Books and music go way back — at least as far back as the epic poets, whose tales of heroic deeds were sung to gathered Greeks long before they were stuffed between two covers for high school students. When singer-songwriter Joe Pernice signed his first book deal a few years back, for the novel “It Feels So Good When I Stop,” his press release made the tie explicit: “I am really excited to join the Penguin family, where I get to be label mates with writers like Homer.”
While it's hard to think of a content-producing industry that hasn't been profoundly affected by the rise of digital technology, the businesses that create books and music have confronted very different realities.
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Napster, file sharing and the rise of the MP3 turned a once highly profitable business on its ear. American sales of recorded music dropped by more than 50 percent in the first decade of this century, as CD sales plummeted and digital sales couldn't rise fast enough to keep up. The average American bought less than four albums a year in 1999; that had dropped to barely one by 2009.
Meanwhile, while it's not quite accurate to call the book industry thriving, it hasn't faced anything near the trauma the music business has. At least not yet.
"It just seems to me that the book business is somewhere between five and 10 years behind the music business," said Johnny Temple, the publisher of Brooklyn-based Akashic Books. "It hasn't seen the real disruption yet."
Temple should know. From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, music was his primary business as the bass player for the D.C. indie rock band Girls Against Boys. Akashic describes its list as "urban literary fiction and political nonfiction," although it's probably best known for publishing the children's book for adults, "Go the F— to Sleep."
Book publishing has a number of advantages over its musical brethren. Its customers tend to be a bit older and better off than the recording industry's, which has helped keep piracy mostly under control. And music's timing was off: Until iTunes came along in 2003, there were plenty of ways to get digital music for free, but no appealing platforms that let you pay for it. E-books, on the other hand, have reached the mainstream baked into payment platforms: Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook and Apple's iBooks.
But what publishing is figuring out is that digital disruption affects more than just an industry's business model. It shakes up every stage of the craft: creation, distribution, discovery and consumption.
When file sharing first arrived in the late 1990s, the cost of hearing a song dropped from $18 at Sam Goody to zero. Whatever one thinks of the ethics of Napster and their ilk, they had the effect of making it easier for people to dip into new genres — for indie nerds to hear some R&B, for hip-hop heads to check out the White Stripes. That led to a surge in artists who mixed and matched threads of pop culture, as cultural omnivores came to the fore.
"It's a kind of opening of taste, in part because of the profound new accessibility of everything," said Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist at Harvard University who studies the impact of digital technology on music.
E-book buyers are proving more willing to be adventurous with their purchases than their print equivalents. What once took a drive down to Barnes & Noble can now be done with a few clicks or taps. "Buying an e-book is much less of a commitment than a print book, in terms of cost, in terms of space," Temple said. "I get the feeling that people are more playful in their e-book buying than in print."
When the return on CDs dropped through the floor, musicians were forced to come up with new ways to make money. An increased reliance on live performance — a product that can't be easily replicated in ones and zeros — was the first shift. But there are new models popping up all the time.
Take Lil B, the Bay Area rapper who has made a name for himself by releasing literally hundreds of songs a year, almost all of them for free, and whose YouTube channel has gotten over 70 million views. Giving that all away has led to gigs at huge festivals like Coachella.
Or Amanda Palmer, the former Harvard Square busker who built an intense, direct connection with fans through impromptu events and a huge investment in social media. She was able to turn that devotion into a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $1.2 million for her new album.
"There are some artists who are going to do better in this environment than others," Marshall said. "Extroverts. People who are savvy about these kinds of things. People willing and interested in putting in the time."
Authors face many of the same questions. There's no shortage of consultants willing to advise writers of the need to build a following on Twitter, to blog between books, to fill the marketing void that publishing houses used to fill. Some authors embrace it; others just want to sit at their typewriters and write another draft.
But as the terms of financial success have changed, so have the tools of distribution. What once required a big investment in studio time can now often be achieved in a bedroom with Pro Tools. Reaching an audience used to require a label deal; now it only requires a SoundCloud account. For people whose primary interest is to see their work spread — for whom financial success is secondary — the options have broadened.
Take a look at an e-book best-seller list and you'll find it's a populist document: a lot of romance and zombies. But you'll also likely see some unfamiliar names, authors who've self-published and skipped over the publishing houses. There are still far more self-publishing flops than success stories, but those stories — Amanda Hocking selling 1.5 million copies of her paranormal fiction, most famously — are getting harder to ignore.