Should you clear your shelves for the ‘Netflix of books’?

It seems obvious that you should be able to borrow books online, but this evolution is not without its worries

Shelf life: percentages of ebook sales can be healthy for authors, but a  monthly subscription will be spread thinly. Photograph: Hemera/Getty Images

Shelf life: percentages of ebook sales can be healthy for authors, but a monthly subscription will be spread thinly. Photograph: Hemera/Getty Images

Sat, Sep 21, 2013, 01:00

It is an obvious sales line, a high-concept pitch that seems almost ready made. It belongs, for now, to a new start-up, Oyster. It is being touted as the Netflix for books. If it works, or encourages the bigger animals that theirs will work, it’ll be the next evolution in technology’s attempt to turn your shelves into wordless plains.

Oyster’s guiding belief is that iPhone-owning readers will be willing to pay a monthly subscription for which they will get unlimited reading. They won’t own the books, but they’ll have all they can eat for less than $10 (about €7) a month. It is, in other words, a library that you don’t have to visit but that you do have to pay for.

As it happens, the all-you-can-read aspect isn’t quite as tasty as it sounds, because it is limited to about 100,000 titles for now. That’s not a bad limit, admittedly, but its main selling point isn’t what it stocks but who has agreed to supply it.

HarperCollins, one of the major publishing houses, is on board. It is allowing only older titles and classics to be stocked, but it’s still seen as something of an evolution for the book industry’s move towards digital and a chief reason that Oyster’s arrival is being greeted as a potential gamechanger.

Could it be? Netflix has been one, first for movies and now for television. Spotify has tipped music consumption on its head. In books, the Kindle has already shown how quickly a practical, portable device can alter the habits of even a dedicated print reader.

Who would have thought that a lifetime’s habit of buying a book, reading it (or not) and then sticking it on the shelf as a decorative feature could be junked with one Christmas present you weren’t even sure you wanted in the first place?

Oyster is borrowing some tricks from Netflix and Spotify. It will recommend books based on your previous reading and allow you to cross-reference with what your friends are reading – or to keep your settings private in case you don’t want people to know that you’re enjoying an erotic tale of the supernatural while trying to remain composed on the morning commute.

(The biggest boost for electronic reading came with Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that millions wanted to read but nobody wanted to be caught reading.)


Modern force
Oyster’s future could go in many ways. Success may see it establish itself as a force in modern book-buying – or it might encourage Amazon, Apple and Google to march through with their own plans.

Borrowing a book online isn’t an entirely novel idea. Amazon already does it for textbooks, and it allows you to lend a Kindle book to a friend for 14 days with the welcome advantage of knowing that you will see that book again.

In Ireland there are innovations too. Viewers of last weekend’s Rehab People of the Year Awards were taken with the 10-year-old author Joe Prendergast, who already has two novels in his trilogy, The Great Fragola Brothers, published (the proceeds of which go to St Vincent’s University Hospital, in Dublin). The books are as impressive as the young man who wrote them. His publisher, Emu Ink, also allows readers to rent its books.

The publisher points out that authors will get 70 per cent of the rental price of €2.99. That’s a good deal, given modern problems when it comes to paying the creatives behind the content.

Spotify has become notorious for its measly royalty cheques. Here’s just one of many examples: Sam Duckworth, of the band Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, has written about how “4,685 Spotify plays of my last solo album equated to £19.22 (that’s 0.004p per album stream). Equivalent to me selling two albums at a show”.

Netflix engaged with studios in huge licensing deals that were considered overpriced by some analysts, and that collapsed in other cases, so earlier this year MGM and Universal pulled 1,800 titles from the service.

Netflix’s big move has been to make its own shows, such as House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, so that it gains ownership, control, kudos and subscriptions. There is a certain equivalent with Amazon’s moves into publishing, although Netflix trumps it for scale and impact.

Right now, percentages of ebook sales can be healthy for authors, but a $10 monthly subscription will be spread thinly. It will be worth watching to see whether it leads authors to more readers but fewer royalties, and if the Netflix for books ultimately becomes the Spotify for books.

shegarty@irishtimes.com
@shanehegarty

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