The Wall Street Journal headline on Tuesday caught my eye: “Publishing Hears Echoes of Netflix Business Model: Digital Startups Prepare to Offer E-Book Subscription Services.” What could this mean? Are we moving to an all-you-can-eat world of books? I imagined myself following the binge model of TV viewing popular now with series like Netflix’s original House of Cards and going on a Robert B. Parker marathon, reading book after book until I start seeing Spenser and Hawkeye monitoring my movements from behind my back yard azaleas.
We’re not quite there yet. The article by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg (behind a WSJ paywall) highlights two start-ups. One, eReatah, has signed Simon & Schuster and a few other publishers and will launch in the next few months with 80,000 or so titles. Its model more closely resembles the old-fashioned Netflix model, not the all-you-can-watch streaming service but the so-many-DVDs-at-a-time model. We’d pay $14.99 per month [corrected 9/14/13] for two new titles, $25.50 for three, or $33.50 for four. Unlike Netflix, you wouldn’t mail the books back when you were done; they’d arrive as ebooks and you’d keep them. A Simon & Schuster rep said this model worked because there is a distinct payment made for each download, which is good for authors because it allows for royalties.
As an avid consumer of books, I’m not sure what this model offers me beyond the quaint book-of-the-month club. I like the idea of owning the books, but the per-book cost is not necessarily a major discount. My book purchases are a menagerie of hardcover and softcover originals as well as used books. I’d have to sit down and do the math as to whether this model would ultimately save me money, but I know the universe I operate in now includes every book; eReatah won’t have that. I was more intrigued by the idea the headline gave me of an all-you-can-read model.
That is apparently what the other start-up, Oyster, aspires to offer. Who wouldn’t like that? Well, publishers and agents, as well as authors generating decent income from book sales. We’ve learned through music services like Spotify, MOG and Xbox Music that a pay-per-listen or pay-per-view is pennies to dollars from actual recording sales. The music industry was forced to embrace these monthly streaming-downloading models for a lot of reasons, including piracy, but the music industry is far smaller revenue-wise than it was ten years ago. The video market seems more amenable to this change, as we see competition among Netflix, Hulu and Amazon for paid streaming services. But this industry was already undergoing a series of technological revolutions–DVRs, digital cable channels allowing more outlets, original scripted cable programming, web-only channels–long before the new Netflix model emerged. We consume video differently than we do music. It still isn’t easy to negotiate rights and payments for video services, but there are more options available to ensure the proper people get paid.
Books are once again entirely different, both on the existing business model and on the way we consume them. We take far longer to read a book than we do to listen to a song, and we are less likely to re-read that book than we are to listen to that song again. You can price a syndicated TV show on a streaming service with royalties on each episode; it isn’t logical to pay an author for each chapter read of a book.
We’re overlooking the main difference between books and other forms of copyrighted entertainment, however. A developer of interactive ebooks in the article takes a shot at publishers, saying they’re afraid of the unknown (who in their right minds isn’t?), adding they have operated their economic model for one hundred years and don’t know how to model an unlimited service. But we have had an unlimited service model for far longer than one hundred years: the public library.
I mentioned above the various ways in which I purchase books. But I make great use of the library as well. It was critical during my MFA program, where I had so much reading to do and was already spending a lot in tuition. My local library serves me well with audiobooks, a version of books for a lot of good reasons are more expensive than print or ebooks but are a great way for me to “read” during my daily commute. At times I have so enjoyed a library book that I have purchased the version so I’ll have it to re-read, or I’ve purchased the next book by that author because I was unwilling to wait for my turn to come up on the reserve list that inevitably forms when the book is new.
Libraries are already starting to experiment with methods to encourage ebook lending, often having the book “expire” in the same way an Amazon Unbox movie download disappears a day or two after you first start watching it. In other words, they are innovating to meet consumer demand, yet still not charging their consumers (unless you’re late with that return, tsk, tsk). But libraries offer something far better than even the most sophisticated algorithm that says “if you liked that book, you might like this one”: librarians.
Librarians are gifts worth treasuring. These bright people have dedicated their professional lives to guiding us to materials that will educate, enrich and entertain us. They are a resource that far predates the Kindle or Goodreads or any other technological entry into the world of words. And no subscription service can offer what my local librarian can, at any price.
I spend a fair amount of my professional work in the world of creativity and innovation. There are lots of creative minds out there, and a lot of interesting innovations. An innovation works commercially when it fills a need. Sometimes we didn’t know it was a need we had; smartphones and tablets are innovations that did just that. But it’s not clear to me what need these two proposed services would meet. We have more ways than ever to gain access to books today. I haven’t even mentioned community lending initiatives like the independent coffee shop near my house or the community center in my in-laws’development, where a take-a-book-leave-a-book honor system provides access to hundreds of books, including recent releases.
Perhaps there is some need I have to access the written word that I am not yet aware of. But I am skeptical. I welcome continued innovation in publishing, and also value those who are working to ensure that authors continue to have access to well-deserved compensation streams. But as a consumer of books, I bring a bit of skepticism to the notion of a Netflix model.
What are your thoughts?