The trajectories of digital music and ebooks

2007 is a watershed year in the history of technology.

The iPhone was announced by Steve Jobs in January 2007. The device was launched in the market in June 2007.

But the iPhone was not the only pathbreaking device from 2007 that went on to change how we perceive an entire industry/multiple industries.

In November 2007, another device was launched that was anticipated to change another industry forever – Amazon’s Kindle.

Ebooks were supposed to be for the publishing industry what the mp3 was for the music industry. The Kindle and iPad were to be what streaming is for music, today. But this promise never materialized!

Take a look at some of the numbers.

In the music industry, the industry revenue by format is clearly skewed towards streaming, even as there’s an increasing and persistent clamor that this skew has permanently harmed the earning potential of artists.

The CD, once a dominant format for music sales, is down to under-3% of total sales in the US. Vinyl has made a tremendous comeback, though!

Source: AEI

But, in the publishing industry, ebooks sales have stagnated in every way – the percentage of sales to overall books sold, and in terms of the number of books sold (with a recent bump because of the pandemic in 2020 when people were simply not able to buy a printed book)!

Source: Statista
Source: NPD
Source: AAP

Physical books continue to outsell ebooks and audiobooks.

Why didn’t ebook and the book publishing industry go the streaming and music industry way? Or the OTT and movie/TV-shows way?

After all, there are a lot of similarities between these industries.

Music, books, and movie/TV shows are all controlled by a few gatekeepers – record labels, publishers, and producers.

All three are facing increasing disruption from independents trying to make an entry, with mixed success levels: many new artists try the social media and online sharing route to make their mark in music and eventually sign up a record label when they become big enough; Kindle has spawned a whole parallel industry of independent writers who self-publish; and the competition for movies and TV shows are not equivalent, from independent artists – they are the ones creating content on social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, usually considerably shorter than what is expected from movies and TV shows.

Music and movies & TV shows have unlimited plans that offer all-you-can-consume content without any restrictions. With music, in particular, this is truly platform-agnostic – sign up for either Amazon Music, or Apple Music, or Spotify, and you get largely the same library of music with small exceptions of exclusive content per platform.

But OTT is a highly gated industry – the content is not yet interoperable and you need more than one OTT subscription to satisfy your urge to catch up with the latest.

In the book industry, though, barring Kindle Unlimited, there is precious little option for a true all-you-can-consume option for ebooks. Apple Books doesn’t have an equivalent monthly subscription plan and even Kindle Unlimited’s library is fairly restricted if you compare it with what Amazon Music offers for music titles.

To a large extent, the limited number of large and serious players offering ebooks-as-a-subscription is perhaps one prominent reason why ebooks haven’t gone the mp3/streaming music way.

That is one reason why books are the only medium that is still being predominantly sold on a per-title route, while music albums/singles and movies/TV shows have crossed that impediment and moved to the unlimited library for sale route.

Is there merit in considering the time taken to complete a title, across these three formats?

A song is still under 5 minutes, mostly. An album is about an hour, largely.
A movie is still about 1.5-3 hours and TV shows vary in length in terms of seasons and episodes.
But a book is hardly ever imagined in terms of the time it takes to consume/finish one!

Books are not the only medium that we start and leave mid-way if we do not find it interesting enough – we do that with music and movies/TV shows too. And yet, books don’t get time as a unit of measurement; pages are the equivalent in the book format. So we cannot ascertain how much time we would need to complete a book – it can be anything from a single sitting of 3-4 hours (binge reading!) or over a month, a few minutes a day, every day.

Unlike music, books do need continuity, like TV shows. But while we subscribe to unlimited TV shows on OTT platforms, we don’t have unlimited read-anything plans on any device or service yet.

Books are perhaps the last media format where the individual title still holds primacy as a unit worth billing while it has steadily deteriorated in music, movies, and TV shows.

So, while physical formats are fast becoming obsolete when it comes to music and video (including the steady decline of the need to physically be present for consuming video, exacerbated by the pandemic), books remain the last bastion of the physical format, that too, using a resource that is mighty precious (trees!).

I believe the publishing industry’s many false starts (Apple colluding with five of the top 6 publishers in 2012 to fix prices and the US lawsuit against Apple and that deal) and the lack of competent alternatives to the Kindle (that remains the most prominent ebook-reader till date since it’s launch in 2007) is the main reason why ebooks haven’t been the equivalent of music industry’s mp3/digital music. This, despite the fact that Kindle ebooks are highly interoperable – they can be purchased and read/consumed in any kind of device, right from an Android phone to an iPad or even a desktop computer. That’s the same kind of interoperability offered for music and movies/videos too, and yet, ebooks are stagnating!

However, there is a stark category-led reason for ebooks not gaining universal traction – consumer books vs. instructional materials, professional publishing, educational, and religious publishing! Consider just educational publishing – for this category to move to ebooks completely, it requires all schools and children, across socioeconomic categories to be equipped with competent electronic devices and charging infrastructure. That is not going to be possible anytime soon, and hence ebooks are unlikely to make widespread inroads in this segment. But this does not explain why even consumer paperbacks and hardbacks are completely beating ebooks hollow (in the AAP data, above)!

There is another interesting parallel worth considering, though – music can be listened to, in the background while we are doing something else. Books (ebooks or printed) need dedicated time. One can argue that movies and TV shows can be consumed in the background too, like say jogging on a treadmill, but they do require dedicated time toom largely. Audiobooks offer the exception for books, unlike ebooks, that take the book format almost into music territory. And audiobooks, as a format, is showing steady signs of growth though they remain in the tiny corner of the overall market. In fact, going by last known numbers, audiobooks sales have even overtaken ebook numbers! U.S. audiobook sales in 2019 was US $1.2 billion while ebooks sales for the same period was US $983.3 million!

Despite hearing anecdotally that many people are still uncomfortable with the audiobook format, I believe they would eventually do what ebooks couldn’t do to the publishing industry.

Related reading:
1. The secret of multi-tasking during your morning jog!
2. Get healthy and enjoy your driveā€¦ while reading a book!
3. Podcasts vs audiobooks



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