How book publishing learned from music's digital mistake

Rob Reid writes in the WSJ, praising publishing for getting behind ebook publishing by licensing books for electronic formats, rather than boycotting e-readers, as the music industry boycotted MP3 players in its early days, and suggests that publishing may fare better than music because of it. I agree with Reid that publishing has generally handled the digital transition with more grace than record labels, but I think it's worth pointing out that publishing did commit many of the same blunders as the record industry -- notably using DRM (which drives piracy instead of sales), and embracing proprietary formats (which locks their products to vendors' platforms).

This doesn't necessarily make publishers the Einstein to the music world's Ozzy Osbourne. Publishing had music's dismal example to learn from. It is also easier to see the digital light when a game-changing product is released by a major partner and customer, even if Amazon inspires more dread than comfort among publishers. Of course, things haven't gone perfectly smoothly: In April, three publishers—Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins—settled a Justice Department lawsuit alleging they conspired to raise e-book prices. (HarperCollins is owned by News Corp., as is The Wall Street Journal.)

Publishers face many challenges today, and some may be existential—Amazon's dominance, for one, and the potential for authors to sell directly to readers. But as one industry executive wryly observed to me after ticking off a list of his industry's perils, "at least we're not self-immolators."

What To Do When Attacked by Pirates (Thanks, Rob!)


  1. Part of what publishers ought to do is look at the changing roles. With physical books the publishers are in large part printers and distributors. E-books don’t require that. But e-books do still require a lot of the things publishers have done. Curation, for instance, sorting out which authors are polished enough to be worth the readers’ time (though the bar will inevitably be lowered here as it involves less and less of an investment to bring a title to market). Editing, cleaning up the manuscript for spelling, formatting and style. And there’s still a place for the equivalent of typesetting: taking books in the formats it’s easy for authors to write in and doing a good job of converting them to electronic formats. It’s not that hard a job, but it takes some practice and familiarity with the tools and a lot of document formats don’t make the job truly straightforward. If publishers were smart they’d look towards shedding the printing and distribution expenses and doing the e-book equivalents on a straight contract basis (the author pays a flat fee, the publisher does the proof-reading, editing and format conversion for them). I’d abandon the “large advance, and the publisher keeps the lion’s share of the revenue” model and switch to “we’ll do the editing and format conversion in return for a 10% cut of the revenue”.

    1.  Writing a book takes a considerable chunk of time. If you want your favourite author to keep writing the books you like, I think an advance from the publisher is the most efficient way to do it.

      1. Which is shooting themselves in the foot because once you start getting rid of the advantages publishers have to offer you start having little reason to not go self-publish.

        At least that’s my logic as an amateur.

        1. Absolutely. If a publisher can’t offer a decent editor to shape the book and reliable copy editing to make sure the manuscript is clean, a writer would be foolish to give them the bulk of the profits.

    2. Hey Todd – well-stated, and a VERY interesting issue. I’m actually planning to write a piece as long as today’s WSJ piece (I’m the guy who wrote it btw) on the subject of what becomes of publishers once the books market becomes overwhelmingly digital in the near-ish future.  Looong story, but I think that the major labels may actually be better-positioned the thrive over the coming decade than the major publishers, unless the publishers substantially rethink the value that they bring to both authors and readers…

      1.  I’d argue that. Publishers at least have something they can offer to authors. The major labels, OTOH, are increasingly demonstrating they’ve nothing of value to offer either fans *or* artists. What the labels want to try to offer artists is increasingly available elsewhere without having to sign a contract that boils down to giving up all money beyond the advance and all ability to market your work yourself in any other form.

  2. This is a false analogy, the two businesses (music vs. print) are so dissimilar that they can’t be directly compared.  Oranges are round, and baseballs are round and about the same size and shape – oranges are tasty to eat, therefore baseballs are tasty?

    The only – repeat ONLY – reason that the publishing industry hasn’t suffered the same effects as the music industry, is because you can’t jam a book into your CD drive and rip it with a mouse click. Period.

    1. “is because you can’t jam a book into your CD drive and rip it with a mouse click.”

      But you can jam it into a page scanner.

      Most of the comments on this blog concern author generated fiction or light non-fiction, the kind of fodder for the e-reader crowd in a dozen+ formats. Some of that is pirated but it is haphazard.

      However, the side that is scientific, technical or diy trade paperbacks, at least a quarter million pdf titles are available for, ahem, illicit download right now.

      And then there are comic books. Freshly scanned within hours as jpeg pages.

      I have to think this has had some effect. Publishers are approximately the same number of years behind the trend as the music industry was when mp3 hit, playing the same catch up game, making similar mistakes.

  3. Just a minute, the first thing the publishers did was to form a cartel and fix prices, how is that any different to the Music industry???

  4. Hey Cory – good point on DRM, and it’s very interesting that Tor is blazing the DRM-free trail amongst the major publishers.  (I have a feeling that you may have had something to do with that   :-).  I’m very eager to see/hear how that goes.  Perhaps my publishers at Del Rey will follow suit!

  5. While I generally agree that publishing seems to be accepting e-readers in a way the music industry didn’t when it comes to MP3s, the reality is the DRM issue is worse with e-readers. Publishers still see themselves as vital to the process, which is not 100% true any more. They are still desperate to fit a square box into a round hole.  It’s a different dysfunction for a medium that is not easily piratable. Remember what accelerated the film,TV & music industry to change was the ease of simply taking a CD 0r DVD & ripping the content off of it. No such ease in print. I want a book, I have no choice but to go to the publisher.

    The first publisher who issues DRM-free material will really set the pace.  But right now, they are all desperate to retain the same profits they have always had.

    1. Ebooks are just as easy to pirate as MP3s. But publishers are still vital to the process, because even ebooks still need editing (not just copyediting, but real editing!), design, promotion, etc. Which is why signing up with a DRM-free trailblazing publisher like Tor is a great deal for an author.

      1. Ebooks are just as easy to pirate as MP3s.

        So you are telling me that taking a book & scanning in each of it’s pages & OCRing it & editing it is just as easy as taking a CD or DVD, putting it into your computer & ripping it?!?

        If I want a copy of san album in MP3 format I don’t necessarily have to copy an MP3. I can borrow a CD, and within a few minutes I have a perfect copy.

        No such equivalency exists for print books. If I find an old copy of a book or publication that nobody has spent the time to make into an e-book, and I want that in an e-format, I need to spend weeks & months creating that e-book.

        Big difference.

        1. You have mischaracterised what you are replying to, and should feel ashamed of yourself.

          1. But I don’t. Because my point is still valid. Piracy in the world of MP3s is 100% different than piracy in the world of e-books.

  6. The comparison between Einstein and Ozzy Osbourne seems off.  Ozzy’s done pretty well for years in various diverse incarnations — bands, solo work, TV, etc.  Maybe Lars Ulrich, milking royalties from 25-year-old records and bitching publicly about the piracy that (to some degree) made him famous, is a better personification of the hidebound music industry.

    I say this as a fan of both Sabbath & Metallica, btw.

  7. There’s one important difference between music and books: digital distribution of music doesn’t fundamentally change the form of music (how it sounds), while digital distribution of books does. The sad state of e-book design and production today is the equivalent of downloading music onto scratchy 78rpm records made of shellac. Or maybe like capturing sound by accident in the grooves of a pot thrown on the wheel of a medieval potter. I agree completely about the sale, marketing, and distribution of digital books, but we need to create a manufacturing standard that makes them *readable*.

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