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A Book Is Not a CD, or
Why the Publishing Industry Is Not the Music Industry

The Purple Crayon Blog June 2010
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For years now, discussions about what is going to happen to the publishing industry as ebooks become more common have been peppered with references to the music industry and what happened to it as music has gone digital. It's easy to assume that what has happened to the one will happen to the other, or something very like it. There is a basis for this assumption. As businesses, the two industries are very similar. They both are built around companies funding the development and production of a creative work for sale in large numbers through retail outlets, with the creative talent behind the work paid on a royalty basis. Other similarities (and differences) in the way the two industries work may occur to you.

Device-dependent Versus Device-independent

Still, a book is not a compact disc. I realize that seems like a stupidly obvious statement--one is made of paper, and the other is made of plastic. That's not my point. There's a more fundamental difference related to what you can do and not do with these two objects. You can take a book anywhere, read it anywhere there is light, not have to plug it in, turn it on, switch it off, or back it up. A compact disc, on the other hand, has to be played on something, and that something must have electric power, from a battery or a plug. Long-playing records, when they were the format, also had to be played on something. So too now does an electronic music file. A book, in other words, is device-independent, and music listening, on LP or CD or MP3, is device-dependent.

The Transition from Physical to Digital

This device-dependency eased the transition from music disc to music file. People already had to have a device on which to play music, and in some cases did not even need to acquire a new one to transition from playing CDs to playing MP3s, since computers--already widely owned at the time of the transition--could handle both of them. With books, on the other hand, people are used to NOT needing a device, and this simple fact will mean that the transition from books to ebooks will not be identical to, or even all that similar to, what happened in the music industry.

So far, out of a U.S. population of over 300 million, Amazon has persuaded a few million people to buy one of their Kindle Readers. But to do that, they targeted a very particular group, as they have acknowledged, consisting of older people who read a lot, who travel, and who have the income to afford a $300 device that only does one thing well. Even so, they had to use public domain content and bestsellers priced below Amazon's cost to lure those readers onto the Kindle. With the lure of the below-cost books gone (Amazon recently had to change that practice, under pressure from Apple and publishers), and many heavy readers already owning a Kindle, will sales of the reader slow? Will casual readers, or readers of books that do not work well on simple black-and-white text screens, move as quickly onto a Kindle-like device? Time alone will tell, but I suspect that the boom will slow, even with the appearance of the iPad on the market, since for the remaining book buyers and readers in the US populartion, I suspect that the advantages of a reader device are not as clear-cut as they were with that group.

Children's Books and Ebooks

Other factors come into play in the children's book market, which mean that the transition there from books to ebooks-and-devices will be slower than it will be for adults. And in fact, the children's book market is already well behind the adult in ebooks sales. If ebook sales are 5% of the adult market, they are less than half that in children's/YA, and sales so far have skewed to the YA end, since teens are more likely to own devices (cellphones or computers) on which to read ebooks. But younger children do not own very many Kindle Readers, or iPhones, or iPads, or computers (still a common ebook device). With the possible exception of computers, these devices are mostly owned by adults, except in affluent families. Children may get to use their parent's device from time to time to read on, but they don't now and for the most part won't be carrying it to school or the mall or the beach in their backpack or back pocket, as they can do with a book. Yes, children are comfortable with computers and electronic devices in ways that many adults are not, but if they don't own them, they'll still have a book, with which many children also are comfortable.

So far, the most notable success in book-to-ebook change has been the encyclopedia, which went from book to CD-ROM very quickly--before CD-ROMs themselves became outmoded! As with that transition, when there is a good match between the needs of the book and the abilities of a new electronic format, change will come faster. When there isn't a good match, it will come slower, and in some cases won't happen at all.

Finding the right device adds complexity in the children's market in particular. Once we get beyond black-and-white readers for novels and straightforward nonfiction, no one device or format yet exists that will handle the different needs of picture books, textbooks, and other complex or color-illustrated books. Does that mean a fragmented ebook market, with many devices? It could, but there's a need for a lightweight, low-cost, reliable, easy-to-use, portable ereader that handles all ebook formats. Until it comes along, change may not come as fast as some in the industry would have you believe. Instead, the device-independent book, which can be produced in a wide variety of sizes and lengths across a field of formats from wordless picture book to text-heavy YA novel, may yet hold on longer than some predict.

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