Details are slim, but on Monday the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon.com is in talks with book publishers "about launching a Netflix Inc.-like service for digital books, in which customers would pay an annual fee to access a library of content." The Amazon service could offer an all-you-can-read model, or a rate-limited model that includes a certain number of books per month.
If it's true, and if such a service comes to be, it'll be the latest in a growing trend towards what Ron J. Williams calls the "access economy", which emphasizes access to products and services over ownership.
The idea of paying a flat fee for all-you-can-eat media is nothing new. Just look at the rapid growth of Netflix, which gained almost one million subscribers during its first 10 months in Canada. Or look at the growing geographic footprint and popularity of subscription-based music services like Spotify and Rdio. Given our increasing appetite for e-books (which outsold both paperbacks and hardcovers for the first time this past February), the written word is a logical next step in the march towards a subscription-based post-scarcity media landscape.
If Amazon does launch a digital book rental service, it won't be the first. Booksfree.com has been around for more than a decade, and ships physical books to subscribers through the mail. Or there's 24symbols, which sells premium e-book subscriptions that can be read online or via a mobile application. In the education space, five of the largest academic publishers in North America have teamed up to create an e-textbook rental service called CourseSmart.
'They've got the credit card accounts. They've got the customers. They've got the devices. If anyone is in a position to do it, and to do it well, Amazon would be the one.' —Tim Carmody, book-futurist
But according to Wired.com staff writer and book-futurist Tim Carmody, Amazon is uniquely positioned in this space: "They've got the credit card accounts. They've got the customers. They've got the devices. If anyone is in a position to do it, and to do it well, Amazon would be the one to do it."
A big factor here is Amazon's existing business selling its Kindle e-reader. In fact, reports of a possible Amazon book subscription service dovetail nicely with rumours about the next-generation Kindle, which TechCrunch's MG Siegler reports will be a $250 7-inch touchscreen tablet running a highly customized version of Google's Android operating system. The device is also reported to have tight integration with Amazon's existing App Store and video and music streaming services.
It's worth noting that with its video streaming service, Amazon has already dipped its toe into the world of content subscriptions. Earlier this year, it launched Amazon Instant Video, a U.S.-only Netflix competitor that streams movies and TV shows.
Buy or borrow
It's also worth noting that there's another very prominent all-you-can-read book and e-book service out there, and I'm already a member (you probably are, too). It's called "the library."
'Publishers can be resistant to change, and a mass-market subscription model would represent a very big change in the way books get to consumers.'
Many Canadian libraries offer e-books, and though they may self-destruct, they cost nothing to borrow. Over at The Guardian's Books Blog, Sarah Crown wonders what Amazon's possible e-book rental service could mean for libraries: "If you can 'borrow' the ebook instantly from your living room, why would you bother schlepping into town to pick it up in person? It's a super-smart move on the part of [Amazon], but the real-world fallout could be extensive."
I'm not so sure about that. Libraries are much more than publicly-funded e-book repositories. But even if that's all they were, your local public library could have a better selection of e-book titles than an Amazon service at launch, which would likely focus on older, back-catalogue titles.
It'll all depend on the deals Amazon can (or can't) make with publishers.
According to the Wall Street Journal's report, "Amazon would offer book publishers a substantial fee for participating in the program." Indeed, Amazon's existing relationships with publishers could work to its advantage when setting up this kind of service.
But publishers can be resistant to change, and a mass-market subscription model would represent a very big change in the way books get to consumers. Tim Carmody says publishers are skeptical: "They have no idea how to price access to a service like this. And also because Amazon already exerts so much power over the publishing industry, between print books and e-books, that all of the publishers are really wary of making themselves even more entangled than they already are with Amazon."
For me, the most interesting part of such a book service is the effect it could have on the way we read.
In my own personal experience, flat-fee digital subscription options tend to lubricate the wheels of media consumption. As a paid subscriber to Rdio, I listen to way more new music than I would if I had to pay per song or album. After my parents and in-laws signed up for Netflix, both households reported watching more movies than with the a-la-carte options of the video store or their cable companies' video-on-demand services.
Part of me wonders if an all-you-can-read book rental subscription would encourage me to read more, or try out new kinds of books I mightn't otherwise.