Books Are Vinyl Albums Now
Publishers should look to the music business to see how a beloved physical medium can go from endangered to energized.
A decade ago, when Penguin published my Jay-Z biography Empire State of Mind, it came with all the bells and whistles associated with big hardcovers, despite my paltry first-time author advance. The title leapt off the cover in embossed yellow across a rare image of Jay-Z, with my byline in a different shade below. Even the spine had embossed text.
Flash forward to my latest book, A-List Angels, published in 2020. Though I earned a much larger advance, the book’s cover didn’t come with any sheen or pricey pictures, and all the fonts were the same color. That’s no knock on the designers who created a handsome package despite the constraints of publishing these days. Book jacket budgets are just another casualty of a declining industry … right?
Well, not really. Contrary to popular sentiment, book sales have actually risen steadily over the past decade. According to Statista, over 825 million print books were sold across the U.S. in 2021, an 8.9% year-over-year jump that represented a 15-year high. And physical titles still comprise the vast majority of those books.
That steady increase has coincided with the much-ballyhooed revival of vinyl records. Sitting at just 3.8 million units in 2011, LP sales soared to a whopping 41.7 million last year. Vinyl now makes up the majority of physical music sales. Demand for vinyl has, in many cases, outpaced production capability.
This is no coincidence. Rather, it’s a symptom of the connectivity all superfans seek—and part of a topic I’ve touched on throughout the process of serializing We Are All Musicians Now. Indeed, if we are all musicians now, then books are vinyl records.
The literary establishment needs to take a hard look at vinyl and emulate the format as much as possible, beginning with the packaging. People don’t buy LPs or books because they’re convenient. They buy them because of the touch, the feel, the experience. They buy them to display on their living room shelves as markers of taste. They buy them to be seen as much as heard or read.
The music industry understands this and has been leaning in, as I can clearly see when I peruse my modest record collection. Take the 1981 Phil Collins album Face Time, retrieved some time ago from my dad’s storage unit. It’s a black-and-white photo of the singer’s face and a script track listing on the back. The interior includes a moderately interesting collage of pictures and notes, and the disc itself just has the title, the tracks and Atlantic’s logo.
There’s no comparison between that record and my 2018 anniversary-edition of Illmatic, performed by Nas at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra. The cover features the record’s original artwork with sheet music overlaid; the title is embossed in gold. The image of Nas, clad in a tuxedo and sunglasses, adorns each record.
But that’s not all: there are full color photos of the performance, more embossed gold titles, and an oversized photo booklet behind the scenes of the show. Other than providing me with a time machine and breaking the laws of physics, the album does everything it can to make me feel like I’m actually there. And, of course, the record comes with a card sporting a download code so I can listen wherever and whenever I like.
This is exactly the sort of thing the book industry needs to do.
Rather than continuing to pretend that their industry is dead, publishers need to stop skimping on book art and packaging—and instead double down on the physical element of their product. That means not just springing for cover images and embossed titles, but adding color-photo inserts where they’d be useful, printing on more sumptuous paper, and generally thinking more creatively. Why not a return to manually-cut pages? How about some more limited-edition specials?
As bands like Delta Rae have shown, you don’t have to be a superstar to have superfans. Many mid-list titles from the majors start out with print runs of only a few thousand books; why not have authors sign every single one? Or sign a few hundred copies of a special edition? (Hint: it’s good business, too; stores can’t return unsold signed books to distributors). If Taylor Swift can make time to do this, any author should be able to as well, barring physical maladies.
I’d actually argue that books are better-positioned to sell than vinyl. There are only 1,400 about indie record stores in the U.S. (per Larry Jaffee’s excellent Record Store Day: The Most Improbable Comeback of the 21st Century). According to Statista, there are more than 4,000 indie bookstore locations. They have a Day of their own, albeit an undersubscribed one compared to the behemoth Record Store Day has become.
And while the Tower Records and HMVs of the world are long gone, you can still find a Barnes & Noble in most cities. Plus, you don’t need a record player to read to a book; you can’t listen to records on planes or even plop them in your back pocket for a long subway ride.
One more piece of advice for the major publishers out there: reconsider your rules about not physically publishing any book that’s been excerpted extensively—or entirely—elsewhere. The availability of albums online hasn’t cannibalized the vinyl audience; in fact, the streaming revolution has happened in tandem with the LP renaissance.
Same goes for books—and it’s been that way for quite some time. Just ask your local library. Hopefully you’ll be able to find a physical copy of We Are All Musicians Now there someday soon.