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What’s Wrong with the Music Model

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What’s Wrong with the Music Model

by David P. Leach

With the successful relaunch of Amazon’s Kindle—the latest and greatest of the digital readers—it’s clear that publishers and booksellers are intent on getting on the digital bandwagon pioneered by the music industry. In 2005, Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers (and my boss), correctly prophesied on his blog that while traditional paper books wouldn’t disappear, the advent of digital technologies would dramatically change the publishing business—as it had the music business—and said that we all needed to prepare.

As a bell cow, music works. Here in Nashville, for instance, rarely a day goes by that our local paper doesn’t publish a piece on the effects of downloading on the music industry, for good or ill. As Nashville publishers, we can’t ignore the similarities between the music industry and ours.

And, of course, similarities abound. Both industries deal in intellectual properties; both face challenges at retail because of the rapid transition to digital; both face illegal downloading threats; both possess a glut of product that retailers can’t market.

But for all the similarities between the digital technologies of books and music, the ultimate future of book publishing depends on recognizing the many differences between the consumers of music and the consumers of books.

Readers are vastly different than listeners.

It’s a question of engagement.

Listening to music can be enjoyed passively; reading is always active.

Reading will never have an equivalent to “background music.” Reading—even listening—to a book requires intellectual engagement (and audiobooks account for less than 10 percent of book sales).

Reading is first intellectual, then (maybe) emotional; listening is first emotional, then (maybe) intellectual.

You feel something listening to music before you ever get around to processing its meaning. The opposite is true with books. These relationships won’t change regardless of paper or digital technology.

The only real barrier to listening is medical: deafness; the biggest single barrier to reading is educational and societal: illiteracy.

One million people in all of America are deaf (0.38 percent of the total population). By comparison, among American adults, more than 90 million spenders (42 percent of the population) can’t read above the eighth-grade level; half this group can’t read above the fourth-grade level. And trendwise, it’s getting worse, not better.

Music is “cool”; books are—well, “cool” isn’t the word.

It took only four music tours in 2007 (The Police, Genesis, Justin Timberlake, and Kenny Chesney) to bring in more revenue than Books-A-Million had the same year. That’s just ticket sales—no CDs, downloads, merchandise, or licensing. And concert sales were down 19 percent that year. How many authors have you seen on the cover of People lately?

Songs are short and often independent of a larger work; books are, by comparison, long and completely dependent on the larger work.

The ability to deliver a single song at an affordable price accounts for a significant part of iTunes’ success. Our cultural appreciation for the whole album died out with vinyl. We’re back to the old days of 45s! Books have virtually no equivalent to a “single,” and therefore, comparatively, suffer economically. (However, I do believe authors and publishers might be able to construct books and storytelling to accommodate at least some of this demand.)

Music listeners will play the same song hundreds of times, often until every word is memorized; few book readers will read the same book more than twice.

In effect, listeners amortize the cost of each song by playing it over and over. Rereading of books is likely only with reference material or extraordinary works. And never mind rereading; look at statistics on reading. The reason Apple probably won’t get into the digital-reader game? Steve Jobs thinks it’s a waste of time: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.” My research suggests that Jobs underestimated.

Poor people manage to find ways to put new music in their headphones; new books sell almost exclusively to the middle and upper classes.

Next time you’re walking on the streets or riding on the bus, count iPods compared to book bags. A gritty reality of publishing is: We sell books only to the people with the necessary education and income for the books we publish—and we sell them at the prices we choose and in the places we choose. Music has figured out how to break through these barriers to reach the otherwise alienated consumer.

People will spend over $100 a show to watch a singer sing; people won’t pay anything (other than gas money and the price of a book) to watch an author read.

David Sedaris is the lone exception. On any given Friday, compare the music offerings in the paper to the readings available. No matter how you measure our cultural priorities, the music consumer in most of us puts a higher price on the entertainment value of music than on that of books.

Music has sex appeal; while some books have sex, publishing doesn’t have the kind of sex appeal that sells books.

Music has E!, MTV, CMT, BET, GAC, and VH1. Books have, er, Book TV and BookSpan. Need I say more?

That music downloads have increased by over 350 percent in the past few years while e-book downloads have increased by only 24 percent isn’t a shocking comparison. Short of a seismic cultural shift, digital books will never catch up with digital music.

The Real Challenge

Sure, books will never be music and probably never should be. But like it or not, book publishing is a media/entertainment business just like music, movies, and TV. We compete for the same dollars. And on this level, publishers constantly face the possibility of losing market share to the other media entities.

The real chore is making reading cool again, and on that front no publisher is winning. And no publisher, by itself, could create a cultural tsunami large enough. But every publisher—including independents—can face the realities of this digital age and contribute to the expansion of our important product.

I suggest a three-pronged program:

1. Neither fear nor revere the digital-publishing revolution. Learn about digital publishing and make informed decisions. Independents need to offer a digital option, even if it means creating their own digital co-op for transferring and marketing written books-turned-digital. Writing books exclusively in e-book format may present a viable solution for many authors and publishers. This said, digital may not, nor need not, be for everyone.

2. Recognize that the success of the book industry, or lack thereof, hinges on far larger issues than digital ones. Creating readers from among people who can’t read, don’t like to read, or simply prefer other media to get their fix for stories and information is the real issue. If book people don’t start creating and developing readers (not of specific books, but of reading generally), why should anyone else?

3. Target the underdeveloped reader. For instance, consider creating adult books or versions of books at a fourth-grade level, and then rethink how to go to market. No publisher in America is creating this kind of book. Or, take your book tours to the middle schools of America—where we are losing our constituency—instead of just to bookstores. Carve out a reputation for creating and developing readers, and ride that niche to the bank.

Today, changing the public’s perception of books and reading is publishing’s greatest challenge. Book publishers need to embrace the characteristics that make other media appealing—and to do so facing the reality that customer engagement demands both satiating the thirst for technology that some of our current customers feel and aggressively pursuing the majority of Americans who have no use for us—high-tech, or not.

David P. Leach is an 11-year veteran of special market sales at Thomas Nelson Publishing, the seventh-largest trade publisher in the United States. He blogs at consequentialvalue.com.



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