The Book Business vs. The Record Business



I came across a Big Money article entitled The Kindle Revolution that described the book business. The parallels with the record business were immediately obvious:

The book business is a distribution business, pure and simple. It’s about getting the words and ideas of a writer into the hands of a reader. In the old days, publishers had to get the books piled in the bookstore so readers would notice them when they came in to buy. They also needed to get them reviewed because that’s where book buyers learned about books. Book publishers made nice profits by proving their mastery of everything from getting the cheapest printing and most efficient trucking to having clout with bookstores and reviewers.

The record business is a distribution business, pure and simple. It’s about printing plastic discs, loading them on trucks, delivering them to stores and stocking them on shelves. In the old days, record labels paid for posters, end caps and fancy displays to make their records stand out from the competition. Labels were able to reap large profits and support their massive overhead by dominating the production, distribution and media channels.

Few readers buy books based upon reviews anymore. Farrar Straus and Giroux’s editor in chief, Eric Chinski said, “Reviews don’t have the same impact that they used to. The one thing that really horrifies me and that seems to have happened within the last few years is that you can get a first novel on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, a long review in The New Yorker, a big profile somewhere, and it still doesn’t translate into sales.”

Few listeners buy music based upon reviews anymore. The traditional authorities, Rolling Stone reviews, radio play, MTV picks and the like don’t carry nearly the same punch as they used to.

What does translate into sales? A direct connection to the reader. That comes from publicity or word of mouth. What publishers pay for when they pursue the high-risk strategy is access to publicity—fame in one of its many forms or something sensational—or their sense that a book will tap into a kind of social currency. That’s everything from the next hot idea to the next book club must-read.

The important thing here is to recognize that the purchasing decision for a book doesn’t take place in the bookstore anymore. You don’t need to hold the book, read the flap copy, or weigh the sincerity of the jacket blurbs anymore.

People don’t trust reviews anymore and aren’t browsing the shelves at Tower Records every Tuesday when the new albums are released. The purchase decision is no longer made at the record sales counter and able to be swayed by physical promos and posters hung by label reps. Recommendations by friends, social music discovery engines and blog posts are now a powerful driver of sales. Consumers have also shown that they want to hear music rather than making a “blind” purchase as used to be the norm. More and more of this sampling is moving online and unlike books, music engagement can be easily tracked by measuring views, plays, friends, comments and mentions across the web properties where people are already interacting with their favorite artists. Music has always been at the forefront of societal and cultural changes. The direct connection from artist to fan is of the future of the music business and the rest of entertainment industry at large.