spared that fate. As the music business was decimated by digital piracy over the last decade, book sales continued to rise, aided, in fact, by the ability to browse and buy from online emporiums like Amazon.

The major issue for books is first and foremost the creation of a universal file format. Or for file format not to matter. Currently, if you download an ebook you have to choose from  3-8 file formats (maybe more).

This doesn’t help ebook’s accessibility.

Then, you need a device to read the book on.

You can read them on your personal device of choice, but often that will leave  your eyes blurry and your head pounding. Ditto for reading them on a computer screen or a laptop (though I have done it – but a computer or a laptop is also a lot harder to curl up in bed with … i tried) so that leads us to the Sony ereader or the Kindle. Both are much easier on the eyes and a comparable size to an actual book. But both are also expensive. And, since ebooks aren’t much cheaper (if any) than print books, it becomes a lot more expensive, long term and short term, to have the device.

Even if we say ebooks cost half of what print books do, and the Kindle costs $359 it would still take 36 books (35.9) before you broke even and started saving money.  How many average American’s read more then that many books in a year?  Unless they work in book publishing, probably not many, unless they are a avid reader. That works out to about 3 books a month (one book every 10 days).

The Sony ereader is slightly less expensive, but at least the Kindle allows you to subscribe to newspapers, etc. (which, if you do would allow your break-even point to drop some).

Finally, the threat that publishing is suffering from because of the digital revolution is the rise of self-publishing. Because it is now easier then ever to create small print runs, online companies are capitalizing on this. Publishers need to figure out how  to be competitive here – having smaller lists, signing less authors and then actually supporting those authors would be a start. Authors today see a much smaller advantage to signing with a large publishing company because they make a smaller percentage of profit off of their work, often still have to work to market their books themselves because the publishers budget is split too many ways, and the only real benefit is that publishers can – sometimes – get their book in bookstores. Online book stores cause this to be a decreasingly worthwhile benefit.

In the music industry, the problem of device and file format were dealt with before the digital revolution. And, until the digital revolution, was handled fairly successfully. The problem that that industry suffered was that people were stealing their content from online stores.

If we are going to compare the two, lets look for the ways the music industry offers us solutions to our current problems – not compare the failure of the music industry to the book industry decline. The music industry succeeded where the book industry is struggling – in creation of an easy to use, in-demand electronic format.

The music industry was just TOO successful; people wanted it so badly they would steal it. It would be a good world where books were as in-demand as music. Let’s hope it gets that way.

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The Newest Market
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A Writer’s Walmart

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3 Comments on “The Book Industry is NOT the music industry.”

  1. oldnil Says:

    Interesting post. I’ve spent some time considering different audio formats and how listeners approach them. From a market perspective, I agree that it would be helpful for the publishing industry to settle on one file format – MP3 comes to mind as the universal audio file format. I do disagree with your assertion that music was always created in a file format. Yes, from the birth of recording devices came the preservation of music, but before that music resisted all efforts to be captured – hasn’t the written word been a “file format” longer than music has (moveable type, cuneiform script)? Also, this might be splitting hairs, but digital recording of music didn’t begin until the early 1970’s. Before then it was all analog (vinyl, wax cylinders, etc.), and more expensive to distribute (like hard-cover books?).

    Forgive me for being picky, but it looks like I take music as seriously as you take publishing. Had to defend my turf.

  2. mbreau Says:

    I appreciate the explanation. Basically, what you’re saying is that the publishing gurus really have no excuse.

    You’ve given me something that publishers SHOULD learn from the music industry. And I like your assertion that the written word has been a ‘file format’ longer.. although for a long time each letter had to be set individually so i don’t think you can really consider that a ‘file’ …

    If you have any ideas on how books can successfully make the transition the way music did in the 70’s, I’d love to hear them….

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