Lets Get Digital, Digital

Why did CDs triumph over tapes and records?

CDs were more expensive, less robust, you had to buy a special piece of equipment to enjoy them, the sound quality on a good record player was better (despite the marketing claims), and (initially at least) piracy was next-to-impossible. Also, moving to CD meant you would have to re-purchase your entire collection.


You could skip back and forwards with ease (no more rewinding!), select only the tracks you wanted to hear. CDs were small, didn’t take up as much space as records, and the players were portable.

Digital took all of those advantages, and added a low (or no) price.  Plus, you could rip your existing CD collection and not have to fork out to replace your favourites.  Once the iPod came out, the digital future was sealed.

So what about books?

About a year ago, I was talking with a friend about e-books, and I told him that the uptake was going to be far slower with books than it was with music because of the way people consumed it, and the emotional attachment they had to physical books.

Boy was I wrong.  It’s a hell of a lot faster. Here is a graph (scroll down past the inaccurate first chart) showing the uptake of digital music.  Now I don’t have a fancy graph for books, but some figures should do the trick.

In 2009, e-books made up 3% of the market.  In 2010, that figure jumped above 9%. However, that yearly figure masks an explosion in November that is more than holding up in 2011. Latest figures are hard to come by, but some publishers report that e-books now make up 20-25% of their sales (and for Amazon they already make up a majority of their book sales). That’s a huge leap in such a short space of time. Now you can see why I changed my mind.

It’s clear that bricks-and-mortar booksellers (especially those without an online presence) are struggling to cope with the digital revolution.  But I think they have a future.  For starters, several years after the introduction of MP3s, Napster, the iPod and iTunes, digital music sales are still yet to overtake physical music sales.  Vinyl, despite the best efforts of the music industry to kill it off, is booming again, sales are at their highest since 1991.  And the best news for indie bookstores?  71% of these purchases were at indie record stores.

Corporate Publishers must be rubbing their answers in glee, right?  Salivating about the mountains of cash they will make from e-books, right?


In fact, they are doing everything they can to slow the transition to digital.  Why is this? Isn’t this suicidal?

Next time we will talk about the price of a book, how that is split between author, publisher, and retailer, and why publishers have a lot to fear from the digital revolution. Then, after that, we can deal with the 800 pound gorilla in the corner, Amazon.

As for me, I haven’t bought an e-reader yet (and I still listen to records).  I will probably hold off until the technology advances to the point where they can replicate the smell of a book.  Oh wait, they already have. Told you things were changing fast.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

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