no music but in things

Radiohead’s offering of its new music has two parts. One part, a pay-what-you-will digital download, has the blogsphere abuzz. The second, less noted, part of Radiohead’s offering is, for £40, a discbox:

This consists of the new album, In Rainbows, on CD and on 2 x 12 inch heavyweight vinyl records. A second, enhanced CD contains more new songs, along with digital photographs and artwork. The discbox also includes artwork and lyric booklets.
All are encased in a hardback book and slipcase.

Radiohead’s discbox illustrates different physical instantiations of music. The availability of digital downloads does not necessarily imply that sellers of music must sell only one standard bitstream. Music fans will embed digital downloads into a wide variety of devices customized in a huge number of ways. Music makers can create additional value by supporting a wide range of representations and uses of their music.

Book publishers have long recognized the importance of different physical presentations of the same book. One important issue was the size of the book. A large size (a quarto or octavo) indicated a weighty, luxury work. A small size that could fit into a pocket or purse (duodecimo) was meant to be taken as light reading.

Book bindings contributed significantly to the value of books. In late-eighteenth century England, books were typically sold unbound. Readers chose whether and how to augment, bind, and personalize the book. Book-binding and related crafts were an important business.

Book purchasers had many choices for binding their books. At the top end, books were bound in goat skin (Morocco binding). Bibliographic information might be inscribed in gilt on the front cover and the spin of the book, the page edges might be cleanly cut and painted with an ornate design, and marbled end-pages might be added. In addition, an elaborately designed bookplate (ex-libris) often was pasted inside the cover of expensively bound books. Other bindings types included (ordered by decreasing cost) full-calf, half-calf, sheep, cloth, cardboard, and paper.

Publishers of cheap novels (“dime novels”) in the U.S. in the second half of the nineteenth century used book size, binding style, and illustrations to market the same text to different customer groups. One strategy was to print a series of small-total-page, paperback novels that could be mailed under the relatively cheap rate for periodicals. Another strategy was to use colored covers to make cheap paperbacks stand out on the newsstands where they were sold.  In the second half of the nineteenth century, many dime novels were published multiple times:

Over the years, the stories were not changed at all — they did not become more sensational, or more violent, or less puritanical over the years, as the standard narrative of the dime novel genre would have it. What did change was the format in which they were published, how much they cost, and where they were purchased. [1]

Inability to assert successfully exclusive publication rights increases the important of product design and distribution. In 1892, when Houghton, Mifflin & Company’s copyright on The Scarlet Letter expired, Houghton, Mifflin increased the number of editions of The Scarlet Letter to at least eight. A low-cost edition was the paper-bound “Salem Edition,” costing 15 cents. At the luxury end of the offerings was a $7.50 large-paper, vellum-bound ‘”Riverside Edition” illustrated with photogravures of specially made drawings.[2] With the text of The Scarlet Letter in the public domain, publishers created value through book design and distribution.

Unimaginative marketing is more of a threat to the music business than is illegal music sharing.

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[1] Erickson, Paul (1999) “Help or Hindrance? The History of the Book and Electronic Media,” pp. 2-3.

[2] Winship, Michael (2001) “Hawthorne and the ‘Scribbling Women’: Publishing the Scarlet Letter in the Nineteenth-Century United States,” Studies in American Fiction, v. 29, pp. 8-9.