Swimming in music’s wake; The publishing industry can take a few pointers from its aural colleagues

By Joshua Benton
Printer’s Row

Chicago Tribune

Books and music go way back — at least as far back as the epic poets, whose tales of heroic deeds were sung to gathered Greeks long before they were stuffed between two covers for high school students. When singer-songwriter Joe Pernice signed his first book deal a few years back, for the novel “It Feels So Good When I Stop,” his press release made the tie explicit: “I am really excited to join the Penguin family, where I get to be label mates with writers like Homer.”

While it’s hard to think of a content-producing industry that hasn’t been profoundly affected by the rise of digital technology, the businesses that create books and music have confronted very different realities.

Napster, file sharing and the rise of the MP3 turned a once highly profitable business on its ear. American sales of recorded music dropped by more than 50 percent in the first decade of this century, as CD sales plummeted and digital sales couldn’t rise fast enough to keep up. The average American bought less than four albums a year in 1999; that had dropped to barely one by 2009.

Meanwhile, while it’s not quite accurate to call the book industry thriving, it hasn’t faced anything near the trauma the music business has. At least not yet.

“It just seems to me that the book business is somewhere between five and 10 years behind the music business,” said Johnny Temple, the publisher of Brooklyn-based Akashic Books. “It hasn’t seen the real disruption yet.”

Temple should know. From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, music was his primary business as the bass player for the D.C. indie rock band Girls Against Boys. Akashic describes its list as “urban literary fiction and political nonfiction,” although it’s probably best known for publishing the children’s book for adults, “Go the F— to Sleep.”

Book publishing has a number of advantages over its musical brethren. Its customers tend to be a bit older and better off than the recording industry’s, which has helped keep piracy mostly under control. And music’s timing was off: Until iTunes came along in 2003, there were plenty of ways to get digital music for free, but no appealing platforms that let you pay for it. E-books, on the other hand, have reached the mainstream baked into payment platforms: Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Apple’s iBooks.

But what publishing is figuring out is that digital disruption affects more than just an industry’s business model. It shakes up every stage of the craft: creation, distribution, discovery and consumption.

When file sharing first arrived in the late 1990s, the cost of hearing a song dropped from $18 at Sam Goody to zero. Whatever one thinks of the ethics of Napster and their ilk, they had the effect of making it easier for people to dip into new genres — for indie nerds to hear some R&B, for hip-hop heads to check out the White Stripes. That led to a surge in artists who mixed and matched threads of pop culture, as cultural omnivores came to the fore.

“It’s a kind of opening of taste, in part because of the profound new accessibility of everything,” said Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist at Harvard University who studies the impact of digital technology on music.

E-book buyers are proving more willing to be adventurous with their purchases than their print equivalents. What once took a drive down to Barnes & Noble can now be done with a few clicks or taps. “Buying an e-book is much less of a commitment than a print book, in terms of cost, in terms of space,” Temple said. “I get the feeling that people are more playful in their e-book buying than in print.”

When the return on CDs dropped through the floor, musicians were forced to come up with new ways to make money. An increased reliance on live performance — a product that can’t be easily replicated in ones and zeros — was the first shift. But there are new models popping up all the time.

Take Lil B, the Bay Area rapper who has made a name for himself by releasing literally hundreds of songs a year, almost all of them for free, and whose YouTube channel has gotten over 70 million views. Giving that all away has led to gigs at huge festivals like Coachella.

Or Amanda Palmer, the former Harvard Square busker who built an intense, direct connection with fans through impromptu events and a huge investment in social media. She was able to turn that devotion into a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $1.2 million for her new album.

“There are some artists who are going to do better in this environment than others,” Marshall said. “Extroverts. People who are savvy about these kinds of things. People willing and interested in putting in the time.”

Authors face many of the same questions. There’s no shortage of consultants willing to advise writers of the need to build a following on Twitter, to blog between books, to fill the marketing void that publishing houses used to fill. Some authors embrace it; others just want to sit at their typewriters and write another draft.

But as the terms of financial success have changed, so have the tools of distribution. What once required a big investment in studio time can now often be achieved in a bedroom with Pro Tools. Reaching an audience used to require a label deal; now it only requires a SoundCloud account. For people whose primary interest is to see their work spread — for whom financial success is secondary — the options have broadened.

Take a look at an e-book best-seller list and you’ll find it’s a populist document: a lot of romance and zombies. But you’ll also likely see some unfamiliar names, authors who’ve self-published and skipped over the publishing houses. There are still far more self-publishing flops than success stories, but those stories — Amanda Hocking selling 1.5 million copies of her paranormal fiction, most famously — are getting harder to ignore.

This disruption happens both on the low and the high end. Lots of scrappy indie bands offer their music at pay-what-you-want prices online — but so does Radiohead. Lots of independent authors are going around traditional houses to publish directly through Amazon’s Kindle — but so has Stephen King.

The digital transition for music meant that the album lost out to the individual track. Getting the one song you wanted used to require getting nine other ones you were less interested in. Now they’re all 99 cents a pop. And the formlessness of digital music has enabled music to get both shorter and longer: Two-hour DJ mixes can now spread as quickly as anything else.

Something similar is happening in books. Kindle Singles and boutique publishers like The Atavist are working to create a new home for the kind of work that’s too long for a magazine feature but not long enough for a traditional print book. If you had 20,000 good words on a topic 10 years ago, you probably had to chop it down to 3,000 for a magazine or blow it up to 60,000 for a book.

“We’re making works both longer and shorter,” Temple said. For some e-books, Akashic adds background material and author Q&As that wouldn’t make financial sense in print. But they’re also building smaller free samplers, remixing pieces of books together, and paying attention to sales data they can’t get as quickly for print books.

“There’s something about the fact that e-books aren’t a 400-year-old format that lets you play around with it and try things out,” Temple said.

The story is getting better for the music industry. After that decade of steep decline, music sales revenue was basically unchanged in the United States in 2011 from the year before. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry called it the “least negative result” since 2004 — the sort of stilted press-release speak familiar to those who follow the newspaper industry, where “flat” is the new “up.”

Concert revenue tripled in the United States in the 2000s. Record labels, like the influential Los Angeles hip-hop label Stones Throw, now offer digital subscription packages: Pay $10 a month and get a digital copy of everything the label produces, plus unreleased bonus material for the superfans. Licensing songs for use in TV ads is far more widely accepted than it was in the quick-to-call-sellout 1990s. And services like Spotify are pushing songs from something you buy 99 cents at a time to something you subscribe to and listen to whenever you want.

In other words, the music business is evolving. Even though people don’t buy jewel cases at the rate they once did, more albums are released each day now than 10 years ago — and that’s not counting the vast seas of music produced and distributed online that doesn’t fit into the traditional definition of an album.

“When the recording industry says ‘If you don’t support us, you won’t have music,’ that’s patently false,” said Jonathan Sterne, a professor at McGill University and author of the new book “MP3: The Meaning of a Format.” “Music existed for a long time before the recording industry came along. It’s a little blip in human history. People will find a way to make music.”

The book world has had the advantage of seeing what happened to other industries, and its transition to digital starts on firmer ground. But as the music business found, you can only get so far repackaging analog goods into digital packages. Everything is up in the air, and it’ll take some innovative thinking to ensure that the values of books are carried forth into the digital age.

“Music has an incredible advantage over books — it’s been road-tested for centuries, across all kinds of populations,” Temple said. “Books are so much more narrow of an art form. There aren’t legions of 18-year-old kids trying to revolutionize the book business.”

Joshua Benton is director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.