In 1999 Napster went on the air, and the music industry changed forever. The big record labels were furious, confused, and tried hard to cling to the status quo, but the genie was quite solidly out of the musical bottle.
It’s the same anger, confusion, and resistance currently hitting the publishing world, and it’s why the evolution of the music industry is my favorite analogy to help explain to authors what I see hitting the publishing world.
There’s at least a dozen big things in common, but here are the largest:
Nostalgia be damned, we’re going digital
People held onto their CDs and records just like they are holding onto books. As big of a digital junkie as I am, there are some stories I will will always prefer to read on paper. Yet almost everything new I buy is digital. Same for a few million of my closest friends.
Once the medium shifts, the playing field changes and the old experts are sent scrambling. New rules are being written on the fly, and nobody knows how it will end up. That’s opportunity all over the place.
Artists don’t need the middleman…
Bands can now get their music directly to their audience via iTunes, MySpace, and a ton of other sites. They can record, edit, produce, publish and sell their work all across the globe without a record company. Many musicians make a fine living without every scoring a major label deal.
Authors now have the same clear path to their readers. Anyone with the time and effort can get their work up on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere.
…but the middlemen aren’t going away
The big record labels didn’t die, even if they whined, complained, and maybe shrunk a bit. There will always be a place for them, and they will continue to make many big name bands and trends.
Book publishers aren’t going to die, even as they do their own whining, complaining, and shrinking. Honestly, some did learn from what happened to the music industry and are adapting better. They won’t wind up as big and brash as when they started, but they won’t vanish.
Prices drop and selection goes up
iTunes made 99 cent songs the norm, and by finding a sweet pricing spot they created an alternative to sharing music that people liked. No more wading through a whole CD for that one song you love – just grab it directly.
New authors going fully digital are looking at much lower prices, ranging from 99 cents to $9.99. Without the publisher in the mix, those smaller prices are still enough to sustain a growing number of authors quite nicely. The increased volume of books available means opportunity for every genre and sub-genre imaginable.
Artists have to worry about the details
Production values still apply to self released music – you don’t want to hear hisses, pops, and your little brother sneezing halfway through your track. Just being able to write isn’t enough. You have to edit for spelling and grammar errors, and ensure your whole story makes sense. Fans still expect studio-quality music, and readers still expect publisher-quality books.
You still have to be good!
Bad music won’t find an audience outside your (suffering) friends and family, and the same goes for books. Just because you can get your material out there doesn’t mean anyone wants to read it.
Good music will get shared, praised, and passed around. So will good books. Quality still matters, and few writers are as good as they think they are. The digital publishing shift just makes it easier for good players to get on the field.
Right now nobody really knows how the digital publishing field will settle out, but if it keeps following the path set by music it is going to be an exciting next couple of years for authors!