Comparing Books and Music

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

One of the recurring themes of this blog is how publishing is evolving, and you probably know that for the last few years, people have been comparing our current situation to the music industry’s revolutionary changes over the last fifteen years. If we’re smart, the wisdom goes, we’ll carefully study how things have gone in that medium and see what we can learn from it. I’ve read many articles that astutely point to things that have worked and things that didn’t for the big record labels; analysis of mistakes that were made; and how that industry has adapted to changing technology which has in turn changed consumers’ buying patterns.

There is much that can be learned and applied to the book business, but I’ve been concerned lately that some people seem to be taking the analogy too far. There are too many ways that books are not like music, and if we slavishly try to incorporate the lessons the music biz has learned, we’re going to end up in big trouble. Many of the strategies that are now working in music won’t work in books—we need to creatively think up our own solutions!

Here are a few of my thoughts:

The music business has always been driven by live events.
For thousands of years before recording even existed, music was performed and enjoyed live. It makes sense that many of the answers for the music industry lie in the better exploitation of live music; not so in books. The book business has never been driven by live events, and I doubt it ever could be.

Listening to music has always been equal parts social and personal.
Whether we’re listening on the radio, on recordings, or at a live event, we have always enjoyed sharing music with others equally as much as we’ve enjoyed it by ourselves. By contrast, reading has always been primarily a personal activity, something we do on our own—discussion groups and author events notwithstanding. It has never been primarily a social activity.

Revenue in the contemporary music biz comes from live shows more than record sales.
The music business has primarily been able to rally through smarter exploitation of live shows and merchandising. It has been suggested that similarly in publishing, we need to create better festivals and live events that can add value to books, as a way of saving our industry. I disagree with this.

The majority of book buyers will not be attending book festivals and events—they already don’t. If they do, it’s once every few years and they spend very little money there. Think about how much money fans are willing drop at a concert of their favorite rock band. A couple might spend two hundred dollars on tickets, another hundred on parking and food, possibly another hundred or so on merchandise. Four hundred dollars per couple would be normal. Can you imagine the masses spending that much money—or even 1/4th of that ($100) on an author event? In an environment where more people are loathe to pay $15 for a book by their favorite author?

There is a crucial difference between music events and book events.
The pleasure of listening to music is an integral part of a music event. By contrast, a book event doesn’t include the experience a reader most craves, which is sitting down to read a book. It may include hearing parts of a book read aloud; discussion of books, and other activities having to do with books, but the primary draw of a book is completely missing. So music events can’t be analogous with book events.

Sales of recorded music have dramatically shifted.
One of the things that has dramatically changed the music landscape is the ability for consumers to buy single songs rather than entire records. We do this routinely on iTunes. Instead of selling an entire CD, many artists are only selling 1/10th of a CD as people pick and choose, and decide to only buy one song rather than ten.

But a book is still a book. Consumers won’t be buying 1/10th of a book. However, we are now buying entire books for less than the price of a single song! We certainly have started to emulate this model by creating shorter works — short stories, novellas, Kindle Singles — and selling them digitally. But the math doesn’t work the same way it does in music. This is another area where it’s difficult to make the model financially advantageous to either the writer or the publishing company.

In music, sales of physical product (CDs) are still surprisingly strong.
This is one way we CAN learn from the music business. Nearly 13 years after the advent of the iPod, CDs are still selling. And there aren’t even any music stores! People like to own a physical product. Let’s not be too quick to assume the physical book is imminently headed for obsolescence.

Bottom line: While it’s smart to study the music industry to learn what we can, it’s also important to be studying how music and books differ, and asking ourselves how that affects what we can learn and how seriously we should take the comparison.

I’ve presented a couple of the ways the music business isn’t like the book business.

What do you think are some things we CAN learn from the music business?


Should we compare publishing to the music business? Click to Tweet.

A few ways the changing book biz can’t be compared to the music biz. Click to Tweet.

31 Responses

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Wendy Lawton says:

    Interesting, Rachelle. I’ve noticed with interest the rise in sales of retro-like vinyl records. Many record labels are issuing these along with their CDs and digital offerings. It’s a throwback to forty years ago and earlier. Music as collectibles.

    I keep expecting to see a rise in those brave entrepreneurs who are creating collectible versions of books. But, as you say, the two fields are not directly parallel so it remains to be seen.

    • It’s interesting that you mention vinyl records, Wendy, because we still purchase some new music that way. Actually, the hubby usually buys two copies of vinyl records–one to listen to and one to collect.

      • Ann Averill says:

        Hi Cheryl,
        I remember your name from write Angles conferences. My husband collects old records too and plays them while working on projects. I just published a book on Kindle, Broken, 180 Days in the Wilderness of an Urban Middle School. I’m learning first hand how to maneuver in the evolving publishing business. I am a Christian living in Westhampton. I seem to remember that you wrote books for children and are a Christian too. I’m also trying to write some books for children. Are you going to the SCBWI conference in May?

        Ann Averill ([email protected])

  2. Fascinating subject. I’ll bet you get a LOT of comments.

    There’s another fundamental difference, between books and music; reading is active, and listening is primarily passive.

    Reading stimulates the imagination, and calls the reader forward into highly abstract mental activity, on both the conscious and subconscious levels.

    Music is more akin to an almost sensual experience of abandon – witness the behavior of a church congregation during a particularly effective worship song. Music can transcend the intellect, and allow a direct connection with the sublime, while books help us understand the sublime.

    There’s precious little similarity between the two as art forms, and less as business platforms.

    About the only effective crossover I can see is the availability of short fiction, as you mentioned. But you’re right that it’s certainly not the same business model; I’d see short fiction more as advertising, to interest new readers in longer works, much as SF writers published short works in the late, lamented periodicals of the 50s. Arthur C. Clarke and Issac Asimov both made effective use of this venue.

    Going into another area of the music/book relationship for a minute – we all want ‘big endings’ that leave ’em gasping. Hard to achieve in books, and in symphonies. One might want to study the musical structure of the last movement of Howard Hanson’s 2nd Symphony; it has the most effective ending I’ve ever heard, and a very distinct pattern of increasing aural tension, with small ‘releases’, building to a really nice finish that is satisfying, with a clean sense of closure.

    This, you can adapt to writing.

  3. I particularly agree with this statement:

    “Let’s not be too quick to assume the physical book is imminently headed for obsolescence.”

    Three years ago there were many so-called “book experts” stating that print books would be obsolete within a year or two. About two years ago I received an email advertising campaign stating “Print Is Dead!” from a well-known internet marketer promoting a Kindle publishing program for $297. I emailed him back stating, “Anyone who states that ‘Print Is Dead!’ is either intentionally lying or brain dead.”

    I am glad that I have not listened to a lot of the so-called “book experts”. The print sales of my most successful book had it’s best year in 2013 with over 20,000 copies sold (the book was released 10 years ago).

    As someone one said:

    “It’s dangerous to make predictions – especially about the future.”

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • Excellent point, Ernie. I worked in an office back in the late 90s. Even then they were talking about paperless offices. I still haven’t seen one that is entirely paperless and it’s been almost twenty years.

  4. Good article, Rachelle. As a former band guy who had a record deal with Warner Brothers, I have a working understanding of how the music biz works. In many ways it used to be like publishing – the songwriter put together a simple song demo (proposal), found someone who could rep it to a record company (agent), and, if he got a demo budget, recorded some complete versions of the song (Sample chapters). If the company liked the demo (chapters) they gave him a record budget to make the album. The major difference for a record budget was that it usually was in the six figure range.

    Then with the advent of digital recording, especially in the last ten years, every computer became a home studio. Songwriters could put their music on YouTube or various other online venues. It seemed that the record industry was going the way of the publishing industry – e-records and e-books. But was it really?

    One of the most interesting recent developments is the rapidly rising sales of, get this, VINYL records. It seems that an MP3 only captures about 10% of the sound, and what’s left is clipped and pixilated, just like a blown-up digital graphic. People have been returning to analog recording because there is an inherent warmth that escapes digital.

    So, just like the millions of readers who want to curl up with a real book, there are millions of listeners who are buying vinyl – and that takes a much more robust industry than is required by digital recording.

  5. Many purists believe that the sound achieved on a vinyl record is more true to the music itself that a CD. I have no clue if that’s true, but I find it interesting from a performer’s aspect. I love the irony of having an early vinyl recording of say, Ethel Waters singing His Eye Is On The Sparrow taken and ‘digitally re-mastered’. How does one digitally remaster perfection?

    I have a few antique books. I would never part with them, simply because I can touch, smell and see the struggles the original owners endured.

    The feel of a music event, and reading a book for the first time are similar in that the senses have acquired a new threshold by which all other experiences that follow will be gauged.

    But it’s our job as creatives to bring our work as close to the initial ‘hit’ as possible.

    • That vinyl is better than digital is true by definition. It’s like trying to recreate a slope on a hillside with a concrete staircase – no matter how close together the steps are, they introduce a graininess over the smooth curve of the original hillside.

      If you make the ‘steps’ small enough, and use adequate ($$$) signal processing, you can come close to emulating the sound of a fresh vinyl.

      • Andrew,
        Very true! If you take a digital graphic and blow it way up – what do you see? Pixels, square pixels. Those squares represent the x’s and o’s that the digital camera or software captured. If you blow up an MP3 you get exactly the same effect. The sound is pixilated in squares, jagged and clipped. On the other side of the coin, vinyl and tape are able to capture the actual pulse of music recorded through a tube amplifier. That is why it sounds so much warmer.

  6. Denise Willson says:

    Hmm, you’ve given food for thought this morning, Rachelle. I’ve heard the rumblings of people comparing the two industries, but hadn’t really thought of it in depth. Thanks.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth, and now GOT

  7. We certainly have started to emulate this model by creating shorter works — short stories, novellas, Kindle Singles — and selling them digitally. But the math doesn’t work the same way it does in music. This is another area where it’s difficult to make the model financially advantageous to either the writer or the publishing company.

    The advantage is in building a fan base. Short works are a simple, fast way for authors to get in front of eyes and make some Starbucks money, too. Trad publishers realize this, and have been putting out short works by their A listers…only sometimes they’ve done it the wrong way (see the disastrous results of Michael Connelly’s “Switchblade”). An indie author in full control can determine when a work is ready to go.

    Short works that are serialized and then collected can actually bring in significant income. While the boffo WOOL series by Hugh Howey is at the high end, there is plenty of lettuce to be made down below. I have two of these series going now, and will do the collections soon.

    Short works are also good for the writing chops, to keep sharp. So those are the advantages: more readers, some money, and better writing.

    • I remember when I bought Stephen King’s THE GREEN MILE in its serialized form. I spent more money than if I would have bought it in hardcover.

    • Roxanne Sherwood Gray says:


      My son, a high school senior, is thrifty. He’s also a huge fan of Hugh Howey and didn’t think twice before spending hard cash to purchase WOOL, even though he’d read the series online.

      Just as YouTube videos propelled Justin Bieber to fame, authors like Howey will continue achieving success by giving away stories to grow their fan base. I believe new novelists and mid-listers are going to have to work harder than ever to build a readership. Still, I hope to cultivate some of that “lettuce.” 😉

    • Mr. Bell,
      Indeed, a short series is good for the chops, and good for the soul. When Cecil Taylor finally got famous, someone asked him how he survived all those years in obscurity. He said, “I just pretended I had gigs and practiced for them.”

    • I have a friend who did exactly this. Is she getting rich? No, but she’s got regular writing income and stays home with her child.

  8. Since you are having a music-themed month, Rachelle, what if there were a competition show seeking new voices and writing talent in which we all competed for that impossibly hard-to- obtain agent representation? You could be a judge and give out Golden Tickets to those moving to the next level.
    “American Idol” meets “The Apprentice” where we are given “challenges” for editing, creating media platform, writing the best query letter…
    The winner would have an obscenely large platform already in place.
    I joke but I’ve never heard this analogy, and it does seem silly to compare the two mediums.
    But I’m glad you did because it spurred a fresh look at the problem.

  9. Bernie Brown says:

    I know I am not alone in preferring some books as e-books and some books as print books. I haven’t been able to identify why there are some books I just have to have to hold in my hand. Maybe it’s the power of the cover illustration, maybe it’s how personal I expect the story to be. I don’t know. I just know I will always buy both print and e-books. It is great to have the choice. I know I buy more books because of it.

  10. Christine Dorman says:

    One thing I didn’t see in anyone’s comments, except for yours, Rachelle, is price points. (I apologize if I missed it in a comment.) You mentioned that books can now be bought for less than the cost of a single on iTunes. Pricing is a tricky, but important element. As a young person (i.e. tweens through twenties) I haunted record stores. Music is my greatest love, so I spent most of the money budgeted for self-indulgence on records (most of the rest was spent on books). While I resented having to re-buy my favorite albums when they came out on CD players and record players were no longer being sold, I did it because I loved that music and wanted to have it for my own. So what has this got to do with price points? What I saw happen with albums was that the price got higher and higher until it became outrageous. I still buy CDs, but rarely, and only ones that are made by artists that are at the top of my heart list. I do buy songs from itunes–and again, many are songs that I used to have on an album. So I am buying a product that, technically, I already own. But .99 cents to a a dollar and change is a price that’s hard to resist (although it can add up quickly). Ulitmately, most albums end up costing $11-12 which I would consider reasonable, as opposed to the $29.99 and $39.99 that CDs had begun to cost when the recording industry took a nose dive.

    What has this got to do with books and publishing? As a bibliophile, I am fine with paying the fifteen dollars that you mentioned for a good hardcover, but I’ve come across many novels in the bookstores that are thirty dollars. That, from my point of view as a consumers, is too high a price (like $29.99 for a CD). At the same time, selling complete novels on Amazon for .99 cents creates a mindset among consumers that a book SHOULDN’T cost more than, oh, iTunes’ $1.29 top priced singles. Also, making works available–and downloadable–online for free, as some new sites are doing, is a trend which will further devalue good writing. Part of the recording industry’s downfall was the result of piracy, but a good portion of it was due to over-pricing. I afraid that the publishing industry is working frantically at under-pricing now.

  11. I’ve only just begun to hear about the comparisons between the music industry and the book industry. You just took my understanding to a much more specific level.

    You’re right in that people still want the physical product. Many people love their e-readers. However, many people still enjoy a hard copy of a book in hand—the physical product. The feelings evoked when holding a book, the opportunity to mark it up (for us writers studying the greats) and the ability to quickly grab it from the shelf to re-read or loan out are all pluses. Similar to actually owning a CD.

    It seems one thing we can learn from the music industry is how to market ourselves, or build a bigger platform to help with sales. Perhaps keeping “product” flowing and in front of our readers’ eyes is one way to do this. I think someone (Perhaps Jim?) mentioned putting out shorter stories/novellas between bigger books would help with this.

    This post has me thinking. Thanks, Rachelle.

  12. You’ve hit on the differences, Rachelle. I think the greatest similarity lies in the corporate cultures of the traditional music industry starting with the Napster wars through today, and the culture of the traditional publishing industry. Big companies have a level of inertia that’s hard to overcome, but unless publishers can clearly differentiate themselves from the flood of independently produced product, and find a better way to distribute their content at prices the consumers demand, the consolidation of recent years will leave us with precious few remaining imprints.

  13. Marcy McKay says:

    You touched on all my thoughts, Rachelle. Music has such a LIVE arena to it, though I did giggle at picturing us all holding our lighters up and cheering to JK Rowling as she screamed to the auditorium, “Thank you, New York!” The crowd goes wild…

  14. Similar to the way music can conjure up a nostalgic mood or an emotional tone, great stories can get us in the mood to learn more about specific topics. For example, I’m a fan of historical fiction, so when I read of a time in history that engrosses me, I tend to pick up more reading material to expand my knowledge of a location, an architectural style, an invention, etc. Kind of like a segue into expanding my horizons. 🙂

  15. Rachel: I love your analogy between live concerts and book fairs. Last spring I decided to participate in a local event, The Southwest Book Fiesta. It was an attempt to engage more readers and buyers of books. A huge chunk of the Albuquerque Convention Center was rented, and authors and booksellers bought booth space to participate. Another author and I shared a table at $150 for the three-day event. A few months before the event, the original organizers were replaced by another individual. The prices for admission were jacked up to $10 a person. The fiesta was a dismal failure. My friend and I each sold four books (which was better than lots of others did) but the overall attendance for three days was less than one hundred paid visitors. We discovered that people who paid that high price were not willing to plunk down more coin to buy books. There’s no talk at all of repeating this experience here.

  16. Tony Faggioli says:

    You make some fantastic points Rachelle. It’s interesting to note the similarities because, well, both situations seem so dire. Yet in the rush of people trying to learn from the past, they’re forgetting it is indeed a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Some of your points I had completely missed though, so thanks for pointing them out.

    I would add another: correct me if you think I’m wrong but the writing world has an additional problem in that “vanity press” was always such a bad thing in the past. It was the last resort for desperate writers. Now? Self-publishing(to make sales or to get the attention of a good agent) seems to be the growing trend. So a number of older writers (myself included) have to be retrained in our way of thinking. Then? Regardless of age, writers have to learn a whole new business model that has nothing to do with writing or being creative. I happen to own my own business so this process (though still rough) is not entirely foreign to me. But not so for many others.

    Musicians have always had to scrape up money for studio time, cut demos and hand out free tapes or CD’s to build a rep. But they were rarely asked to start their own label, hire their own publicist, set their own price points, track their own sales, put together their own marketing budgets and book all of their own gigs.

  17. Heidi Kneale says:

    One lesson we can take from the music industry is that it’s okay to change and adapt. It won’t kill us. Really, it won’t.

    I remember the big brou-ha-ha about ebooks a while back, how it would kill print books, and destroy literature altogether.

    (And yes, Cheryl, the paperless office. I still dream of a paperless office.)

    I remember vanity press giving potential indie publishing a bad name. I remember a friend choosing to self-publishing. He was successful–still enjoying success, but the hassles of the whole shebang put him off recommending the procedure to anyone else. (Granted, this was in the days of print books.)

    But now, not only have we’ve got a rise in indie publishing (Smashwords, Amazon, etc), but its reputation has improved over the vanity publishers and other companies like PublishAmerica.

    Can the world of books change and successfully adapt to a new paradigm? Sure; the music industry did. Will we do it the same way? Nope. Still, that’s no reason to fear change.

  18. Lara Nance says:

    I think the takeaway is simply, don’t assume your business will always stay the same. look at trends and react to them smartly instead of denying that changes are happening. This is true for any industry. That is all.

  19. Music seems to have more ‘fall-back’ and alternative possibilities than books. As you say, musicians can do more live performances or release DVD’s of a performance, spicing it up with interviews, etc. Authors can’t do this. Musicians have more possibility in producing merchandise than authors do, with the exception of a few like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, and that was mostly because of movie tie-ins.

    I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I do think it is important for writers not to sell their work too cheaply. 99 cents may work for one song but, dare I say, a novel should be compared to a CD or album, and is worthy of a higher price. Not to mention, getting free music used to require attempting to download a clean copy from radio play. I’m in the camp that thinks giving entire books away is a bad idea.

  20. Joe McCann says:

    Hi Rachelle, I wondered to what extent agents collaborate and specialize beyond genre. Do agents establish relationships with publishers, or is it more at an agency level? Also, what role does the agent play in helping establish a client writer’s platform (advising on SEO, etc)? If you would share any insights regarding the role of agent as a standalone person versus part of a larger agency, that would be really interesting.