Monday 8 February 2010

Listen, Publishers, Lest Ye Die

This is a free adaptation from the last line of a poem by WH Auden, and it came into my head when I read an article the other day about EMI's losses of almost one billion pounds. Yes, that's right, it's not a misprint: it's one billion, or £1,000,000,000 in old-fashioned figures (some people claim it's £1.5 billion). That's certainly an awful lot of zeroes – and an awful lot of smackeroonies.

Now, there are of course mitigating circumstances surrounding these losses, otherwise all the top executives would have had to take garden leave three minutes after the announcement. EMI is apparently in the red only because of massive financial write-offs, otherwise the group did make an operating profit of close to £300M. However Terra Firma (I love the Latin names of these private-equity investment firms: this one means "mainland" or, more, literally "solid earth") must be facing a few empirical problems in feeling the ground under their feet, knowing that over the past five years the recorded-music industry's worldwide revenues have gone down 30 per cent, and that in 2009 alone they dropped around 10 per cent to $15.8 billion. It is also claimed that 95 per cent of global music downloads are illegal. So is the music industry a sustainable industry in the long term?

Well, according to another piece in the New York Times, revered rocker Peter Gabriel sees "the liberating value of Internet distribution to artists" and maintains that iTunes and music digital downloads are leading a creative Renaissance. Well, with all due respect, I beg to disagree, and I think exactly the opposite is happening, especially if we look at today's music charts, dominated by TV-context starlets and prefab boy and girl bands. I can't see too many Leonardos or Pico della Mirandolas around, but sexy, scantily clad karaoke singers do abound.

With the launch of the iPad (or Tablet, or what ever they are going to call that giant iPhone), many publishing futurologists are also announcing a revolution for the better. They may be right, but my only advice to fellow publishers is: don't jump on the first technological bandwagon, sit on the fence and wait until all the implications of the new medium sink in. First of all, a book is more similar to a spoon than to a song: it answers a very basic, practical need in an intelligent, handy, pleasurable manner. Secondly, a song can be consumed in minutes, a book requires a time investment of days or weeks, so the ability to carry tens of thousands of books with you to the seaside doesn't seem to be that attractive. Finally, writing a book generally takes months or even years, so let's not make books cheaper than they already are, otherwise there will be no real writers any more in the future, or maybe there will be, but they will not be able to make a living out of their career – with inevitable knock-on effects on the quality of what we read.



  1. I agree that technological advances cannot result in great art overnight. Having said that I do not think we (or publishers only) should 'sit on the fence' and wait to see what will happen. The changes are big and fast. We cannot ignore them. I remember some authors were not comfortable with PCs in 80s and they were sticking with their typewriters. Do we still need a goose feather to write? The very same revolution is happening for readers and publishers (and the whole industry) have to find an appropriate answer which will benefit all. The fact that it will be easier to carry 5 books to your holiday should not be bad for the book industry.

  2. When making these decisions, do publishers think about readers and what they really want? As a reader, I want to carry my 5 paper books on holidays with me and not an iPad, which may have 5 or even 100 books in it, but the reading experience is just not the same. Please, publishers, keep the paper book alive - it is truly one of the most valuable items in existence today.


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