The Future Is In The Past And Present

I’m not normally one to weigh in on the e-book debate, partly because I think others can say it better than me, partly because I’m bored.

I should explain that boredom with the background that I worked for the music industry on and off over the last 10 years as I put myself through uni. It’s perhaps also why, while publishers’ concern over the fast-moving changes sweeping the industry is warranted, it feels a little groundhog day-like for me.

I had the fortune (or misfortune) to gain an insider’s perspective on how not to tackle the advancing electronic era. And if there’s one lesson I have learned from observing objectively from the inside, it’s that the key to the future of the publishing industry is in the music industry’s past and present.

In the music industry’s defence, the changes were swift and previously unexperienced, so it’s unsurprising that they handled things badly. But the publishing industry? They’ve had some forewarning, and what I don’t understand is why they haven’t been pinning down and picking the brains of music industry professionals—those who survived, those who didn’t, and those whose developments changed the game. Because if I were pinned down and brain-picked, I’d put it this way: it’s not about the packaging—it’s whether the content, be it words or music, is delivered in a format the suits users’ needs. Ultimately it’s about providing them with what they want, how and when they want it.

Let me explain. The concept of the music ‘album’, replete with 12-ish songs, was created not by musicians or demanding fans, but by record companies who saw it as a way to bundle more content together and make more money. What it meant, though, was that artists released music less regularly as it took them a long time to come up with 12 good songs, albums were very often padded out with not-so-great ones that arguably decreased the overall value, and fans were forced to buy whole albums when they very often just wanted one, single, solid track. And that’s not counting the impracticalities of carrying around a bazillion CDs to parties or overseas. In short: the packaging and delivery didn’t suit users’ needs.

Then advances in technology gave users an easy, affordable alternative. Yes, for the most part that was an illegal one, but I’d argue that while illegal downloading was always going to appeal to some, there was a percentage of people who did this simply because they couldn’t get the content in the format they were after.

While artwork and having a physical CD to show off on your shelf were ok, they weren’t the driving reason why people bought CDs. The driver was the content: the music. What Apple recognised and what the iPod and iTunes, in particular, enabled people to do (like a revelation), was pick and choose tracks. They made music portable and placed the how and when and why decisions firmly back in users’ hands.

Which is where the publishing is—and should be—heading, with or without publishers’ tacit agreement: towards formats that are more in tune with users’ needs.

The look and feel of a book is important, but it’s not the sole book-buying driver. I buy a book because I want to read it. And I want to read it in a manner that suits my lifestyle, which is one that involves a lot of travel with a lot of heavy gear. For this reason, too-heavy, too-cumbersome, easily damaged hardcover books are completely impractical for me. But audio books that I can listen to while on a bus, train, or plane (times when ‘traditional’ reading normally makes me motion sick) or multiple e-books I can take overseas without having to worry about the weight of my luggage are perfect. Moreover, e-books that bookmark pages to remind me where I’m up to (a battle I constantly face as I can never seem to remember the exact page number and stalwartly refuse to buy bookmarks that only fall out anyway) are a godsend. Finally, it feels as though someone’s thinking about how I use (and need to use) books.

The publishing industry is focused on trying to resuscitate the book, as if it’s on its deathbed. They’re blaming the terminal e- and audio-book illnesses for its passing and are so caught up in grieving and making funeral arrangements, they’re not seeing the situation for what it is.

Books aren’t dying. The format they come in is just being updated or, indeed, not even that—just being joined by complementary electronic versions. The sooner the publishing industry understands that—and the sooner they recognise that the key to the publishing industry’s future is in the past and present lessons of the music industry—the better off we’ll all be.