A Tale of Two Industries: What Do Books and Music Have In Common?


Kyle Bylin, Assoicate Editor

In recent news reports, it’s becoming more and more apparent — that at a time when the record industry is reeling from changes that it barely understands — other industries are beginning to experience many of the same transformations.  Take, for instance, the recent pricing war between Wal-Mart and Amazon – where 10 book titles were dramatically discounted by the big-box retailer and Amazon, including many others, followed suit by decreasing their prices as well.

It didn’t take long before the bemoaning began, that, “If readers come to believe that the value of a new book is $10, publishing as we know it is over,” explained David Gernert, who is a literary agent to John Grisham, in Motoko Rich’s article Price War Over Books Worries Industry.  Sound familiar?  Well, it should.  As far back as 2004, Wal-Mart began to insist that it should be able to sell CDs for less than $10, instead of the average price tag of $15.99.  It’s not hard to imagine similar laments coming from bedeviled music industry veterans, claiming that if consumers, not yet music fans, believed that the value of a new album by Brittany Spears is $10, the record industry as we know it is over.

With both cases, the problem isn’t so much as to whether or not these cultural products will become devalued in the minds of their audiences – inevitability, they will, regardless of who or what pricing war or piracy site emerges – it’s that Wal-Mart, like other big-box outlets, doesn’t really care about the publishing or record business models, as much as they care about driving traffic to their stores and online sites.  So, keep in mind, that if the records you release or the books you publish don’t make good placeholders in their Sunday morning ad – that when substantially discounted, could drive your audience to buy a plasma screen TV or some nifty new furniture – maybe being in these businesses isn’t something that you’re cut out for or should rely on.  After all, if your dream is to sell lots of CDs and novels through them, just don’t forget that the day your content is no longer deemed a method of selling higher ticket items, there will no longer be Wal-Mart paydays for you.  Meaning that, like everyone else, you too, will have to learn to connect with your fans and give them a reason to buy.

Likewise, as some first time authors are learning, just because you have a publishing deal, doesn’t mean they are actually going to market your book.  This relates to the stories of artists going to the record stores in the towns they were touring in to find out that their records weren’t even available there.  Much like Major Labels, Neely Tucker, Washington Post Staff Writer, reports, “Book publishers actively market and promote authors, of course, particularly the big names, but for thousands of writers it's a figure-it-out-yourself world of creating book trailers, Web sites and blogs, social networking and crashing on friends' couches during a tour you arrange.”  Again, much like being an artist today, “Being an author has become much more of an ongoing relationship with your audience through the Web, rather than just writing a book and disappearing while you write the next one," says Liate Stehlik, publisher of William Morrow and Avon Books in Tucker’s article On Web, A Most Novel Approach. "You have to be out there in the online world, talking and participating.”

But, wait!  There’s more.  With 105,575 albums released in 2008, those authors in the publishing industry couldn’t possibly relate to how saturated and fragmented of an audience that artists have to market themselves to.  Not true.  As there were 560,000 books published in the United States during that same time period.  For film, counting only those that played at least a one-week/regular admission engagement in either Los Angeles or New York commencing during calendar year 2008, there were 573 titles released.  What does this explosion of choice mean for these industries?  “Our relationship with music has changed forever,” writes music critic John Harris in his article The golden age of infinite music.  “This is a truly golden age – the era of the teenage expert, albums that will soon have to be full of finely-honed hits and the completely infinite online jukebox.”  Mike Masnick of TechDirt commented, “Nearly everything about the music industry today is better. More music is being made than ever before. More people are making music than ever before.  More people are listening to new music than ever before. More musicians are making money from music than ever before. Even more musical instruments are being sold than ever before.  The only thing suffering is the sale of plastic discs.”

In an interview with Jeffery Brown on a PBS’s NewsHour, Lev Grossman, writer and book reviewer for TIME magazine, commented, “And we're seeing the same thing happen right now, totally new ways of distributing text, totally new ways of buying and selling it.  And I think the novel will totally transform as a result of it.  An obvious thing is just that a lot of people are making it – are being read who were not being read before, before the sort of New York establishment publishers were the gate-keepers. People are flooding around that gate. And we're seeing voices that never used to be heard getting online, getting read.  And it's wonderful. I mean, it's – I'm looking forward to this great sort of Cambrian Period of – of literary fertility and innovation. So, in that respect, it's – It's a really exciting time to be reading.”  To which Kassia Krozser, founder and editor of Booksquare.com, said, “What we're also seeing is new publishers coming into the mix.  We have had several new publishers announce in the past year where they're going digital first, print maybe.  This allows them to lower their overall costs and introduce new and interesting authors and new ways of telling a story… So, all these different ways of telling story and bringing readers to books is opening up just more possibility, because then they write more.  They create more. And the wave of creativity we have going on right now is incredible.”

More interesting still is Ray Suarez’s interview with Raphael Sagalyn of the Sagalyn Literary Agency on NewsHour back in July.   “When new technologies come into the book business, I think back 20 years ago to the rise of the audio book, there was great concern that the audio book would cannibalize the real book. And that is not true. It helped increase the sales of books,” Sagalyn says.  “It increased the distribution, increased the desire for people to own storytelling, and storytelling is at the heart of what books are all about.”  E-books, with their perceived lower cost in the minds of readers, share some of the same concerns among publishers — that not only will they cannibalize the profits of the twenty some dollar hardcover book, but they will cause people to expect the hardcover to become cheaper due to the contrast in pricing.  To anyone who follows the record industry, such claims are old news.  “The invention of the phonograph was going to discourage people from going out to see live music,” Greg Kot, author of Ripped, writes, “The introduction of music radio was a surefire way to kill record sales.”Home taping is killing music" screamed the magazine ads when the cassette tape was introduced.  Of course, each of those sky-is-falling alerts from the music industry was a false alarm. With each technological innovation, music became more accessible and more lucrative.”

There you have it – whether you take into consideration pricing wars, the lowering of perceived product values, the predictions of the end of industries as we know them, problems with overreliance on big-box retail outlets, the struggles of first-time signed authors and artists, the explosion of choice and oversaturation of the market, the release of digital products at a drastically lower price, similar creative renaissances, or industry views on disruptive technologies cannibalizing profits – it becomes more and more apparent that while both industry's have lots of differences, in many ways, the publishing industry has lots to learn from what the record and music industries have experienced over the last ten years.  Book piracy becomes an obvious hot-topic of learning and needed discussion, but could it be that the same people, who go through the trouble to pirate books, also happen to be the same people who already buy tons and tons of books too?  More than, say, the "average" book reader?  While we can only patiently wait the results of those research studies, it’s quite possible that their results will be of no surprise to anyone who's read similar studies on the music piracy.

Share on:


  1. I’ve been involved with both book publishing and music. Book publishing has always been better for authors. Contracts are generally for a book at a time, so if you don’t like how your book was promoted or you can get a higher advance for another publisher for your next book, you can switch publishers.
    Second, generally your advance money is yours. It’s an advance on future royalties, but unlike music, you’re not expected to pay for the cost of printing, distribution, etc. from your advance. The book publisher uses its share to cover the costs of all that, while in music, the company bills you for everything they do for you.
    These days book publishers typically don’t invest as much of their own money into marketing as they used to, so the author may choose to hire a publicist and pay for a book tour out if his own pocket. But whatever marketing the publisher does do won’t be billed to the author.

  2. Movies got rid of the studio system, so actors can work for whomever they want.
    Book publishing, with a few exceptions, doesn’t sign long-term deals with authors.
    Music as a whole hasn’t done an album-by-album contract yet.
    I’ve wondered if the situation in music is so much worse than in book publishing because musicians tend to not be as literate as authors?

  3. I remember reading an article or book maybe 5-7 years ago saying how in the future the Music Industry would be much more like the book industry with a few superstars ( Grisham, Clancy, Harry Potter etc) and a huge middle class – if the book industry falls even further – then what?
    And if writing a book required a producer and studio time then book publishers would be recouping the writing advance as well

  4. “And if writing a book required a producer and studio time then book publishers would be recouping the writing advance as well.”
    Not true. Traditionally book publishing had in-house editors who worked with authors to help them refine their books. The editors were paid a salary by the publishing house. It didn’t come out of the advance paid to the authors.
    Using an editor is comparable to using a producer, but unlike music, book publishing doesn’t bill the author for those services.
    Basically an advance is given to the author to help support the author while he/she writes the book. One-half may be given at the beginning of the project, and one-half when the manuscript is handed in. The author won’t see any more money until the advance has been recouped, but the author is not expected to cover any expenses that the publishing house pays for (which has traditionally included editing, printing, binding, shipping, marketing, promotion, etc.)
    Now that publishing has cut back, the publisher may not pay for as much as it used to. There are fewer services automatically provided. And the author may then decide to hire freelance editorial or PR services. But what and how much to spend is the author’s decision. A book contract, unless a lot of things have changed, does not include recoupable expenses.
    A number of years ago, I was hired to write a book. The advance was $30,000. That went to me, minus the percentage my agent took. I wrote the book, kept my money (which was in payment for me having written it), and that was that. The publisher was responsible for all the expenses in creating the physical book and getting it out to bookstores and other places that carried it (e.g, a book club, libraries), sending review copies, and so on.
    The idea that musicians are supposed to pay all expenses related to creating an album out of their advance seems insane to me. Only vanity book publishers would bill an author for printing copies of a book.

  5. Great post. I ran across this a few days after I authored a similar post (http://idek.net/eGG)
    The company that owns my company is a major publishing company and I can’t help but to see the connection.
    This really stuck out to me: “After all, if your dream is to sell lots of CDs and novels through them, just don’t forget that the day your content is no longer deemed a method of selling higher ticket items, there will no longer be Wal-Mart paydays for you. Meaning that, like everyone else, you too, will have to learn to connect with your fans and give them a reason to buy.”
    I think that the music and the publishing industries can learn a lot from each other. Both are looking for innovations, but both are also under pressure to protect what profit they’re making with current revenue streams. It’s a “rock and a hard place” situation for both industries.

  6. Books are a different matter than journalism, though, which faces the same challenge of being a business that’s in the process of being eaten up by the computer industry. The question remains unanswered if a community of voluntary bloggers can provide a good quality of journalism in replacement of the magazines that have disappeared from the market – and if this scene has got any longeivity or would shrink from its current high point of variety of publications to merely a copy and past of the same old agency reports over and over – depending on how affordable it is for those bloggers to keep doing what they love.
    That the same goes for music makes it appear as if the content industry has already been eaten up completely.

  7. Great post, Kyle. Suzanne makes a good point. Writers know that, given the normally small size of their advance, they have to work like crazy to even think about getting another shot at a second book. Musicians, on the other hand, tend to think that the “record deal” is the brass ring. It isn’t. Touring is where the money is, and if they were smart (and they’re generally not) they would be in clubs every night. Writers already know they have to sell themselves daily. Writers already understand they are a small business. Musicians, by and large, want in “the club” for alcohol, parties, skirt, youth … As for the more serious practitioners: Writers are analog. Musicians are digital. Once musicians get it through their dreamy skulls that they’re not going to go directly from garage to Madison Square Garden, once they figure out that they need to take control of their (serious) careers, once they realize that they need to build a fanbase, once they understand that their bands really ARE small businesses – once they figure all that out, they can build careers, primarily through getting off their asses and touring incessantly, honing their talent (the way writers do) and building a better Business Plan. Career writers already know all that, and work to figure out how to make their analog world compete in an analog industry that’s also going digital. Musicians have myspace, etc. Writers are learning how to exploit same.

Comments are closed.