goldrecord

The return of the LP and the future of book publishing

The LP Generation

I grew up in the vinyl generation. No I don’t mean anything kinky, so get your minds out of the gutter. For me; and the rest of my generation, the vinyl LP was the audio equivalent of heaven.

I still remember the very first album that I bought, Emerson Lake Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery, and the anticipation that built as I headed home to tear open the cellophane and place that round piece of virgin vinyl on the turntable for the first time.

There are fond memories of the next couple of albums I bought as well, Yes Songs by Yes and Uriah Heap’s Demon’s and Wizards, but there came a point where album buying became just a regular thing to do. As I got older those special musical memories surrounding vinyl became fewer and far between.

While there are the moments like listening to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds opus (Thunderchild is still one of the best songs of all time in my book); or picking up the imported white vinyl pressing of a Synergy album, listening to music became… well… common place and – a lot of the time – boring.

As we went through the whole cassette and CD phase of music it never really change except for one thing. Music became more generic, more full of crap. When I was growing up we – the kids, not the record companies – graded how good an album was by the ratio of good to suckass tracks. You could be pretty sure that at least one or two tracks would suck but the fifteen to twenty bucks we spent on the album was considered to be fair. Any more than two suckass tracks and we would complain about getting ripped off.

At some point though that ratio started to change to the point we are almost happy if there were at least two good tracks to listen to. It was no longer a joy to go out and cruise the record store aisles picking out your album purchases for the week or month.

Reading under the covers

Along with music I also grew up with a love of books. In a way I was lucky because both my parents were veracious readers. We had a whole wall in our dining room that had a custom built bookcase occupying it which was full to overflowing with books across the full spectrum of literature. It is from these shelves where starting around the age of thirteen or fourteen I discovered classics like French Lieutenant’s Wife and philosophy from the likes of Bertrand Russell. It is also were I discovered the future worlds of Robert Heinlein and the incredible fantasy world of Dune and The Dragonriders of Pern.

For me there was nothing more satisfying that holding a brand new book in my hands and gently folding the front and back cover pages to prep the book so you wouldn’t break the spine at some later re-reading. Now I say I was lucky to grow up in a home like this because I never had to worry about buying books. It wasn’t until I got older and then moved out on my own that the cost of buying all those books became a decision point.

After all an album you could listen to over and over without it losing any real value. Books on the other hand where nice to have but really the chances of re-reading them seem to diminish as they sat on bookcase shelves. So as the record collection would grow the number of books would decline. New books became replaced by trips to the used book store where trades were made on a weekly or monthly basis.

Changing times ala MP3s, Napster, and the return of the single

There was a point in the LP generation where there was an equal ground between LP’s and 45’s. Teenyboppers would rush to the record store to grab the latest Jackson 5 or some other Top 10 radio song. The album buyers would look upon them with disdain as we cruised through the latest releases aisle to grab the must have album we had been saving our money up for.

Then, in what seems like overnight the 45 single disappeared. It was all albums, which were later replaced by cassettes which then fell to the CD. Then as computers became much more common place we started hearing about a new music format called the MP3.

Suddenly we were able to rip only the songs on a album that we like and then like the mixed cassettes and CD we were able to share with our friends those songs we really liked by copying them on to a CD. We thought the music world was our oyster but there was an even bigger ocean of music coming. It was called the Internet with things like USENET newsgroups for music and IRC channels that help spread the rebirth of the single.

All this though was nothing compared to the tsunami that was unleashed by Shawn Fanning and his creation called Napster. Suddenly you could literally within minutes find any song, any artist, that you wanted to listen to. You could experiment with different styles, you could find the rarest of songs. We gorged ourselves on a smorgasbord of music because the cost of acquisition was nil.

The effect on the music industry has for the most part been catastrophic. Music labels struggle by hook or crook to wring out every last cent they can from their collapsing business model. Musician are discovering that no-longer do they have to be beholden to those labels. Music lovers are discovering that they have a voice in this process again.

The business will never be the same.

Book publishers facing their own Napster Event

For the most part book publishers have escaped those early halcyon days of the Internet and Napster. sure there are bootleg copies that float around the Web but for the most part the price of acquisition (i.e.: original cost and then the labor to scan and package) in order to make books widely accessible was too high. Of course this changed as more books were written and then prepared for printing in a digital fashion. Suddenly we started to see books; much like music and movies, start to leak out onto the Web.

As with music book publishers are looking to protect their interests using things like Digital Rights Management (DRM) but as the music industry found out any success with this as a cornerstone of a new online business model is just an illusion. Even though companies like Amazon with their Kindle e-reader have their own DRM scheme they are going to end up facing the same kind of backlash that every other industry that has tried DRM methods has.

The DRM issue aside it would be safe to say that as technology progresses at its typical Internet speed the book industry is going to face its own Napster moment. It is inevitable mainly because they are trying to plaster their hardcoded brick and mortar business model onto an online business that operates at totally different creation, publication, and acquisition costs.

As with the music business with their vinyl and CD presses the book industry has their printing presses. Just as music had its massive advertising and promotional budgets so do the book publishers. No different than the music industry with their high contract payout to musicians so to does the book publishers have royalty advances in the millions of dollars. All that money has to be re-couped as well as making a profit for the company so it is no wonder that books cost what they do and I have no problem at all with that deal.

But when it comes to things like e-books one has to ask: how much does it cost to make one e-book?

Just one.

You see with physical books, like the CD, there is an inherent cost with each book you have to sell. Sci-fi author Tobias Buckell has a pretty good break-down of the costs that goes into the behind the scenes making of a book (as well as really great post on this subject) but he misses out on the real expense in my mind. In his post he stops just before the real expenses for book publishers start to mount. We are talking about the actual cost of printing thousands or more of those books. Then there is the cost of shipping. The cost of trade shows. There are a lot of costs that get added up in the expenditure column for each book published.

With e-books?

Well you would probably have much of the costs that Tobias mentions in his post but that is where it stops. There is no cost for printing thousands of copies. There is no cost for making the e-book available to world as there is with having to ship thousands of books.

As with MP3’s there is only the cost of creating one e-book.

One.

Just as with music and the iPod or its myriad of competing MP3/media players have provided record labels with a huge audience of listeners at an incredible smaller fraction of costs the book publishers are seeing the same thing with the rapid growth of e-readers.

There is a lot of double-speak that the publishers like to put forth, just as their music label brethren do, about how they can’t make money at the current pricing structure being promoted by book re-sellers. When it comes to this argument there is really only one question that needs to be asked: what does it cost to make one e-book?

The fact is that the book publishing business will never be the same.

What is old is new again

As bad as all this may sound there is an interesting thing happening in the music consumer business that the book publishers need to be paying close attention to.

I remember when everyone was foretelling the death of vinyl as first cassettes, then CDs and now MP3’s decimated its consumer base. It was predicted at one time that at some point that vinyl would disappear just as cassettes have. Even back then I never believed it and even though I was smirked at when I said anything to the contrary I always have believed that vinyl would make a comeback. It would never be anywhere close to the numbers being sold at its heyday but I have always believed that it would return.

Then this past Christmas when I was shopping for a Wii for our grandson’s present I stopped in a local downtown video game store hoping that they would have one (they did). On the way in the door though I noticed a sign in the window letting people know that they also were selling new LP’s. After paying for the Wii I got curious about the LP sales and ended up having a very interesting discussion with the owner of the store.

It turns out that sales are doing really well and not just locally as it seems that nationally the sales numbers for vinyl are growing. The driving force behind the sales as the business owner told me boils down to one thing: quality. You see these new vinyl LP’s aren’t the same cheap thin albums that we got use to near the end of their popularity. No, these new LP’s are thicker and being made from a better quality vinyl which when tied in with modern recording technology are producing great sounding LP’s.

But the really amazing stat that he shared with me was who the biggest customers were for these new LP’s were. You’d think it would be old farts like me looking to regain some sort of lost youth but you would be wrong. The largest consumers of the new vinyl are the kids.

The store owner told me that with the kids, who have grown up listening almost exclusively to MP3’s, the first time they listen to a new vinyl album it is like a great big huge OMG moment. They can’t believe that music can sound that good. They are hooked said the store owner and are some of his best customers which also by the way adds sales of things like turntables, amplifiers, and speakers to the mix.

The music business may not be the same but in some ways it has gotten better.

The future OMG moment for books

When I was living in Calgary for a period of time I decided that I want to collect all the Robert Heinlein books I could. Not just the run of the mill paperbacks you can find at any used bookstore but I wanted first and second edition paperbacks. I wanted any edition hardcovers. I wanted the trade paperbacks. I wanted the specialty printings.

Why?

Because I wanted to enjoy the experience of Heinlein’s works in as many ways as I could. Through this I ended up with a close friendship of a bookstore owner who did his best to feed my addiction fill my bookcase. I did pretty good to with 12 or 15 first and second edition paperbacks, three or four trade paperbacks, an assorted number of editions in hardcover and one beautiful specialty print hardcover.

There was a certain pleasure that is kind of hard to explain when I held those books and enjoyed their contents but there is no way that a specialty print of Stranger in a Strange Land can be replaced by a e-book. You see that is a book’s OMG moment. The moment you turn back the leather cover and start reading the words on vellum paper or turn pages which have bulk that feels good between your fingers.

The music industry is currently going through an OMG period where consumers are finding that there is something about having a physical vinyl album that an MP3 can never equal. The sound is richer, the artwork that wraps the vinyl is – well.. artwork. There is so much more added value with an album that doesn’t come with any kind of downloaded MP3 or even a CD.

Sure well still get our MP3’s because they are great way to have our music travel with us in our highly mobile society but when it comes to enjoying the experience of listening to our favorite songs vinyl has a soul that can envelope us.

Books have that same potential. Yes e-books are a guaranteed future for the business and consumer, there is no argument there. However if the book industry learns anything good from what has happened to the music business it is that there is an OMG consumer base out there for them as well. I also believe that it is a market that if planned on now could in turn be a growth market. The music business it seems is turning a blind eye to their OMG potential but it is still early days for the book publishers, and authors.

The business may have changed forever but that doesn’t mean it can’t be better.

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