J.M. Reep


In Commentary on June 28, 2009 at 1:04 am

Earlier this week, I was alerted to a blog post written by Susan Piver. Originally published back in February, it warns big publishers not to go down the same road, and make the same disastrous mistakes, as the music industry. Sure, blog posts that develop publishing/music analogies are a dime a dozen online (I’ve even written a couple myself), but Piver speaks from a unique perspective: she was employed in the music industry in the 1990s, but now works in publishing. Her prediction for the immediate future of publishing sounds like common sense, and is a prediction that I think most would agree with:

my guess is that in 2-5 years we’ll see a publishing industry that looks like the music business does today: Super-downsized major companies selling a product line aimed at an older demographic and a jillion new companies creating the next generation of publishers, retailers, and readers. Just like in the music business, some in publishing will be mourning the death of the business while others will be wildly excited because all they see is opportunity.

The problem, of course, is that those running the big publishing corporations, instead of accepting and adapting to this future, will try everything they can to fight it. Right now, we see the same sort of physical vs. digital tension in publishing that existed a decade ago when Napster burst onto the scene. The recording industry had it’s business model, one that involved selling physical CDs and CD singles in physical music stores and marketing that product on the radio and TV outlets like MTV. The Internet offered a completely different business model, one that did away with those physical items and places, one where, thanks to websites like Pandora, anyone could create their own “radio station”. But this was so completely different from how the music industry had always been run that executives resisted, even though digital distribution was cheaper and much more convenient for customers. Music fans wanted to go digital, and since music companies — and many artists — didn’t want to go there, fans began turning to “piracy.”

The rest is history. The fans have won, and the music industry has been dragged kicking and screaming into the future. Now it’s publishing’s turn. As ebooks take off, as the quality of ebooks and ebook readers improves, and as more and more readers discover the convenience and lower cost of ebooks, publishing corporations will face their own moment of truth.

But as optimistic as Pavin is about what she hopes publishing’s response will be, all the evidence so far is that it will follow down the trail that’s been blazed by the music industry. One sees publishing execs freaking out over the spectre of “piracy.” Right now, their attempt to stop unauthorized copies of ebooks getting loose in the wild involves the use of DRM — that’s right, DRM, which the music industry tried for a few years and gave up on, after they realized that every form of DRM can be cracked, and that it does nothing but frustrate honest consumers.

Eventually (and it will probably take a couple of years) publishing corporations will give up on DRM. But will they then learn their lesson and begin embracing the new technologies and adapt their business models? I doubt it. I think it’s just a matter of time before publishers borrow another failed tactic of the music industry: suing their customers. Once ebooks start taking off in schools and colleges, that is, once textbooks start going digital and students began sharing them on P2P and bittorrent networks, we’ll start to see companies suing students, professors, and schools. Never mind that the music industry’s lawsuit campaign has been a disaster in terms of bad publicity and has completely failed to stop file sharing.

I guess the problem is that the best way forward for the publishing industry, the way that will allow publishing corporations to survive this technological shift in the way people tell stories and read, isn’t the easiest way forward. It requires hard decisions. It requires restructuring companies and changing business models. These are the kinds of decisions that corporate executives are loathe to make unless it’s the very last option available to them. And so it will be the last option. They’ll try everything else first, even if their corporate cousins in the music industry have failed in these tactics before.


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