The digital transition for music meant that the album lost out to the individual track. Getting the one song you wanted used to require getting nine other ones you were less interested in. Now they're all 99 cents a pop. And the formlessness of digital music has enabled music to get both shorter and longer: Two-hour DJ mixes can now spread as quickly as anything else.
"We're making works both longer and shorter," Temple said. For some e-books, Akashic adds background material and author Q&As that wouldn't make financial sense in print. But they're also building smaller free samplers, remixing pieces of books together, and paying attention to sales data they can't get as quickly for print books.
"There's something about the fact that e-books aren't a 400-year-old format that lets you play around with it and try things out," Temple said.
The story is getting better for the music industry. After that decade of steep decline, music sales revenue was basically unchanged in the United States in 2011 from the year before. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry called it the "least negative result" since 2004 — the sort of stilted press-release speak familiar to those who follow the newspaper industry, where "flat" is the new "up."
Concert revenue tripled in the United States in the 2000s. Record labels, like the influential Los Angeles hip-hop label Stones Throw, now offer digital subscription packages: Pay $10 a month and get a digital copy of everything the label produces, plus unreleased bonus material for the superfans. Licensing songs for use in TV ads is far more widely accepted than it was in the quick-to-call-sellout 1990s. And services like Spotify are pushing songs from something you buy 99 cents at a time to something you subscribe to and listen to whenever you want.
In other words, the music business is evolving. Even though people don't buy jewel cases at the rate they once did, more albums are released each day now than 10 years ago — and that's not counting the vast seas of music produced and distributed online that doesn't fit into the traditional definition of an album.
"When the recording industry says 'If you don't support us, you won't have music,' that's patently false," said Jonathan Sterne, a professor at McGill University and author of the new book "MP3: The Meaning of a Format." "Music existed for a long time before the recording industry came along. It's a little blip in human history. People will find a way to make music."
The book world has had the advantage of seeing what happened to other industries, and its transition to digital starts on firmer ground. But as the music business found, you can only get so far repackaging analog goods into digital packages. Everything is up in the air, and it'll take some innovative thinking to ensure that the values of books are carried forth into the digital age.
"Music has an incredible advantage over books — it's been road-tested for centuries, across all kinds of populations," Temple said. "Books are so much more narrow of an art form. There aren't legions of 18-year-old kids trying to revolutionize the book business."
Joshua Benton is director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.