November 9, 2008
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Books are not Songs

Seth Godin gets on his high horse and tells Harpers to be more like the music business.

Or, you could say, "if books on the Kindle were $1, perhaps we could create a vast audience of people who buy books like candy, all the time, and read more and don't pirate stuff cause it's convenient and cheap..." I'm a pessimist that the book industry will learn from music. How are you betting?

This sounds great; it's not. People won’t buy books like they buy songs, because you can enjoy a song in three minutes. You can’t enjoy Quantum Thermodynamics in three minutes.

Lots of people have thousands of songs in their iPods, and listen to them. If you listen to music at work, you could listen to a thousand songs in a week. A thousand books, for lots of people who read books, that’s a lifetime supply.

I buy a lot of books — probably a lot more than your average compensated dyslexic — and I read a lot more than a lot of people. But my reading is pretty much an open book: looking at the left sidebar of this page, I see I’ve managed to actually read 458 books since Fall 2000. Nobody reads books like candy.

The natural audience for lots of music is very large. Everyone likes music; even if we break things down by genre, there are a ton of people who like Celtic ballads. The natural audience for most books is small: that’s the nature of books, what makes books special.

Godin wants the publisher to place less emphasis on pub day, but that’s not the publisher’s fault. It’s the bookseller’s needs that drive pub date frenzy, the need to get new stuff into the window (while the newspapers are talking about it) and clear it out because there’s always going to be a new book tomorrow. Publishers who sell direct (like Eastgate) aren’t driven by publication-day promotion because we don’t need to be in the window. Novels do; its not Harpers’ fault.