If you were attacked by pirates, who would you want by your side? A loyal horde of head bangers, gangstas and hard-core punks? Or a brainy clutch of bookish types? I’d generally advise you to go with the former group. But it turns out that in the swashbuckling arena of digital piracy, the publishing world is acquitting itself far better than the brash music industry.
Ten years ago this Sunday, the record labels thought they had turned the tide against piracy when the wildly popular Napster—a service that allowed anyone to find and download recordings online—declared bankruptcy. At the time, annual American music sales had dropped by about $2 billion, having peaked at $14.5 billion in 1999. The labels blamed Napster, claiming that the company encouraged copyright infringement. Sales have since declined by a further $5.5 billion—for a total plunge of over 50%.
The book business is now further into its own digital history than music was when Napster died. Both histories began when digital media became portable. For music, that was 1999, when the record labels ended a failing legal campaign to ban MP3 players. For books, it came with the 2007 launch of the Kindle.
Publishing has gotten off to a much better start. Both industries saw a roughly 20% drop in physical sales four years after their respective digital kickoffs. But e-book sales have largely made up the shortfall in publishing—unlike digital music sales, which stayed stubbornly close to zero for years.