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What Publishing Can Learn from Music

[Cross-posted at HuffingtonPost & the Book Oven Blog]

The modern publishing business has been in existence since about 1800, but things are not looking so rosy in the ink-stained world. The publishing business is scared: if stagnating book sales and the creeping digital shakeup were not enough, the market meltdown has many tightening their belts while trying to figure out the future.

Still, there is no indication that books are going away, or are any less useful, needed or wanted now than they were 200 years ago. Books are still essential. People still love them.

The book publishing business has a great advantage over other big media industries. For various reasons, publishing is late to the digital party. So it can look to all the many mistakes the music business made in the past decade, and decide how to move into the uncertain future. Here is some unsolicited advice to ponder while ignoring the Dow.

Five Lessons Publishing Should Learn from Music

1. An iPod for Books Will Change Everything

The Internet, Napster, and Bit Torrents have all shaken up the music business, but it was the iPod that put the final nail in the coffin of the old business models: radio doesn’t matter anymore, and barely anyone can remember what a CD is for. All of a sudden, the world is full of people who want to fill up their little white devices with music. In the book business, we’ve yet to see an iconic, affordable ereader that people love. When we do, the game will change. Kindle Two apparently shows promise. The new Sony Reader is getting lots of good reviews. And Stanza, the new ebook app for the iPhone, makes Apple’s handheld the most popular ebook reader in the world. What’s more, Stanza has converted many ebook skeptics I know personally. Question for publishers: do you want to be where the readers are? Then find out where they are, and go there.

2. Think Beyond DRM

Big media has reacted to the web with alarm and terror, and their favorite answer to the challenges of the future has been digital rights management (DRM). This has been a disaster for media customers, and it’s not doing much good for the music business, is it? Have you heard any happy reports about how DRM is saving music? Nope. In the case of book buyers, DRM stops many people from embracing ebooks, because it makes things too complicated, and limits what you can do with them. We want to read our books on different devices, how and when we want. We don’t want to be treated like criminals, or told what devices we’re allowed to read on. Experiment a little, make some gambles, see what works best. Try it without DRM, you might like it.

3. If You Help Us, We Will Buy

The music business and Hollywood made a big mistake by fighting online distribution. If, early on, big media had built (or allowed others to build) the tools to let us all download movies and music at reasonable prices, we would have come. Instead, the they fought digital distribution with every bit of litigious animosity they could muster. Result: alternate/illegal means of getting entertained filled the void.

So, to publishers: Make your stuff available online. Make it easy to find. Make it easy to buy. And don’t insult us: if a physical book – with the cost of production, distribution and retail overhead – is worth $20, a digital book is not. Cut the price accordingly. Take your margin, but don’t abuse your customers with outrageous prices for ebooks (otherwise, we will find other ways to get our books).

4. Don’t Be Afraid of Free

Do you remember how in the olden days, the publishing business lead a massive effort to shut down public libraries, because free was the enemy of the publishing business? How they fought to stop people giving a gift of their favorite books to a friend? Me neither. Libraries help readers, they help publishers, they help books in general. And giving away a book is one of the most powerful marketing signals in the universe. The mainstream book business seems to live in terror of free, and yet free access to books has traditionally been the cornerstone of the publishing business. You don’t have to give everything away, but remember how much good “free” has done for you in the past.

5. Find Out What Your Customers Want

Then build your business around that. This is the most important point. Readers love books. They love reading. They love writers. We will support the publishing business, and writers, but you have to find out how we want to do it. Don’t try to shoehorn us into an old business model that doesn’t make sense with new technology. Your job is not to force customers to behave the way you want them to. Your job is to find out what your customers want, and then deliver it to them. Times are changing. Find out what we want, what we need, and then help us get it.

There are some encouraging signs that the publishing business are trying to make some good changes. Let’s hope they keep going in the right direction.


  1. Alexandre Alexandre 2008-10-20

    A possible advantage of music is “short form.” In fact, one of the main changes in the way people listen to music, in general, is the move from albums (as neatly packaged bundles of tracks recorded by a given artist or by artists represented by the same label) to libraries (which include personalized collections of tracks, wherever these tracks may come from). Sure, “people still love albums.” There are people who still buy albums and LPs have even made something of a comeback (“people love the smell of LPs” is the nostalgia market’s motto, it seems). But the iPod revolution is about having individualized collections of very diverse musical tracks on the same device, being able to mix-and-match, or even mashup musical elements. Concept albums still have a place, but the “individualist” tendency with musical tracks is as important as the possibility to distribute said tracks online.
    Going back to books… We may be near the end of this short historical period during which single-author, long-form text has been dominant. The Era of the Novel, as these “monolithic” bookstook over form many other forms of writing. This era had interesting connections with the social changes which have been happening during the same period (the importance of social mobility, the continuing influence of Romantic ideals, the creation of “The Artist” as an important social character…). But aren’t we now moving toward a more “polyvocal” tendency in writing and reading? Isn’t there a move toward collections of shorter texts or, simply, user-focused text aggregation? While people do still love books (including their smells), some people are able to customize their “libraries” to contain numerous excerpts from varied authors, regardless of their origins. Books from a given collection still look cool (say, La Pléiade). But there’s a level at which you may want very fine control over how much textual content from a given author you may want to read.
    This is something textbook publishers have a hard time understanding. They do create customized textbooks but they don’t grok the “modularity” of the texts which are included. They still want to sell “bundles” which they have prepared themselves, regardless of what diverse readers want.

    Not only has LibriVox understood all the lessons from changes in the ways people listen to music but LibriVox is in the ideal position of providing short-form which can be part of the “remix” culture people are currently describing. With LibriVox, polyvocality goes much deeper than Bakhtin’s notion. You actually hear different voices of readers. And you can “mix and match” LibriVox content with all sorts of audio and video content you may have in a given “library.” No need to stick to David Copperfield as it’s being read: you can switch a podcast about coffee or to a selection of songs by a band a friend has recommended.

    We do live in fascinating times.

  2. Dan Oja Dan Oja 2008-11-08

    I think many people may be missing the point.

    The future of digital publishing doesn’t revolve around digital versions of paper pages. The future lies in full utilization of the power of the computer and the power of the Internet to create a compelling new reading experience offering features and benefits to the reader that make up for the inherent nuisance of reading on-screen. I’m talking about books that use the Web, video, animations, sound, and user interaction. I’m talking about books that blur the line between the traditional concepts of a book and interactive software.

    There are some examples out there today, including some of the best-selling college computer textbooks, but they are flying under the radar of the publishing industry which remains mired in a static page/PDF mindset.

    For examples, visit,, and

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