The music industry’s a pretty good harbinger of where publishing’s going. Books might be a decade behind records in the shift to digital, but many of the same issues are arising. So the news that digital sales are now half the UK music industry’s income brings relevant lessons for those putting words on the page.
The sprint of progress
Think how quickly we’ve shifted from CDs to downloads and streaming as the main way of acquiring music. You think that won’t happen to your precious books? That’s what the old vinyl fans said, and sure they’ve still got their specialist shops and collectors bins, but in the space of two decades they’ve become an obscure cultural niche. Change is coming fast.
The Titanic turned
Some people predicted the downfall of the old music industry through the democratising power of digital distribution. It’s a wonderful dream, and one I hope to see fulfilled at some distant time. But companies aren’t vast ships heading inexorably towards the dooming iceberg of progress. They change. They adapt. They find ways to turn a profit. They’ve successfully ridden the wave of digitisation in music and, much as they’re struggling with it right now, they’ll adjust successfully to the changes in publishing.
Did the Earth move for you?
The current period of upheaval has potential to change the balance of power between authors, publishers and readers. But exciting as it is, it’s unlikely to change the fundamental landscape of the industry, at least in the medium term. Authors can now live without big publishers, but the publishers will find ways to make themselves valuable to authors again. What we do right now will affect the details of the future shape of the industry, but much as it might pain me to say this, the broad picture will be pretty similar twenty years from now.
So this: Things are changing fast. In ten years time publishers and authors will be making more money off e-books than physical ones. But the big publishers will still be making most of the money, even if more diverse voices are making a living pecking away at their market.
Current changes have the power to democratise the industry. But while these changes will happen quickly, that democratisation will take time.
Now I’m off to write a novel. Better make the most of this chaos while it lasts.
Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons