Do You Want a Netflix for Books?

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.

The Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Think of a library as an all-you-can-eat business model for books.

The Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Think of a library as an all-you-can-eat business model for books.

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?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

17 Responses to “Do You Want a Netflix for Books?”

  1. Honestly, I don’t see how a program like that could possibly be successful. Not with sites like http://www.booksfree.com out there, that allows you to rent up to 15 books at a time and return them at will for $26 a month. Granted, they don’t offer the newest titles, but they have a huge selection to choose from.

    Also, the prices also seem a bit exorbitant. Two new books a month in hard copy could easily cost $16, but Ebooks tend to be much cheaper than that. The last ebooks I purchased ran about $4 and $5 each, respectively.

    So I’m skeptical about a program like this. Unless they decide to offer hard copies instead, I don’t see any real reason to participate in it, myself.

    • Hi Kyaza,

      Yes, it would have more appeal as a hardcover deal. I suspect what they’re trying to avoid, of course, is the postage that Netflix would have to absorb on every DVD mailing; this would only be one-way mailing, unlike Netflix, but still it would be expensive. You make a good point on ebook pricing as well. Most recent release books from major publishers in ebook form will cost at least $10, but they only have one major publisher inked. If they get a bunch of indie presses in there, the odds are it would be cheaper to purchase from them directly.

  2. Yup, when I read your title, the first thing that popped into my head was, “I have that; it’s called a library.” I know I’m lucky to have a good one, but unless I move to the middle of nowhere (and possibly not even then), I just can’t see ever paying for a book subscription service.

    • You know Charleen, as libraries best figure out how to manage ebook lending while still making sure they’re serving the communities where their tax money comes from and they respect the rights of authors and publishers, people not as lucky as us to be surrounded by great libraries will benefit so much. Libraries have a long history of trying to reach the difficult-to-reach; when I was a kid my mother would take me to the bookmobile that would service our neighborhood and it was fantastic, not a great selection but the books came to us. The ebook lending can do that as well.

  3. Patrick… not quite sure I understand how a subscription service would work… but I’m skeptical for the reason that the books I have a burning desire to read right now are specific titles. The chances of them being on some kind of “NetbooX” list are slim to nil. What could be easier than trotting across the street to our local independent bookstore, and failing that, walking one block farther to the local library where they will bring in any book for me within a few days. For instance, this morning I need a biography of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. I rest my case.

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more books being published every year than songs being recorded. I’m sure that’s the case for book publishers vs. record labels. Not sure how it breaks down with self-published authors and self-recorded musical artists. But it’s about selection and scale, right? I mentioned the book-of-the-month club model, which has been around a long time. Like the old Columbia Records club, it was great if you wanted the big hits, not so great if your tastes were more diverse.

      As to your book selection, I just gave away my well-worn biography of Merton, or I’d ship it to you. Sorry!🙂

  4. I have a good friend who is a librarian. She’ll come up to me, say “I think you’ll like this,” hand me a book, and I’m set for the week. Yes, she is a gift. Thanks for pointing that out.

  5. One of the trends that annoys me is the accusation—from anyone with a new idea how to make a buck—that folks who question it are “afraid of the unknown”. I question everything – especially if someone will profit from my acceptance.
    You and I sound very alike in our book using habits, Patrick; I use the library A LOT, and I love bookstores and used bookstores.
    I can’t see myself using the kind of service described here, but then I don’t use Netflicks or any kind of paid music service either.
    Like Darla, I’ve got a friend who is a retired librarian, and she’s a gem.

    • Those who fault others for being afraid of the unknown are those with nothing at stake. Simple as that.

      As to our writing habits, Cynthia, we both read a lot and we read a lot of different kinds of things, so I think you have to have a hybrid approach.

  6. The economies of scale exploited by concepts like this and KDP serve only to help distributors like Amazon, etc, leaving a “starving artist.”

    It might help with the value perception problem, where people stress over a $2.99 eBook but don’t bat an eyelid at paying $5 for a frappucino or a McDepressed Meal with large fries.

    We authors can but hope for a favorable outcome🙂

    • Thank you for putting all of this in perspective, how much we’re willing to pay for coffee or fast food (or parking or bottled water) vs. what we will pay for a creative work that takes significant time for the author to produce and will provide satisfaction over a far longer period of time than any of the alternatives you mention. As I mention, books are a bit different in many ways than sound recordings and audiovisual works, and the powers that be need to keep that in mind, for the author’s sake.

  7. Hi Patrick
    Thanks for covering us. This is Bryan Batten, founder of eReatah. I hope you and your readers will give us a shot. Our pricing is actually $14.99 for 2 books. I also think it is worth mentioning that ~80% of our books sell for over $8.50 on other ebook sites, ~70% sell for over $9.99 and ~45% sell for over $12.99. We are working really hard to create the ultimate reading platform. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to reach out.
    Thanks
    Bryan

    • Hi Bryan,

      Thank you for commenting and providing more information on your service. I do admire you for finding ways to get books in front of readers. I’ve gone and corrected the price point I misrepresented in the piece. Best of luck to you.

      Patrick

  8. Isn’t Kindle’s book service and queue a “Netflix for Books?”

    • Does that service offer a certain amount of books to read each month for a fixed price? That’s kind of what these folks are going for, or an all-you-can-eat approach.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Ether for Authors: Can You Sell Ebooks on the Half Shell? | Publishing Perspectives - September 10, 2013

    […] blogger Patrick Ross, in Do You Want a Netflix for Books? is one of the first to raise a series of dissenting […]

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