Wired, and Thoughts on Amazon and the ebook Subscription Question

Just to add a few more thoughts from last time on Amazon’s purported plan to create its own digital library service (see also: The Use-Value of eBooks: Rent or Buy eBooks?), check out an excellent analysis, courtesy of Wired: “Book Publishers Should Be Wary of Amazon’s Subscription Plans

“Amazon has told publishers it is considering creating a digital-book library featuring older titles… Amazon would offer book publishers a substantial fee for participating in the program, people familiar with the proposal said. Some of these people said that Amazon would limit the amount of books that Amazon Prime customers could read for free every month.”

Naturally, there are many realistic possible reasons why such an ebook subscription plan might not work (“The service doesn’t get traction with customers, for whatever reason — bad implementation, the catalog is too small/big or poor-quality, readers would rather own than rent — and it crashes and burns.”) But, there is certainly a good chance this could succeed, and be the so-called “Netflix for ebooks.”

As an industry, the book industry is a much different one than TV or movies. So using Netflix or Hulu or iTunes as an example is a bit of trying to compare apples:

“Book publishing is infinitely more fragmented and conflicted than any other media industry. It’s bigger than you probably think — in 2010, 1,963 publishers generated net revenue of $27.9 billion — and it’s growing, both in revenue and number of books sold.But it’s all over the map. Textbooks and genre fiction don’t have a whole lot to do with each other. Neither do giant megacorporations and vital little indies. Within each of these markets, authors, editors, agents, publishers, boards, large purchasers like libraries and school districts, retailers and reviewers all have substantial power, creating layers of competing but intricately connected interests that each need to be satisfied. This creates are all sorts of coordination and marketing problems that tend to thwart omnibus solutions.”

And, add to that the further possible complication of just how large a presence Amazon looms over the ebook industry —

“Amazon already has more power over every aspect of the book publishing business than Apple ever had with music or Netflix has now with anyone. Publishers are naturally wary of doing anything that ties their business more closely to Amazon’s and further alienates or marginalizes their competitors.”

On the other hand, finding a new and potentially profitable aftermarket for back catalog titles is more than reason enough for book publishers to be torn on the course of action. Hence the conundrum. And keep in mind, there are many, many books that are still not in ebook form. Because, publishers have to wonder, but up until this point there has not been a compelling answer to the question: is it worth it to digitize all of the old titles?

“Without a clear market strategy for those books, it isn’t worthwhile for anyone else to transform them from print to digital. And so far, only Google has really had one. The print book market may live on the long tail; for e-books, that tail is a lot thinner, and the curve is much more steep.”

Lots of lingering questions on this. I’m intensely interested to see how it all plays out. Two predictions worth keeping an eye on, courtesy of Wired’s article:

  • “Whether they buy into Amazon’s proposal or not, publishers will be spurred to take a harder look at their existing catalogs and figure out how they can make them available digitally. This could be through sales or subscription, through Amazon or some other portal.”
  • “Whether it can convince major publishers on the right price or not, Amazon will find some way to make inexpensive, high-quality reading content available for free to every Amazon Prime subscriber and everyone who buys one of its new tablets. This, plus the video catalog, will become one of the major selling points of the device and differentiate it from Apple, Google or Barnes & Noble.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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