Why the idea of a Netflix for e-books makes sense

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According to several reports, including one from the Wall Street Journal quoting several unnamed people “familiar with the matter,” Amazon is considering launching a Netflix-style subscription service in which users would pay a monthly fee for access to a virtual library of e-books. Although publishers don’t seem overly enthusiastic about the idea, it feels like the kind of thing whose time has come — in many ways, the book as we know it has already evolved to the point where it’s more like renting a movie than buying something to treasure forever. The kind of service Amazon is allegedly planning seems like a natural extension of that transition.

When the news of Amazon’s plan hit the web on Monday, a number of observers quickly noted that paying a monthly fee for access to a collection of books sounds a lot like something we already have — namely, a public library. So why wouldn’t people just go to the library instead of signing up with Amazon? The most obvious answer is: For the same reason millions of people have signed up for Netflix when they could just as easily have driven down to the local Blockbuster and rented a movie (an analogy that doesn’t bode well for libraries, since Blockbuster wound up going bankrupt).

Netflix obviously offers something more valuable than simply access to TV shows and movies. For most people, it’s a combination of convenience, low prices and electronic delivery. That kind of combination would theoretically work pretty well in Amazon’s favor for books too, especially since many people already have Amazon accounts, and the company already has relationships (although they may be somewhat strained in many cases) with the major publishing houses.

Do you care whether you own the book or not?

A simple monthly fee tacked onto your existing Amazon account, and you get access to thousands of books; that might appeal to many readers who no longer care whether they own the books or not. Offering this kind of service would also give Amazon a jump on Google, which has been fighting with publishers over the rights to scan and digitize books, as well as trying to sign up publishers to distribute their books through Google Books (although it doesn’t seem to have much traction on either front).

But do people really want to subscribe to books — in effect, renting them instead of buying them? For virtually their entire history, books have been artifacts that people tend to collect and keep forever, put on shelves and so on. The advent of the mass-market paperback started to erode that, however, and the e-book has arguably continued the process by transforming the idea of what we call a “book” into something much more transient.

Authors such as Amanda Hocking have become wealthy by publishing e-books that sell for as little as 99 cents — coincidentally, the exact same amount iTunes sells songs for. In some cases, e-books are more like long magazine articles than books, and some publications like ProPublica have even started offering them for free as a way of marketing their other content.

Let’s face it — you don’t really own the book anyway

So if services like Spotify and Rdio can work for music consumption — which advocates like Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson argue is moving gradually to streaming-only via the cloud — why not a cloud-based subscription option for books too? It’s true that books are somewhat different from music, in the sense that most people don’t read the same books over and over, but the theory still makes sense.

You could even argue that with many e-books, a rental model fits what people already get when they buy one. Not only can retailers like Amazon delete a book remotely — as the company infamously did in 2009, removing copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from users’ Kindles — but e-book sellers also place all kinds of restrictions on what users can do with their books. Many don’t allow users to lend their books to others, or restrict loans (even for libraries) to a certain number. A subscription model would make it more obvious that you don’t really own the book.

As for the publishers themselves, while they may not like the idea of submitting even further to Amazon’s dominance in the e-book world, they would probably be better off playing ball with the company in return for access to its user base — as Tim Carmody argues at Wired — in much the same way that publishers of newspapers and magazines jumped into bed with Apple in return for access to the iPhone and iPad. An Amazon “iTunes for books” would theoretically allow them to make some money from their older titles, and Amazon would handle all of the billing.

The idea of Amazon competing with the local public library may not seem like such a great concept, especially if you like libraries, but all the company seems to be trying to do is come up with a service that is similar to something we are already familiar with — but which takes advantage of digital formats and mobile devices (including the Amazon tablet that is rumored to be in the wings) and the different ways in which we consume content now. That seems pretty smart.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Marya

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