When the iTunes Music Store was introduced to the market in 2003, music sales took a turn for the worse. After a series of negotiations between Steve Jobs and several major record labels, a new pricing model was established for digital downloads – and neither artists nor their labels were all too happy about it. Digital albums were to be priced significantly lower than their manufactured counterpart, and they could now be sold for around $10, with individual tracks selling for only $.99 each.

If this change in pricing models sounds at all familiar, it could be because a similar shift is taking place within the publishing industry today, some ten years later. Not only are eBooks often less expensive than physical books, but they’re also starting to be sold by the chapter, much like a single from a full-length album.

The music business, while not exactly the thriving industry it once was, has done a considerable job at staying afloat despite iTunes owning more than half of all digital music sales in the US. If iTunes is the Amazon of the music industry, ­what does that mean for publishers moving forward? What can we learn from another form of media that has already borne the brunt of the digital storm? Here are three key takeaways that publishers could learn from the music business as they look to not only survive but thrive in the digital world.

1.   Sell bite-sized content

Artists and labels were apprehensive about selling individual tracks to consumers at first, but quickly learned that when it comes to digital content, consumption is king, and the same can be said for the publishing industry. Publishers are now starting to experiment further with selling content at a more granular level. Wolters Kluwer recently built an eChapters store on Qbend, an innovative e-retailing platform, and found that “…over 96% of the transactions on the e-bookstore occur[ed] at the chapter level,” says Qbend COO, Kaushik Sampath. There is much to be explored within this arena as publishers continue to warm up to direct-to-consumer models, but it’s likely that an approach in favor of bite-sized pieces of content will come out victorious.

2.   Give authors more control

Before the digital age, musicians had little hope of becoming a success unless they were discovered by a major label, and for authors, landing a book deal could arguably feel the same way. Within the music industry, that notion quickly changed for independent artists as websites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud began to surface on the web. These sites provided artists with a platform to sell their merchandise and music, and promote their tours – with a marginal cut of the profit going to the host site.

Publishers now face a similarly fragmented industry, with more and more authors continuing to pursue the route of self-publishing. This alternative gives authors more control over their sales, data, brand, and most importantly, the content itself. Whatever the reason may be, one thing is clear –musicians, writers, and authors ­all want more control. Many content hosting platforms allow authors to link their content with a third party analytic service, like Google Analytics for example, which authors can in turn use to determine where their buyers are coming from, what they click on the most and other valuable data that will help self-publishers concentrate their marketing efforts. Traditional publishers would be wise to cater to this do-it-yourself mentality.

3.   Recognize the importance of reviews

Another change that the digital revolution has brought about is the importance of discoverability and consumer reviews. The music industry’s response to the desire to ‘find’ something organically online was to develop sites like Last.fm, a music recommendation platform that provides listeners with suggestions for artists they might like based on tags, listener data and reviews. Publishers should also take advantage of similar services that give readers the feeling that they have uncovered a new author or sub-genre that no one else has ever heard of before. If nothing else, Amazon’s recent acquisition of Goodreads – the second book recommendation site that Amazon has bought outright – should offer some indication of just how important discoverability and peer review are to consumers when making purchasing decisions.

One way of strengthening these channels for selling digital content is to place a greater emphasis on the development of online communities, a topic we explored in great length last year. Whether publishers aim to communicate directly with consumers or simply hope to better understand their needs, it’s clear that providing a platform for discussion should become commonplace as consumers continue to navigate an online market. When fostering these online communities, it will be important that publishers adopt a new business-to-consumer mindset and consider creating more immersive platforms built around special interests and specific genres to bring consumer engagement to rejuvenated levels. These online communities, along with the notion of a highly personalized user experience, will continue to play an increasingly important role in shaping the future of the eBook business.

Whether it’s print or analog, the conversion to digital is inevitable. Publishers can look to the music industry for examples of what to do and what not to do as they plan for the future, continue to make strides towards developing their own innovations, and hope to stand a fighting chance in an evolving online marketplace.

(photo credit: Kaptain Kobold)