Books ain’t music

C30, C60, C90, go!
Off the radio, I get a constant flow
Cause I hit it, pause it, record it and play
Or turn it rewind and rub it away!

-Bow Wow Wow, 1980

When I turned twelve, in the early 1970s, I received, as a birthday present from my parents, a portable, Realistic-brand cassette tape recorder from Radio Shack. Within hours, I became a music pirate. I had a friend who lived next door, and his older brother had a copy of Abbey Road, an album I had taken a shine to. I carried my recorder over to their house, set its little plastic microphone (it was a mono machine) in front of one of the speakers of their stereo, and proceeded to make a cassette copy of the record. I used the same technique at my own house to record hit songs off the radio as well as make copies of my siblings’ and friends’ LPs and 45s. It never crossed my mind that I was doing anything wrong. I didn’t think of myself as a pirate, and I didn’t think of my recordings as being illicit. I was just being a fan.

I was hardly unique. Tape recorders, whether reel-to-reel or cassette, were everywhere, and pretty much any kid who had access to one made copies of albums and songs. (If you’ve read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, you know that when Jobs went off to college in 1972, he brought with him a comprehensive collection of Dylan bootlegs on tape.) When, a couple of years later, cassette decks became commonplace components of stereo systems, ripping songs from records and the radio became even simpler. There was a reason that cassette decks had input jacks as well as output jacks. My friends and I routinely exchanged cassette copies of albums and mixtapes. It was the norm.

We also, I should point out, bought a lot of records, particularly when we realized that pretty much everything being played on the radio was garbage. (I apologize to all Doobie Brothers fans who happen to be reading this.) There are a few reasons why record sales and record copying flourished simultaneously. First, in order to make a copy of an album, someone in your circle of friends had to own an original; there were no anonymous, long-distance exchanges of music. Second, vinyl was a superior medium to tape because, among other things, it made it easier to play individual tracks (and it was not unusual to play a favorite track over and over again). Third, record sleeves were cool and they had considerable value in and of themselves. Fourth, owning the record had social cachet. And fifth, records weren’t that expensive. What a lot of people forget about LPs back then is that most of them, not long after their original release, were remaindered as what were called cutouts, and you could pick them up for $1.99 or so. Even as a high-schooler working a part-time, minimum-wage job, you could afford to buy a couple of records a week, which was – believe it or not – plenty.

The reason I’m telling you all this is not that I suddenly feel guilty about my life as a teenage music pirate. I feel no guilt whatsoever. It’s just that this weekend I happened to read an article in the Wall Street Journal, by founder Rob Reid, which argued that “in the swashbuckling arena of digital piracy, the publishing world is acquitting itself far better than the brash music industry.” Drawing a parallel between the music and book businesses, Reid writes:

The book business is now further into its own digital history than music was when Napster died. Both histories began when digital media became portable. For music, that was 1999, when the record labels ended a failing legal campaign to ban MP3 players. For books, it came with the 2007 launch of the Kindle. Publishing has gotten off to a much better start. Both industries saw a roughly 20% drop in physical sales four years after their respective digital kickoffs. But e-book sales have largely made up the shortfall in publishing—unlike digital music sales, which stayed stubbornly close to zero for years.

This doesn’t prove that music lovers are crooks. Rather, it shows that actually selling things to early adopters is wise. Publishers did this—unlike the record labels, which essentially insisted that the first digital generation either steal online music or do without it entirely.

That all seems sensible enough. But Reid’s argument is misleading. He oversimplifies media history, and he glosses over some big and fundamental differences between the book market and the music market. As my own youthful experience suggests, music lovers ARE crooks, and we’ve been crooks for decades. (“Crooks” is his term, of course, not mine.) Moreover, the “digital history” of music did not begin in 1999. It began in 1982 when albums began to be released on compact disk. Yes, there are some similarities between the music and book industries, and they’re worth attending to, but the fact that the two industries have (so far) taken different courses in the digital era probably has far more to do with the basic differences between them – differences in history, technology, and customers, among other things – than with differences in executive decision-making.

Let me review some of the most salient differences and the way they’ve influenced the divergent paths the industries have taken:

Kids copied music long before music went digital. The unauthorized copying of songs and albums did not begin with the arrival of the web or of MP3s or of Napster. It has been a part of the culture of pop music since the 1960s. There has been no such tradition with books. Xeroxing a book was not an easy task, and it was fairly expensive, too. Nobody did it, except, maybe, for the occasional oddball. So, even though the large-scale trading of bootlegged songs made possible by the net had radically different implications for the music business than the small-scale trading that had taken place previously, digital copying and trading didn’t feel particularly different from making and exchanging tapes. It seemed like a new variation on an old practice.

Fidelity matters less for popular music than for books. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. I was happy with my copy of Abbey Road despite its abysmal sound quality and the fact that – horrors! – I had only recorded one channel of a stereo mix. Throughout the 1960s and well into the 70s, the main way a lot of people listened to music was through crappy a.m. car radios and crappy a.m. transistor radios. And need I mention eight-tracks? The human ear and the human brain seem to be very adept at turning lo-fi music signals into fulfilling listening experiences – the auditory imagination somehow fills in the missing signal. Early MP3s, though they were often ripped at very low bit rates, sounded just fine to the vast majority of the music-listening public, so quality was no barrier to mass piracy. A lo-fi copy of a book, in contrast, is a misery to read. Blurry text, missing pages, clunky navigation: it takes a very dedicated reader to overcome even fairly minor shortcomings in a copy of a book. That’s one of the main reasons that even though bootlegged copies of popular books have been freely available online for quite some time now, few people bother with them.

Books never had a CD phase. Music was digitized long before the arrival of the web. During the 1980s, record companies digitized their catalogues, and digital CDs soon displaced tapes and vinyl as the medium of choice for music. The transition was a boon to the music industry because a whole lot of consumers bought new CD copies of albums that they already owned on vinyl. But the boon (as Reid notes) also set the stage for the subsequent bust. When personal computers with CD-ROM drives made it possible to rip music CDs into MP3 files, all the music that most people would ever want was soon available in a form that could be easily exchanged online. The CD also had the unintended effect of making the physical record album less valuable. CD cases were small, plastic, and annoying; the booklets wedged inside them were rarely removed; and the disks themselves had a space-age sterility that rendered them entirely charmless. By reducing the perceived value of the physical product, CDs made it easier for consumers to discard that product – in fact, getting rid of a CD collection was a great joy to many of us. The book business did not go through a digitization phase prior to the arrival of the web, so there was no supply of digital books waiting to be traded when online trading became possible. It was an entirely different situation from a technological standpoint.

The average music buyer is younger than the average book buyer. Young people have long been a primary market for popular music. Young people also tend to have the spare time, the tech savvy, the obliviousness to risk, the constrained wallets, and the passion for music required to do a whole lot of bootlegging. Books tend to be sold to older people. Older people make lousy pirates. That’s another crucial reason why book publishers have been sheltered from piracy in a way that record companies weren’t.

When Apple first promoted its iTunes app – this was quite a while before it got into music retailing – it used the slogan “Rip Mix Burn.” Though it wouldn’t admit it, it wanted people to engage in widespread copying and trading of music, because the more free digital music files that went into circulation, the more attractive its computers (and subsequently its iPods) became. (MP3s, in economic terms, were complements to Apple’s core products.) That slogan never had an analogue in the book business because the history, technology, and customers of the book business were fundamentally different at the start of the digital age. People like Reid like to suggest that if record company executives had made different decisions a decade ago, the fate of their industry would have been different. I’m skeptical about that. Sure, they could have made different decisions, but I really don’t think it would have changed the course of history much. They were basically screwed.

And executives in the publishing industry are probably kidding themselves if they think that they’re responsible for the fact that, so far, their business hasn’t gone through the wrenching changes that have affected their peers in the music business. And if they think they can use the experience of the music business as a guide to plot their own future course, they’re probably kidding themselves there, too. The impending forces of disruption in the book world may resemble the forces that battered the music world, but they’re different in many important ways.

11 thoughts on “Books ain’t music

  1. Seth Finkelstein

    Yes. Plus the fact that ereaders are getting to the point of actually being comfortably usable, combined with books being digitized as a matter of course, means the book industry will find itself far more affected by copying controversies in the near future.

  2. Kelly Roberts

    I’m not sure if this is pertinent to your analysis, but it takes a hell of a lot longer to read a book than it does to listen to an album. I wasted a couple of hours last week trying to decide whether or not a horror novel was worth continuing (it wasn’t), but I knew in less than a minute that I despised The Eagles (and The Doobie Brothers).

    The attention investment just isn’t the same. We can read while listening to music, but the reverse isn’t really true. There’s no such thing as ambient reading.

  3. Nick Carr

    The attention investment just isn’t the same.

    Yeah. Your attention to music can be (and usually is) intermittent. You can tune out and tune in, and doesn’t feel like a problem. But a book demands continuous attention – when your mind drifts, you find yourself having to back up and reread a paragraph. Also, a book engages both your sense of touch and and your sense of sight, whereas music engages only your sense of hearing. I’m not sure how those different kinds of engagement play into my argument (beyond the higher sensitivity to fidelity in books), but I’m pretty sure they do.

    the book industry will find itself far more affected by copying controversies in the near future.

    I think you’re probably right. I’m not a fan of DRM, but when people point to the music business to argue that publishers should strip DRM out of books I cringe, because the situations are different. Most MP3 files traded online didn’t have DRM from the start, so including DRM in music files for sale was pretty much self-defeating. Strip DRM out of books, and you may touch off a wave of book piracy because suddenly high-quality book files will be easily tradable for the first time. On the other hand, the cost of additional piracy may be less than the cost of supporting a near-monopoly on ebooks by Amazon (which is currently buttressed by DRM). So the decisions are really hard, but I would be wary of relying on the experience of the music business as a guide.

  4. Yt7509

    DRM or not DRM is not necessarily the issue.

    A major change would be to get out of the “buying a copy” mindset to “buying a licence” mindset, and this not in a monopoly environment such as Amazon.

    But this would require a new role and clear role separation, that is “private licence accounts holders” clearly separated from shops and editors.

    Something like :

    (and a form of publication is also a web site, what about the ability to simply “buy” a web site, would be appropriate for many things)

    Probably won’t happen though

  5. Yt7509

    Or more precisely, if “Digital Rights Management”, instead of plenty of stuff on files that always end up pissing you off, was limited to managing “if you have bought a licence for this thing, then you can access it from whatever machine”, with the organisation managing your list of licences doing just that (and with very strict legal privacy constraints), maybe things would be a bit different, a structural issue and a need to get out of the “copy and file mindset” more than anything else.

  6. Will Aft

    I am amongst those who used a cassette recorder to “pirate” music in my pre-teens. My two favorite sources of music were TV show theme songs (it wasn’t easy to get recordings of those legally anyway)and year end FM station count downs.

    The plan was to spend a weekend recording the top 100 songs of all time. I figured I would never have to look for another piece of music again. I’d have the best of the best, search completed!

    I didn’t make it past number 75…

    I also photocopied books from the library that were out of print or otherwise unavailable. I can’t see ever needing to that now with the wonderful service Alibris provides.

    I do think though that the publishing industry deserves a little more credit than you are giving them for trying to stay in the digital game and offering customers ebooks.

    The music industry closed their eyes and ears to their customers for years before relenting.


    Noting that books never had their equivalent CD phase is a good point. The question is not analog vs. digital, however; it’s more like physical vs. virtual. Whether content is found in an analog or digital embodiment matters far less than if it exists in a virtual space on a hard drive, flash drive, smart phone, or some always-on subscription service (untimately, still a drive somewhere). That’s what made the appearance of the Web in the early 90s so damaging to the recording industry: the utter ease of file sharing over distance and the radically foreshortened requirement of physical copies within one’s circle or sharers.

    Also, the point about fidelity is probably true of popular music, which accounts for the bulk of sales and traffic. However, to listeners of Classical music and jazz, fidelity is very important, and the attention investment changes, too. Since that market segment continuously hovers around 6% of all sales, it doesn’t drive the marketplace, but its unique values at least provide a cautionary counterpoint to the generalizations made about the primary market.

  8. tmirchan

    Nick, I am not sure either industry has adjusted totally. I hear music execs long for days when we bought albums even though the single MP3 model has helped them sell billions of one hit wonders. With my book publisher I find as an author appalling I have zero influence on pricing and that my ebook pricing of my titles is only $ 3-4 less than hardback even with no printing and shipping costs. And authors are increasingly questioning why publishers deserve 80 to 85% when the ratio is nearly reversed with Apple and Google apps and games, and they invest much more in marketing and bringing customer exposure.

  9. Mike Powers

    I think you’re stretching the “low-fi” metaphor beyond recognition in order to make books meet it. “Blurry text” isn’t something that exists for an OCR’ed scan, and “missing pages” means that the file is not so much “low-fi” as “unusable”. And as for navigation, remember that we’re comparing it to a method of displaying text that only loaded a page at a time, had no active search, and required an external light-source peripheral to work at all.

    OCR’ed text often has problems with character- or word-recognition errors, but that’s something that affects any scan; and, from the looks of things, it’s not something you avoid by going with official publishers.

    It is not true to claim that bootlegged books are an overall worse reading experience than official releases. I’m sure we could point to ways that hardcopy books are superior to e-texts, but if all you’re doing is experiencing raw text then there’s no difference between scrolling through an ASCII file and flipping pages of a book.


    As for DRM: If it weren’t for DRM then nobody would have let Steve Jobs do the iTunes Music Store. If it weren’t for the iTunes Music Store nobody would have accepted that you could sell music as downloadable digital files without blowing up the world. So while music doesn’t use DRM *now*, it *had* to use it at first for it to work at all.


    I’m not a fan of DRM, but when people point to the music business to argue that publishers should strip DRM out of books I cringe, because the situations are different. Most MP3 files traded online didn’t have DRM from the start, so including DRM in music files for sale was pretty much self-defeating. Strip DRM out of books, and you may touch off a wave of book piracy because suddenly high-quality book files will be easily tradable for the first time.

    Pirated ebooks traded online don’t have DRM… Some 5 or so years ago, pirated ebooks might have come from OCRd books, but nowadays most come from deDRM-ing legal digital editions. I’m sure those high-quality files are very much out there for most recent books.

    If someone wants to remove a book’s DRM (for example, to convert a Kobo-purchased .epub book to .mobi for the Kindle), it’s not difficult at all to find out how to do it. DRM is not an obstacle to pirates either.

    I think that the thing that DRM stops is casual sharing with friends/family from people who purchase ebooks. DRM gets people used to purchasing from just one store.

  11. Viridian_faza

    I think that we could list a rather large number of reasons why music was hit first and hardest by piracy and the CD format is a major culprit. Two things worth pointing out are:

    1. The ease and convenience of ripping CDs – It’s possible to make a digital recording from any format, but CDs are so much quicker, for a start. By the time Napster came around, most people already had CD-ROM drives and ripping music meant simply putting the disk in the drive, pressing a button and waiting a couple of minutes. Compare this to the idea of hooking up a turntable, checking levels, waiting for side A to finish playing, turning the record over and waiting through the whole of side B. No contest there. The inconvenience of digitising analog formats is so much greater than making copies of digital recordings from CDs that it seems unlikely such a major trading network could be so quickly established if this factor was absent.

    For extra credit, compare both to the time and effort needed to perform an OCR scan of your average book. It won’t stop some people, but you won’t find everyone plus grandma doing it.

    2. The proliferation of CD recorders around the same time as the rise of Napster meant that people could easily convert downloaded files into a useable format – it seems unlikely there would be such demand for pirated MP3s if all you could do with them is listen on your computer. Of course, the MP3 player later cut out that middle-man, but that’s another story.

    On the other hand, converting a scanned book into the typically used format would mean hours spent printing it, to say nothing of the cost. Again, it wouldn’t stop some people, but most would want the hassle. The same goes for reading on a computer screen – some people won’t mind, but the lack of convenience will be a deal-breaker for the majority.

    Now, of course, both problems have been solved – the digitisation is provided by the publishers and ebook readers take care of the convenience. It’s only a question of time before books go the way of music and movies (that for a time were saved by bandwidth issues).

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