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.

12 Responses to Happy Birthday iTunes Store! Thanks for the Warning…

  1. Avatar
    Elaine Marie Cooper April 27, 2015 at 5:50 am #

    Well, you stirred up a few memories. While I-tunes was launching on April 28th, 2003, I was experiencing a birthday—but not celebrating. I was working part time as a nurse while taking care of my daughter full time who was dying from a brain tumor. She died the following October. Although I was a writer at the time, I had yet to write my first book. Since then, I’ve written 6. The Lord has taken me on many unexpected journeys. But after losing someone so close to me, I keep the changes in an “industry” in perspective and realize that life is fragile. I am grateful for whatever venues the publishing industry offers and try to follow the Lord’s leading. I’m happy you found your niche in the storm. Blessings on your work.

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      Sandy Faye Mauck April 27, 2015 at 8:28 am #

      Elaine, my heart goes out to you. A pain that never leaves. I wonder sometimes how we have managed to get through all these years on earth. Looking forward to heaven. God bless you.

      • Avatar
        Elaine Marie Cooper April 27, 2015 at 8:41 am #

        Thank you, Sandy. We survive through the strength of the Lord, don’t we? Those are the times, if we draw close to Him, His promises to never leave us or forsake us take on a new and deeper meaning. Blessings!

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    Sandy Faye Mauck April 27, 2015 at 8:31 am #

    Steve, great article. I love the line “Even technology eats its own.”
    How true. Your advice was spot on. If our focus is on God and not mammon then we will do it right.

    Going back to write now (<;

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    Jeanne Takenaka April 27, 2015 at 8:33 am #

    Wow, April 2003. I was the new mother of a one-month old baby boy. Totally immersed in figuring out what this new chapter of life was supposed to look like. 🙂

    I’m thankful that people’s desire for good stories will never be out of date. Technology seems to develop at a scary-fast rate. I like your closing thought: focus on writing the greatest book possible. That gives hope. 🙂 Thanks, Steve.

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    Sherry Carter April 27, 2015 at 8:44 am #

    April 2003 – It was a month since the horrific loss of the shuttle Columbia. I worked with that shuttle crew for three years and I was devastated. But God used that experience to teach me that I am not defined by tragedies or joyous events. I am defined as His child, a fact that remains true through all circumstances.

    • Avatar
      Jenelle. M April 27, 2015 at 11:36 am #

      Sherry, wow, amen to your words!

    • Avatar
      Jeanne Takenaka April 27, 2015 at 11:54 am #

      Wow, Sherry. I can’t imagine the loss and the grief you worked through. I love your words though—such truth in them. We are not defined by tragedies or joyous events, but by Jesus.

  5. Avatar
    Jenelle. M April 27, 2015 at 11:36 am #

    Personally, I need to be reminded how fleeting and permanent some technologies are and how we need to adapt or re adapted when the newest version comes out. I’m thankful more than ever that I can ask my tech savvy husbands what’s going on in tech land. However, I’m addicted to music and love me some itunes, spotify, pandora… And I will buy an entire album of my favorite artists 🙂

    I ditto Jeanne’s comment about focusing on the greatest story possible. For months now the famous line from Field of Dreams keeps repeating in my mind. “If you build it, they will come.” I don’t what the end product of “it” looks like yet or who the “they” are going to be, but like Ray, I cannot ignore the whisper and will keep plowing through the muck until one glorious day, I can stand back and smile at its completion.

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    BeverlyBrooks April 27, 2015 at 12:41 pm #

    Wow this was a lovely spot to rest today. Deep comments, terrific perspective gained in (to me) unimaginable sorrow and lots of hope sprinkled.

    Elaine and Sherry – sorry for your suffering but thank you both so much for sharing.

    I know we are all working on the next great book so I’ll keep this brief.

    Thanks to those who comment and share as well as to all the folks at the Steve Laube Agency – your words are sincerely appreciated.

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    rochellino@yahoo.com April 27, 2015 at 12:47 pm #

    Steve, great post! I have taken your advice and wrote the “best book possible” which I finished in Dec 2014. I have been holding it in abeyance while trying to figure out the most effective system for sales, marketing and promotion. Whether I go traditional pub or self pub it is my understanding that those activities will be largely placed squarely on my back and I will be held accountable (even if unofficially) for the success of the book.

    I take this responsibility very seriously. I do not have a history of failure and certainly don’t want to start one now. Please note that I did not say I don’t have a history of adversity, that I have had great experience with. I have learned to make adversity my ally. So it will likely be with my writing/publishing.

    I have forced myself to creatively craft a sales, marketing and promotion protocol for a novel(s) that I haven’t seen being currently employed anywhere. Fortunately, this is part of what I have been doing for the past fifty years in my “other life”. The products weren’t books but were just as complex with as much competition against major players. In the past, on more than one occasion, I have been blessed with great success in reinventing the “sales and marketing” strategy. I expect the big companies to eventually catch on and copy in one iteration or another, they always seem to. I don’t want to hand over my vanguard marketing plans gratis to a major publishing house in a proposal. As you know, being preemptive is a distinct advantage in most tactical/strategic sales campaigns.

    Do you offer a beta read w/opinion service? I respect YOUR opinion and would like to know the unvarnished brutal truth, wherever it may lie on the spectrum, regarding my new novel.

    “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.”

    HOW? (not an indian greeting)

    As always, it has been a pleasure!

  8. Avatar
    Sally Bradley April 27, 2015 at 12:51 pm #

    “I see opportunity.” Yes, this is what the indie revolution is all about. There will be change–as in no more iPod–but better opportunities, new opportunities, tough opportunities come along. You have to not worry about the past and figure out how you fit into the now and the future. Thanks for the post, Steve.

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