Random House is pricing my first novel like an MP3 single. And as the founder of the company that built the Rhapsody music service, I’m thrilled. The reason is that I love writing fiction. But building a big audience for self-published books would require ghoulish levels of social media stamina that I lack (proof: this is only my third blog post in fourteen months). This means that if I want to reach readers – and I do – I need the backing & support of a publisher. Make that a solvent publisher.
So hats off to Random House for testing out pricing tactics that some would view as kamikaze lunacy. They released the paperback edition of my novel (Year Zero) just six month ago. And for at least a few days, their eBook will undersell it by 93% (as Amazon conveniently calculates on its Kindle page). Not that Random House was counting on my paperback sales to make its quarter. But they’ve been experimenting relentlessly with pricing for at least a year now, and not just with small fry like me.
Being reliant on publisher solvency, I’m delighted – because this is the only way to survive when the time-honored rules of your industry are collapsing or rewriting themselves all around you. You experiment. You learn. You adapt. You don’t do what the music industry did when faced with its digital bogeyman – and whine, litigate, and deny.
I had a front-row seat to that horror show back when we were building Rhapsody. And having watched the American music industry bleed out half of its revenues over ten years, I sure don’t want publishing to do the same. Because if my own novel to is be believed (and to be perfectly clear – IT IS NOT), it’s precisely these sorts of shenanigans that can DESTROY THE EARTH ITSELF (for a brief explanation, you can watch Year Zero’s animated trailer, three paragraphs below).
A convenient fiction that still makes the rounds blames music’s gruesome decade on Napster-abetted piracy. This is like saying that the outsiders commonly called Barbarians caused Rome’s collapse. Rome conquered the Samnites, Carthage, Hellenist empires, and countless other well-oiled foes. But Rome ultimately fell because it reacted to the Barbarian threat in wholly self-destructive ways – not because the mere existence of Barbarians magically doomed history’s greatest empire.
Piracy was the Barbarian horde to the music industry’s Rome (and I won’t say who played Caligula – although Vivend/Universal’s Jean Marie Messier sure had an ego on him). Piracy wasn’t lethal in and of itself. But it could be (and was) exceptionally dangerous if dealt with clumsily. Entire books have been written about the major music labels’ boo-boo’s in the age of file sharing. But to me, the uber-blunder was their dogged refusal to sell digital products on any terms, or at any price, throughout the Internet’s formative years.
To put this in context, recall that downloading constituted the umpteenth format in recorded music’s 125-year history. And during that time, nothing – not waxen cylinders, LP’s, 8-tracks, cassettes, or CD’s – generated more immediate desire amongst music lovers. Despite this, the major labels embargoed their catalogs from downloading for almost half a decade after Napster’s rise (and here comes that trailer. The essay continues beneath it…)
And so the music-loving public went from acute excitement over the new format, to acute confusion over its absence from any legitimate store. And from there it was a short jaunt to a prohibition mindset. One that basically said, this stuff is fabulous, it is illegal, and that is insane. And I am therefore not a criminal for desiring it. So over five years, literally hundreds of millions of people grew comfortable – on every level – with piracy.
By the time the labels grudgingly started licensing their catalogs, they had given illicit file sharing a massive head start. Habits die hard, and free is an especially easy price to acclimate to. And so the paid-for online music industry will struggle for many more years to overcome the enormous beachhead that the major labels granted to file sharing. The lesson here is not that digital piracy automatically dooms content industries. The lesson is that you should never, ever give piracy a five-year monopoly on awesomeness – as I argued in this piece in the Wall Street Journal.
I’ll barely make a dime from Random House’s rock-bottom pricing experiment with my novel. But in a digitizing industry, the only way forward is to embrace the chaos. Bold experiments are teaching publishers a lot about price elasticity, “windowing” (what the studios do in marching films from theaters, to DVD’s, to broadcast, etc.) and more. And publishing is thriving several years after eBooks went mainstream – in stark contrast to the music industry’s fate.
For years, we pleaded with the major labels to at least experiment with selling downloads for 99¢ a song. We were always told that this would “devalue” music. As if the only way to properly honor that one Chumbawumba song (yes, it was that long ago…) was to charge $15.99 to get it glued to eleven other songs in a full-length CD. Wrong. What truly devalued music was requiring the downloading public to pirate it rather than purchase it for five long years.
If after reading all this you’re interested in a 357-page yarn about a vast alien civilization that’s so into American pop music that it accidentally commits the biggest copyright violation since the Big Bang (thereby bankrupting the entire universe), for at least the next couple of days, US-based readers can grab the eBook for 99¢ at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, BAM, eBooks, Google Play, diesel, iTunes/iBookstore, Kobo, or Sony.