Is the book industry today the same as the music industry in ’97?

rippedOn my commute home, I listened to a Sound of Young America interview with Greg Kot.  Kot is one of the hosts of Chicago Public Radio’s Sound Opinions, the Chicago Tribune’s rock critic, and author of the new book Ripped : How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music.  In his book, Greg examines the massive changes in the music industry over the last fifteen years.  The book is a fascinating examination of how music is accessed and consumed, how digital distribution has revolutionized the world of music, and how labels and musicians (well-known and unknown) have adapted or failed to adapt to the new status quo.

One major thing to take away from the freefall of these major record labels is their inability to take advantage of this new way that music was discovered, obtained and consumed.  Labels weren’t – and still aren’t – ahead of the curve, or even on the curve.  Rather than trying to find a way to leverage or even profit from this brave new world of music, labels pushed back with everything they had to try and keep things the way they were.

Can anyone think of any industries that seem similar?  Maybe I’m the only one, but my head immediately started replacing the word “music” with “book”, and musicians with authors.  This quote from Jesse Thorn’s interview with Kot stuck with me in particular;

We’re going to have to reinvent the system from the ground up.  And right now, we have too many entrenched people who are saying “no no no no, we want it to be like the 20th century again.”  Well it’s not, you know?  We were joking about how we wanted to go back to medeival times at the start here, that’s to me the way the record industry is.  Hey, I’m sorry, it’s not 1997 anymore.  We have to deal with this new reality and figure out how to make this work.  So far, I don’t see enough brain power being invested in creating new systems that deal with this new reality… because the new reality is here, and it’s just going to be more profound in another five years.

Fact is, the book world is changing as rapidly as the music industry did.  Mega-retailers online have changed the way that people purchase books, and e-books are changing the way books are consumed – one of the biggest changes for the industry since the printing press.  The whole book distribution structure is being frequently challenged.  Even the way people discover new books is shifting from newspaper pages to social networking sites and blogs.

Are booksellers, book publishers, and authors going to be able to adapt?  I can’t help but notice the number of people in the industry saying they don’t want things to change, or that they want things to be the way they used to be.  Certainly there are lots of folks trying to fit this new reality into our old systems of doing business, but I don’t see a lot of energy being put into creating new systems to deal with this brave new world of books.

Like the music industry, this change isn’t going to be less profound in a few years.  The number of people taking their book habits online isn’t going to decrease, and neither is the popularity of e-books.  While plenty in the book business are taking the approach that we need to retreat to business as usual, it’s crucial that we learn a lesson from the music industry and move forward instead.


2 responses to “Is the book industry today the same as the music industry in ’97?

  1. I think this a veer astute comparison, especially with the popularity of the Kindle. I really feel like I will be one of those people that need to have paper books ripped from my cold dead hands, but I’m not going to lie, the Kindle is pretty cool. Now the question will be can the digital version of books sustain? I think we are already starting to see it with print media. Books will need to figure out more ways to be digitally accessible, it is the direction we are heading.

  2. I think that the digital version can definitely sustain, as soon as access stops being an issue. Look at a media like newspapers – once it became very easily accessible online w/o fees and login requirements to read, readers REALLY started shifting to the web.

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