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Book Business vs. Music Business

November 14, 2008

listening to booksUnlike music, the future of book publishing doesn’t depend on whether, when or how it goes digital.  Similarities abound, of course.  Both 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.  Prophetically in 2005, my CEO, Mike Hyatt, outlined the harbinger-like nature of the music business on the publishing landscape in a series of posts.

But the similarities end quickly.  

The many differences between the consumers of music and books demonstrate that publishers need new solutions.  Readers are vastly different than listeners.

It’s a question of engagement.

  1. Listening to music is primarily passive; reading is always active.  Reading will never have an equivalent to “background music.”  Reading–even listening to a book–requires intellectual engagement.
  2. 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.  
  3. 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 hearing- impaired (.38% of the total population).  By comparison, among American adults over 90 million spenders (42%) are reading-impaired.
  4. Music is “cool”; books are, well, “cool” isn’t the word.  How many authors have you seen on the cover of People in the last year?
  5. 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–and then only if it’s a reference book or a great read.struggling to read
  6. 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 in a tough section of town, count iPods compared to book bags.
  7. People will spend over $100 a show to watch a singer sing; people won’t pay anything (other than gas money) to watch an author read.  David Sedaris notwithstanding.
  8. Music has sex appeal; some books have sex, but 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?

This comparison may tell it all:  of the top four music tours in 2007 (The Police, Genesis, Justin Timberlake, and Kenny Chesney) brought in more revenue than America’s third-largest book-seller (Books a Million).  That’s just ticket sales–no CD’s, downloads, merchandise or licensing.  And concert sales were down 19% that year.  The Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus franchise alone is worth two BAMs.

Sure, books will never be music and probably never should be.  But publishing is a “media”/ entertainment business just like music, movies, and TV, and therefore we actually compete with them.  And on this level, publishers face the possibility of losing market share to the other media entities.

2007 tour kingsSo perhaps the biggest challenge of the book industry is to change the public’s perception of books and reading.  Publishing needs to embrace the very characteristics that make other media appealing, and to do so facing the reality that their customers must be engaged on a different level.  Publishing competes–like it or not–for the same consumer dollars.  And only a small part of the solution is going digital.

The real chore is making reading cool again, and on that front no publisher is winning.  I’m not even sure they are trying.  

Keep an eye on this blog.  In the coming weeks we’ll explore some possibilities.

One Comment leave one →
  1. alunatunes permalink
    November 22, 2008 4:23 pm

    Count me in! I’m all for creating an environment where readinga and books are cool. I work in the music business. Most of my clients are in their mid 20s to 30s. I encourage them to read marketing books instead of magazines. Please keep me posted on your ideas. I think they’re great.
    I write a daily music blog from a spirit perspective at
    Come by and visit!

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