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The Netflix of Ebooks Might Not be Coming Soon

At one point I believed that a Netflix like subscription service for books would be a huge loss for the public library’s mission to supply books. If you could read all the books you wanted for a nominal monthly fee, then even diehard library users might start doing that.

I still believe that such a service would reduce library usage, but now I don’t believe we’ll ever see such a subscription service, at least not for a very long time.

Supposedly, though, there’s an “intensifying debate in the publishing industry” about such a service, if you believe this article. The question is, should you believe it.

The claim is that there’s a big debate, and that such a service would harm bookstores housed in real buildings containing books made of real paper. They probably would.

However, if you read the full article, instead of the snippet available for free, you might come away with a different idea. It’s behind the WSJ paywall, but I read it at the library.

Two different startups are giving this a try, which already means the heft of Amazon won’t be behind it. One of the startups has a contract with Simon & Schuster. The other doesn’t have a contract with any of the big five publishers, which is a big problem.

Another problem is the pricing mechanism. One of the startups, eReatah, has a tiered pricing model: “$16.99 a month for two new titles; $25.50 for three books; and $33.50 for four.”

According to someone at Simon & Schuster, this model “preserves the value of the content, which is important to us.” That’s one way to look at it, I suppose. Not the way any subscribers are going to look at it, but okay.

For $8/month, you can get every streaming video Netflix has. For another $5/month, you can get unlimited music streaming from Spotify. That’s the point of the services. It’s a relatively low price for a lot of content, most of which you’ll never want. That’s what makes it valuable.

$17/month for two book titles isn’t valuable, it’s just expensive. $33.50 for 4 titles is still ridiculous.

You could make the argument that that’s less than you might pay for 2 or 4 books in a month, but who cares. If I go a month without reading a new book, I’m still out a relatively large amount of money. If I manage to watch just a few hours of Netflix a month, I still feel like the money was well spent.

For $30/month, I’d want access to every major publisher’s catalog, even if I read only a book a month.

The other startup, Oyster, supposedly offers an unlimited model. As far as I can tell, they don’t have subscription information posted. You can “request an invitation.” Also, it seems to be an iPhone only app. With the iPhone’s steadily declining market share, I can’t figure out why people are still doing that.

I have my doubts as to whether it will succeed. The doubts aren’t related to the app. The whole experience might be wonderful. It’s just that nobody in publishing seems to like the Netflix/Spotify model, because the authors wouldn’t make enough from it. That’s probably true.

Musicians don’t make a lot of royalties from recordings, and by the time movies and TV shows make it to Netflix, they’ve probably earned most of what they’d earn in direct sales.

With an unlimited stream of ebooks, readers would be doing well as long as the available books had enough worthwhile stuff to justify the nominal price. Authors, not so much.

Without access to the publishers who publish most of the books people read, the monthly fee would have to be very small to make it worthwhile. With access to those books, the price would be higher than most people would be willing to pay.

So while I’d be happy to pay a nominal fee every month for unlimited access to a large library of current ebooks, I just don’t see it happening anytime soon.



  1. Funny that this article is posted the same day as the announcement of a netflix like service for ebooks:

    Bad timing for the premise of the article.

    • actually oyster is mentioned in th AL piece and is sort of the point that it is not what the headlines claim it to be.
      If amazon expands (by orders of magnitude) the books available for no additional fee to prime members that is a lot closer to being, what is feared by some libraries.

    • Annoyed Librarian says:

      I would be pleasantly surprised if either of these new services provided anywhere near the value of Netflix or Spotify, and if they last 5 years. If my prediction here is wrong, everyone benefits, including me.

  2. Note that Oyster’s price point is $10/month, and they have a deal with HarperCollins.

    • Cut Both Ways says:

      I can’t wait to see how Oyster shores up all of the publishers that Overdrive and public libraries have been struggling to court and make bend their policies. Will “friction” become a thing of the past as new competition holds sway?

    • I’m trying Oyster out, just to see. It’s a much better looking freading, with slightly “better” titles. I have been impressed with how seamless it is. But I don’t think it will last if it stays on iphones only. $10/month is super affordable, and I didn’t have any trouble finding books I wanted to read.

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