What Radiohead can teach the book industry

If you own a TV, radio, computer or phone, there is a high chance you will have come across The King of Limbs, the new album by those unlikely digital marketing experts, Radiohead. You may even have listened to it. I had a quick listen—it’s not bad, though I prefer In Rainbows.

Giving the print press four days’ notice, to minimise piracy, they started selling the £6 digital version on Saturday. Their legions of die-hard fans, however, will no doubt want the £30 package, which will include two vinyl, a CD and, according to Radiohead’s website, ’625 tiny pieces of artwork.’ This two-tier approach follows their previous effort with In Rainbows, where they let people pay whatever they thought was fair for the digital files, whilst also releasing a £40 premium edition. The band generated considerable press attention with this scheme, but also a market research model that record labels and marketing companies would have killed for.

Meanwhile, digital pricing in the book industry is as random as it was for music ten years ago. The former has never enjoyed the margins of the film or music industries: people are worrying on the one hand about making good sales, and on the other about driving down the perceived value of books. Agency pricing, where publishers rather than retailers dictate prices, has led to accusations that some are trying to resurrect the standardised pricing of books, and has even roused the interest of the Office of Fair Trading. Now, with people wielding Kindles on the tube, we’re starting to see a massive uptake of digital reading. A consensus is beginning to form that books are to have their equivalent of the ‘iPod revolution.’

The difference, of course, is that the book industry can thank music and films for having made all the mistakes first. The success of iTunes and subscription services like emusic.com has proven that people are willing to pay for content. Moreover, there has been a fundamental reassessment of the relationship between digital and physical formats. If something as complicated and inconvenient as Blockbuster could be made to work, convincing people to download a film simply and cheaply at home was never a hard sell. In physical formats, the box set has overtaken the stand-alone DVD as the accepted package.

However, Radiohead still stand out as the group who are redefining the divide. They have become an exception, operating without the backing of a big label, and publishing too will have its exceptions in the digital age. The Fleming estate recently announced it was to release its own James Bond ebooks, for instance. But people have taken well to Radiohead’s last two online initiatives not just because of their fan-base, but because they presented a strong consumer proposition: you can get the easy, cheap version or the presentable, high-quality premium edition.

Ultimately, there are two ways that people want to interact with books, film and music. Either they want quick, one-time-only access, or they want to own it and return to it again and again. Half the pleasure of buying a nice hardback is just seeing it sitting there, edifying my bookshelf. This distinction isn’t new, either. The paperback format became popular when Allen Lane started producing cheap, mass-market editions in the 1930s. Hardbacks, meanwhile, continued to exist. Before paperbacks there were pamphlets, catering for the same market, who wanted to digest the latest ideas and stay current.

The production value of the hardback has already started to go up, as publishers realise that the physical book can be a desirable luxury object. Fourth Estate released some beautiful limited edition hardbacks for its 25th anniversary, and Penguin’s Designer Classics series sold out almost immediately. Ebooks aren’t going to jeopardise this market; they will become the new airport paperback. You never really own an airport paperback, so much as use it, and nobody will ever own an ebook, because they’re only ever licensed to a user. If any format is going to lose out it’s the trade paperback, and it’ll be no great loss. But rather than do what the music industry did and wait for an omen, why not do what Radiohead did and ask: do you just want to consume it, or do you want to really own it?

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