Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Netflix for Books

I love reading, and I'm a huge consumer of print media - approximately 20 books a month, plus countless articles. I use the library out of necessity. It would cost me around $6,000 a year to buy all the books I read, so the library is my best choice for affordable access to the books I want to read. I love ebooks, which are slightly more affordable and can't be easily digested by my two toddlers, but once again, I can't really justify buying 20 or more ebooks a month (after all, how many books can my kids destroy per month?). But I do get tired of lugging all the books back and forth from the library and paying fines when I need to keep them a few extra days. Also, it's difficult to tough it out for months on end waiting for new books that I am positively dying to read (my husband bought me the new Steve Jobs biography after he heard me mention I was looking at about six months on the waiting list).

All this has got me to thinking - why doesn't a service like Netflix exist for readers? In my opinion, such a service would need to provide:

  • Simultaneous access to multiple titles (I'd go crazy if I wasn't able to read at least three books at once - and I know I'm not alone in this)
  • Availability of pretty much any title I could find at my local library
  • Ability to read books on multiple platforms (tablet, smartphone, pc)
  • Affordable pricing (i.e., along the lines of Netflix)

This might sound like a tall order, but Netflix is able to provide these things for movie fans. I do realize that there are probably fewer readers out there demanding a service like this than there are movie and tv fans.

Amazon.com recently announced a service along the lines of a "bonus feature" for Amazon Prime customers. It is pretty much useless, in my opinion. You have access to one book per month (one? Are you kidding me?), have a mere 5,000 titles to choose from, and can only read these books on your kindle. The only good news is that you don't have to pay extra for this horrible service, which is lumped together with Amazon Prime at a cost of $79 USD per year.

Now, I'm sure that Amazon has been begging publishers to allow them to offer more titles, but I'm sure it's difficult to get enough publishers on board. And as this article from Wired magazine notes, nobody really knows what a digital book is "worth" to the publishing industry, nor are they used to negotiating with anyone over the aftermarket for their titles.

Although it was comparatively easier for Netflix to discuss these issues

Now, I hate to say it, but I suspect one of the reasons that book publishers haven't been as willing to acquiesce to the likes of Apple and Amazon is that they have felt less pressure from piracy. The music and film industries are truly suffering from the availability of free content on the web. In contrast, publishers earned 27.9 billion worldwide in 2010, and their revenue appears to be growing, not shrinking.

Adaptation to digital books has started off a bit slow, but it is growing. According to the New York Times (see link above), ebooks represented just 0.6 percent of the the market in 2008. Two years later, they had grown to 6.4 percent. Book publishers might not be feeling the pinch right now, but if this trend continues, they will not be able to ignore the pressure of  the web. I've never read a pirated ebook myself, but they do exist, and I'm sure that if they become readily available, they'll be a much more evident threat to the publishing world.

Hopefully, publishers will not let it get to that point, and will come up with an affordable way for consumers to access books. I realize that not everyone reads as much as I do, but, as my husband pointed out when I discussed this issue with him, they might be willing to pay for a subscription to a book service simply because of the way it makes them feel.

This time of year, I'm always reminded of the job I took at the YMCA after high school. I was amazed that so many people would sign up for memberships in January. I worried that the facility would never hold them all! Not a concern, my boss informed me. Most of them will never show up after the second week of January. "But they'll just cancel their memberships!" I protested. "No," she replied. "Just having a membership makes them feel good, even if they never use the gym."

I think an ebook membership would work much the same way. There are a lot of people out there who would feel great about having unlimited access to books, even if they never actually use the service! What do you think? Does the idea of an "ebook membership" appeal to you? Do you think it makes sense for publishers to offer this option through providers like Apple and Amazon?


heidenkind said...

I think there actually are several Netflix-like services for books, although I can't tell you want they are off the top of my head. It seems like several people have tried this idea, but it always seems too expensive to be worth it to me, especially with a lack of selection. Overall I think the traditional library is still your best bet.

Maybe renting books will be the future of bookstores?

Margaret said...

Thanks for the comment! I have to agree-the library is still my best bet for the time being, but I definitely think that "borrowing" digital books is the way of the future (let's hope it's the near future!). For one thing, there is no [legal] market for second-hand digital books (you can't even donate them), so it makes very little sense to "own" them, in my opinion. And if you are just paying for the experience of reading a digital book once (if that) then they are ridiculously overpriced.

Amazon's current offering is a disappointment, but it's just a sign of things to come.

The Nightwatchman said...

How do you find the time is my question?

I have several paperbacks stacked up in the garage, besides the other newer ones, I picked up. E.G. I went to the Gaugin exhibition last year and still haven't read the catalogue, similar we had a book on the Group of Seven and Emily Carr omnibus and I still have not got round to reading them. Yet, I still bought the catalogue from the Dulwich Picture Gallery - Painting Canada.

I haven't bought an e-reader yet as I keep thinking I would like a one piece of equipment to draw with as well e.g. an ipad, but one of my friends suggest that it a kindle is better. However, I would like to down PDF file to read a publication direct e.g. Zoo Le Magazine for BDs, but I would want this colour. Actually, I am quite lucky as I got our digital division to print me a hard copy from the PDFs of the Christmas issue.

There is a shift in the reading of books, more like a film or theatre ticket for a performance and you don't have to physically have a copy because you can access it again. No more hunting in second hand book shops or charity shops for things of interest, you can access the database and download.

The question of time becomes more important as you can't read everything, so you have to restrict your choice either to re-read favourite books or branch out.

As an aside, have you seen the latest Great Expectation via the BBC? with Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham?I thought it was beautifully shot but lacking something?

Margaret said...

@The Nightwatchman

- To answer your first question, I read almost entirely nonfiction and biographies. One or two a week are pretty serious, but the rest are pretty fluffy! But I would still have to buy about 5 books a week if I wanted to keep my reading habits the same.

I haven't seen Great Expectations. I can't help but think that Gillian Anderson seems awfully young to play Havisham, but she's an interesting choice (I have a much bigger problem with the guy that plays Pip - he's prettier than Estella!- but I guess I ought to see it before I make any judgments).

Wilson Ross said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wilson Ross said...

There is a Netflix for books online book and audiobook rental service out there called Booksfree, booksfree.com

Hey have been around since 2000 and offer over 250,000 titles. I agree with that you say about libraries, but they do have their drawbacks, and not everyone has access to a good library. Check out Booksfree, they also have a free book swap service called BooksfreeSwap, booksfreeswap.com and an audiobook download and streaming service AudiobooksNow, audiobooksnow.com