“Don’t let us get sick”

Recently, I tried to bolster the analytical underpinnings of “what happened to the music business” between 2000 and 2005. Some observers think a decline in sales is attributable to piracy, while empirical analysis suggests other factors were at play.

If I’ve given you reason to think again about the impact of piracy on the music business – great! Understanding that you may remain unmoved, I’m tackling a second question: Is the book business like the music business?

In some ways, it is. Both industries rely on independent creators whose work is edited, packaged and distributed by companies with a portfolio of front-list and backlist products. Both try to maximize profitable “hits” and avoid less-profitable or unprofitable “misses”.

The differences are larger, though. In the music business, the building block is small: a song. While there are some book publishing analogues (recipes in cookbooks, or city profiles in travel guides, for example), most book content is not packaged or sold as components.

Recombinant content may be on the way for categories like travel, but a song stands on its own in a way that the a chapter or illustration seldom does. While new forms of content could change that reality, those forms don’t exist today, and the pirated form remains “the book”.

This raises the second difference. Independent of the content source, Digital music can be consumed on a common platform. You don’t need to buy a new or separate device to make that pirated content “work” for you.

By comparison, books taken from pirate sources must be printed (try that at home!) or read digitally. Despite what you’ve heard, e-reading is not yet everywhere. In our experience, the most common format for pirate files is the less-than-reader-friendly PDF. Cozy up to a PDF for 15 hours and tell me you’re satisfied.

I’ll offer one more, perhaps defining distinction. Most people read a book once. They may share it with others, keep the print copy on their bookshelf for comfort or (on occasion) re-read a portion, but they don’t spend another day or two re-reading even the classic titles.

Songs are likely to be played many times (for some teens, good music appears to be defined as “play it again and again without stopping”). Someone inclined to do the work required to steal music is rewarded with multiple moments of pleasure over time. The book thief? Any investment made must be amortized over a single reading.

I’m not arguing that piracy doesn’t matter, but calls for enforcement need to be informed by more solid assessments of similarities and differences of the industries we use as benchmark. “Don’t let us get sick” is a natural refrain but (in this case) not an actionable one.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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