Happy Birthday iTunes Store! Thanks for the Warning…

Twelve years ago this week (April 28, 2003) Apple announced the launch of a new way to buy digital music. The iTunes Store. (Click for the original press release.) It started with 200,000 songs available for purchase. (Today there are more than 26 million songs available for sale.) The iTunes software had been introduced a couple years earlier, but now it became a commercial venture. A place where you could buy your favorite song for 99 cents and carry it with you without having to buy the entire CD and “rip it” and then download the song to your iPod. You could ditch the CD entirely!

Only twelve years ago. Where were you in April 2003? I was one month removed from leaving Bethany House Publishers and starting a new life as a literary agent. Michael Jordan had just officially retired from the NBA. The U.S. was five weeks into the Iraq war and Baghdad had just fallen. The number one song on the Billboard chart was “In Da Club” by 50 Cent. And there was a new hit show on TV called “NCIS.” (Note that youtube.com didn’t hit the internet until 2005!)

Fast forward a bit and we find that in Fall 2013 the 25 billionth song (billion with a ‘b’) was downloaded from iTunes. That is 3.5 songs for every man, woman, and child on the planet earth.

Little did anyone realize the disruption this technology would create in the music industry. The two best books detailing the demise of Traditional Music Publishing are Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music by Greg Kot and Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age by Steve Knopper. Record labels lost clout. Artists had to scramble to find ways to make money because no one was advancing big money to make a recording.

Much has been written on the parallels of the music industry with the advent of the ebook and the fate of traditional book publishing. There is no need to rehash them or either confirm or deny their validity.

Instead I would like to say that the music industry’s trouble gave book publishers about a five year head start in thinking hard about digital issues before the Kindle came out in November 2007. For fun, enjoy what Mike Hyatt wrote in December 2005 in his article “The Death of Traditional Book Publishing” where he said “we are only one device away from a digital publishing tsunami.” Did book publishers heed the warning? Kinda sorta. I doubt anyone could truly anticipate whether a new technology would be adopted by the public or be sustainable in the long run.

Back in 2003 the iPod was the cool tech device on everyone’s hip. Now the iPod as we know it isn’t even being sold on the Apple site (note its absence on their store page.) Even technology eats its own.

Yet here we stand over a decade later and the book publishing industry is different in some ways and still the same in others. Writers are still creating great content. Publishers are still looking for great content. The difference is that now, due to Amazon’s disintermediation strategy, the writer has been enabled to be their own publisher, without spending tens of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile publishers are regularly finding new ways to sell books and finding new avenues of distribution. There are billions of dollars of books sold each year (Forbes suggests that Amazon alone accounts for $5.75 billion.) Some see competition. I see opportunity.

Focusing on technological changes or trying to anticipate the next hot thing is like chasing the wind. Instead focus on writing the greatest book possible. Even if it takes you a decade to do it. I trust that if your book is really wonderful that publishers, agents, editors, and the marketplace will certainly find it, one way or the other.

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