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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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Tools from the Front Lines: Writers Conferences

Last week this time, I was sitting beneath towering redwoods, the warm sun tickling my neck, watching as writers from all over the country converged to learn and commune at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference. And I realized that, over the 35 years or so I’ve been involved in …

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Frankly My Dear, I Ate Some Spam

There are a number of things that cause my blood to boil. Radio or TV ads with ten seconds of legalese read at triple speed at the end Coffee mugs in church services Cell phone ringing during a meeting and the person answers it Cell phone ringing in a church …

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The Anatomy of the Publishing Cycle

If you ask an editor or an agent “What’s hot right now?” you are too late with the question. The nature of the publishing business is that what you see selling today are books that were conceived, written, published, and marketed over the past couple years or more. That is …

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Ramp Up That Book Description!

Today, let’s try a fun exercise to ramp up your book description in your proposal, which may in turn help your publisher’s marketing team ramp up your book sales! Bland: When a man gives a woman a large ring, she is torn about telling him about her past. What she …

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Sky(scraper) Writing

Every day, the world is becoming more and more urbanized. In the U.S. while several cities are struggling economically and actually have declining populations, many others are healthy and expanding at an alarming rate. Worldwide, the dramatic population growth areas are around cities. Countries are investing in urban infrastructure, and …

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Don’t Look Now, But You Are Being Followed

The world is filled with paranoid delusional conspiracy theorists involved in an elaborate campaign out to get the rest of us! Attention everyone! To the underground bunker! So, you think you own an e-book “reader”?  Think again bunky. That e-book reading machine is spying on you. Seriously folks, if you …

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Five Steps to Finding Hot Topics

Last week we talked about finding things to write about, things that will resonate with our readers, by looking at the people around us. Today I want to share some easy steps you can take to dig deeper into this idea. Step One Start by looking at yourself. Yes, you. …

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Heartsong’s Publishing Legacy

Last week, as mentioned in Tamela’s wonderful tribute, Harlequin announced that the Heartsong Presents imprint is going to be shuttered. Heartsong Presents has been primarily a “direct-to-consumer” book club which published romance titles with a specifically Christian message. {And last week I joked about how things can change on Tuesday… This announcement came …

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