The Future of Book Publishing: 5 Lessons from the Music Industry


While the world was bracing for Y2K at the turn of the century (remember that?!?)  little did we know what would implode would be something that seemed rather unshakeable: the music industry. While the industry continues to claw it's way out of the pit it found itself in, now the book publishing world finds itself in a similar boat. But the publishing world has a bit of an advantage: it can see it's future by looking at the music industry's past. The question is will they learn from the mistakes the music industry made (and continues to make) or fall into the same pit? 

I got my start in the music industry 13 years ago in February of 2000, right as the bubble was beginning to pop in the music world. In 1999 Napster exploded, and in 2001 Apple introduced the iPod. It didn't take long for the record labels' business model centered on selling "units" of CDs to completely unravel before their eyes. Instead of embracing a new way for fans to consume music, the industry fought it and ignored what fans were saying. Instead of working with this new technology and seeing how they could best use it they sued the very people that were the lifeblood of their industry: the fans.

I'll never forget what my boss at the record label said in response to this: "We should have been the ones to think of Napster. The music industry should have seen this coming."

The music and book publishing industries share more similarities than not. They ride in parallel worlds  with the music industry several years ahead of it in regards to the impact the digital revolution has had. The advantage that book publishing has is the fact that, if they are smart enough, will learn from the mistakes that turned the music industry in a downward spiral clawing for its survival.

Here are five mistakes authors and book publishers can learn from the music industry:


1)  Embrace Technology, Don't Fight It

It's crazy to hear executives still blame "music piracy" as the killer of the music industry, even 13 years later. Please. While fans were being sued, and executives fought against Napster and pointed fingers all over the place, Steve Jobs saw an opportunity to create a new way for fans to easily purchase and consume music. Apple created the hardware and the software to give fans an enjoyable music experience.

Now the Kindle, Nook, iPad, and others are new vehicles for fans to consume books and we find publishers fighting these developers as well. Digital is seen as an ugly word in big publishing companies because they don't bring in as much profit. Yes, there are more legal issues surrounding this but this is a replay of what happened in the music industry not so long ago.

LESSON: Look around at the exciting and endless possibilities available instead of fighting against it. The world has changed and we need to make books available in multiple formats. 


2) Quality vs. Quantity:

We don't live in a world where we can toss a bunch of books, albums, ideas, etc.,  out there and see what sticks. The cream truly does rise to the top. We need to focus more on quality rather than the quantity of what we put out there. 10 mediocre books won't surpass one excellent book. The art of development and focusing on quality has been lost in a need to pump product out there into the already flooded marketplace. Quality is needed not quantity.

LESSON: Focus on creating quality content. Surround yourself with experts (editors, designers, etc.) that can help you create an excellent product rather than a bunch of mediocre or poorly constructed books. 


3) Embrace Social Media:

Granted, social media entered the picture about five years into the downward spiral of the music industry, but what social media consists of is fans and community. The biggest mistake that the music industry made was ignoring the customer and not listening to what they were saying. You don't want to push against the very people that are buying your product….let alone sue them!

When publishers and authors don't focus on fan interaction, the power that social media provides in communicating with fans, and actually listening to them (rather than talking at them or ignoring them all together) they are missing out on the key to their survival. When the consumer is taken out of the picture and we don't listen to what they want and how they want to consume books, it's a lost cause. We will be repeating history.

Don't ignore or fight against connecting with your audience through social media. It's not a fad…it's here to stay, so you better jump on board if you haven't already.

LESSON: Listen to your fans and communicate with them (not at them) through social media. 


4) Don't Fear Free:

Something that the independent music community caught on to quite quickly was the idea of giving music or tracks away for free as a way to gain new fans.  Indie musicians know that they can't make a living on just selling albums. What they will make money on are live performances, merch, licensing opportunities, etc. Their album is just a vehicle to drive fans to where they can make money. This is something that record labels grasped too late in the game.

Don't throw fruit at me when I say this but your first book is essentially a marketing tool. When you are just starting obviously no one knows who you are. So pricing your book for a competitive price to lure new readers to try your book is essential. Or doing a special e-book or PDF promotion for a drastically reduced price (or even for free!) is a great way to draw in new fans.

The book world could learn a few lessons from an organization called NoiseTrade which gives music away legally while gaining email addresses, Facebook and Twitter followers, and exposure for artists. Someone take that idea and run with it for authors!

LESSON: Embrace the idea of free to draw in new fans. 


5) Don't Fall Back To The Old Way Of Doing Things:

We all know that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Looking back at the practices that used to work selling books isn't going to fly. Spending a load of money on an ad won't be nearly as effective as spending time communicating directly with your fans online. Ignoring the power of customer reviews on GoodReads and Amazon and only focusing on traditional PR reviews isn't going to work. Wasting money on a book tour instead of using free online resources like Google Hangouts, Skype or SpreeCast to meet up with fans would be a costly mistake. While it might be "comfortable" to do what was done in the past, you will end up being more frustrated than happy with the results.

LESSON: Do your research and observe what other musicians, authors, entrepreneurs, etc., are doing online to promote their products. Get creative and educate yourself! 


We have a lot we can learn from other industries out there. It's not a hopeless situation by any stretch. The key is to learn from others and don't fall into the same traps that they fell into. I found this video on YouTube which beautifully illustrates that books are more relevant than ever. What is changing is how people are consuming literature. We can change with the times or fight against it. It's your choice.


Question: What points would you add to the list? What are your biggest concerns within book publishing? Leave us a comment or question below!