Recently I spent an evening with a friend who’s a true American music icon, a man who madeÂ a fortune as a singer/songwriter.Â We got to talking about our respective industries, and he said, “I’m grateful I had a career when I did.Â I couldn’t make it today.”Â The digital age, he said, has ruined the chances for any new musician to get as wealthy as he did.Â He made his money as a recording artist.Â Now anyone can downloadÂ a song, thereby sucking the lifebloodÂ from musicians.Â “The most talented songwriter in the world will fail today,”Â he said.Â “Why pay for a CD when you can get the music free off the internet?”
An article in today’s newsÂ backs him up.Â Associated Press reports thatÂ U.S. album sales have fallen 9.5 percent in the last year.
“The only way to get rich nowadays,”Â my friendÂ said, “is toÂ lookÂ hot and sexyÂ on a music video.”Â It’s not real musicians who get the big bucks these days; it’s theÂ talentless eye candy.Â Â
He’s already made his fame and fortune so he’s not bitter; he’s simply being realistic — and sadly pessimistic — about what lies ahead forÂ songwriters.Â “If a truly talented musician came to me for advice about the industry,” he said, “I’d tell him that the best thing he could do is get the hell out.”
The digital age has indeed been a disaster for singers and songwriters because what they produce is so easily stolen andÂ reproduced.Â And as bandwidth and download speeds increase, making videos easier to steal, the movie industry will be suffering next.
But oddly enough, novelists don’t seem to be in thatÂ perilousÂ situation because of one simple fact: no one has yet improved upon the sheer readability of a real book.Â I know that the e-book was supposed to revolutionize the industry but so far it hasn’t.Â I also know that the downoads of my books remain a tiny fraction of my sales.Â The vast majority of readers still prefer (as I do) the feel of a real book with real printed pages.Â Something that we can bring to the beach, drop in the bathwater, and stuff into our pockets.Â Something that doesn’t require batteries, that’s cheap enough to toss once we’ve finished reading it.
Has there ever been a more perfect entertainment device?
The current format of the bookÂ was inventedÂ over two thousand years ago.Â According to Pliny (who’s not always reliable, I should warn you) theÂ bound book (also known as a codex) became popular during a feud between the two rival librariesÂ of Alexandria and Pergamum.Â Up till that time, the papyrus scroll was the predominant form of recorded text, and the great library of Alexandria was the keeper of the greatest collection in the world.Â When Eumenes of Pergamum tried to build just as magnificent a collection, Egypt responded by halting all exports of papyrus.Â In response, Pergamum was forced to use vellum pages, made from animal skins.Â
And thus the bound book was born.Â Except for the materials used in its manufacture, it hasn’t really changed since then.
That is an astonishing thing to contemplate.Â How many other inventions (other than the wheel) can we point to as being so perfect they remain essentially unchanged for two millenia?Â
For the moment, our industry is safe.Â People will continue to buy books because there’s no easier way to read a story.Â They’re portable, they’re relatively cheap, and they’re user friendly.Â The batteries never run out.
Let’s just hope we never run out of readers.