Comparing Books and Music
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.