Riffling through music store bins at the mall was once as much a rite of passage for teens as heading to the soda fountain was for an earlier generation. But starting in the early 2000s, adults and teens alike abandoned CDs for a more convenient alternative. There are lessons to be learned about consumer behavior and what happened as digital delivery of music came into being. Though we can agree books are a format destined to last, publishing should have a plan for how to respond as consumer behaviors continue to evolve.
Subscription-based music services have understandably caused publishers to look over their shoulders to see if there’s a similar revolution in the offing for publishing. But to blame streaming platforms such as Spotify and Pandora for the collapse of Tower Records and other bricks-and-mortar music retailers would confuse the effect with the cause. The origins of the shift in consumer behavior toward streaming lie elsewhere.
The story that gets told is that Napster turned the music industry upside down by aiding and abetting digital theft and copyright infringement. But the problem with this narrative (to borrow a phrase) is that Napster didn’t steal records—people did. The focus on the what ignored the underlying reasons for why. People had to be frustrated enough to steal music in the name of convenience, which forced the hand of the music industry.
If publishers want to write a different ending and avoid a similar fate, we need to learn the lessons imparted by one of the most disruptive technological paradigm shifts of our time while diving deeper to understand the human behavior that caused it.
It turns out people are more than willing to pay for what they want—but what they want is the kind of accessibility and variety of content at their fingertips that allows them to curate their own choices. The music industry was reluctant to acknowledge what consumers wanted, which led to a frightening power struggle between labels, artists, and customers that lasted many years longer than necessary and resulted in a major loss of sales and profits. To avoid a similar fate, publishers must be willing to listen to what customers want and to take actionable steps to meet their needs.
The flow of income accrued by the unlimited, subscription-based streaming models for music and video has now hit its stride, and these models have become very profitable, which is great news for companies like Disney and Netflix. Though they may differ in the content offered, they are 100% in agreement about what consumers want: a library of content they can access on demand, provided at a reasonable price. This is the current culture of consumption, and in the name of convenience, consumers now welcome monthly subscription models that cost the equivalent of a craft coffee.
If the publishing industry doesn’t fully step into the ring does it stand a fighting chance in delivering content that the modern consumer wants? Regardless of what the current subscription landscape looks like, digital advancement is still met with apprehension. Instead of allowing change to happen to us, we must be open to exploring all opportunities that digital can lead to—no matter what direction that evolution might take.
One hundred years ago, the notorious publisher William Randolph Hearst wasn’t afraid to innovate. “We must be alarmingly enterprising,” he said, “and we must be startlingly original, and do new and striking things which constitute a revolution.” The truth is that if we don’t keep evolving, consumers will find another way to acquire the content they want, leaving booksellers behind to play catch-up.
But what does a digital strategy revolution look like for publishing? As we take a page from the other multimedia industries, what can we learn? How can we be ahead of the curve before our consumer demands outweigh our digital capabilities? No doubt one factor holding publishers back is the fear that digital will affect physical sales. But a properly executed digital strategy doesn’t have to be the enemy of print. If done right, digital offers considerable added value by bringing content to a larger audience that will then fuel physical sales. Books are not going anywhere—the smell, the feel, and the experience of letting a comfy chair engulf you by a roaring fire is something no AI simulator can replicate. So what is truly stopping us?
To learn from the mistakes of others and put their experiences to use is a powerful position to be in. I believe that the book industry is poised to meet consumers where they are and formulate a digital strategy that both diversifies and strengthens the current publishing model.
Shannon Bex is a cofounder of Vooks, a new streaming platform for children’s storybooks. Prior to starting Vooks, Bex was a recording artist for Atlantic Records and president of her own indie label.