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Published on February 14th, 2012 | by Alan Cross

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What Happened to Music Is Happening to Publishing

There’s been an interesting development following the death of Whitney Houston.  Follow me on this.

Before about 1978, you needed a recording studio to make a proper, professional sounding album.  But with the introduction of cheap synthesizers and home recording equipment, people found that they could make great sounding records in their bedrooms.

As electronics became more powerful, more flexible and cheaper, it became possible to bang out a full record in no time flat for next to nothing.  What we have in Garage Band today can be far more powerful and useful than any 70s-era recording studio.  Add in the collaborative tools provided by the Internet and–well, the sky’s the limit.

The same thing is happening with publishing.  Not that long ago, you needed an agent, an editor, a publisher, a publicist and a complicated distribution system.  All that gobbled up a tremendous amount of money with the author getting close to nothing.  

The last book I wrote, 20th Century Rock:  Alternative Rock, retailed for $19.95.  My cut–which only came after the books were sold and the publisher was paid–came to $1.12.  I sold about 5,000 copies, which meant my ultimate gross income on that book–which took me nine months to write and edit–was $5,600.  I didn’t see any of that money until 360 days after I delivered the manuscript to the publisher. And no, there wasn’t any advance to repay. Thank God.

Deduct the costs of writing the book (acquiring pictures, travel, research material, etc.) and I ended up with a gross of perhaps $3,000.  Working things out to an hourly rate, I made far less than a dollar an hour.

Yes, it was very cool to see my book on shelves at Chapters and at a Virgin store in Paris–that made it worthwhile from an emotional level–but it’s hardly a way to make a living.

Things have changed, though.  With the rise of electronic self-publishing, Kindles, other e-readers and tablets, it’s possible to bang out a book and have it on sale within hours.  HOURS.

Amazon’s self-publishing tools along with Apple’s new iAuthor program for formating things for the iBooks store, are freakin‘ amazing.  Agents, publishers and bricks-and-mortar book stores are COMPLETELY disintermediated.

Now consider the death of Whitney Houston.  Within hours of her death on Saturday, FOURTEEN brand new Whitney Houston ebooks appeared on Amazon.  Six of them have a publication date of February 11–which means they were made available for sale before the end of the day of her death.  

If the news of her death came at 4:57 PST, that would have given these authors just seven hours to get something up for sale.

Sure, these books are probably pretty superficial–I’ll admit that I haven’t looked at them–but for 99 cents or $1.99, they filled an immediate demand in the publishing marketplace.

Yes, there will always be a place for publishing houses just like there will always be a place for record labels.  But authors have seen the future–and it’s gotta be looking pretty good.





About the Author

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker.

In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.


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One Response to What Happened to Music Is Happening to Publishing

  1. Brendan says:

    There is some thinking that we're in a bit of an e-publishing bubble too though. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jan/30/self-e-publishing-bubble-ewan-morrison

    I admit I don't know how true that is, but we (as a species) tend to really follow this sort of thinking.

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