Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Who Wants to Own Books?

Do we really want to own books? Do institutions really want to own books? I am a bit agnostic about the first question, but I suspect that on the second question the answer is more clear cut. For quite a lot of reasons (but not because they might want to sell them) institutional libraries really do want to own the books they have. They want to be able to keep them for as long as they might need them (and a bit longer) and they want to be able to do things with them that they and their users have not yet thought about. They want ownership in the round.

These thoughts are prompted by the comment of a friend who is rather taken with the Spotify music service, which streams you as much music as you can listen to, but does it all on the fly. My friend is rather relieved no longer to be carrying his gigabytes of digital music and thinks that something similar may be on the cards for books.

Suppose that you could have access to pretty well everything ever published, but you did not actually own any of it? This new service (call it Yangtse Book Search or Facebook Library) would allow you to sample everything in its purview (search and browse access) but the full reading rights would be gently rationed. Leave on one side, for a moment how that deal would be negotiated with the authors and publishers: but look at the matter as a consumer. Would you be willing to pay $9.99 a month which gets you reading access to five books a month, and $19.99 a month which get you reading access to thirty books a month (US or UK market only -- not world literature in original languages)? Once you have selected books for your choice in that month they remain open to you for an agreed period. A slew of specialist technical and professional books will be outside the catchment zone. They would cost extra. Household or family access via the cable channel? No problem $29.99 a month for the 30 book offering.

I don't know about you, but I would be mostly content with access to that digital library, and with enough subscribers it would pay the necessary royalties to authors, agents and publishers (no doubt mostly usage based). But libraries would not be very happy with such a scheme. Libraries want to own books, and they want to own books which readers may never consult. Or hardly ever.

If persistent search but intermittent reading, is the future of our individual enjoyment of books, widely shared but not owned, it would seem to me that the Google Books Settlement has got things upside down. In the Settlement Google envisages delivering annual licenses to libraries for large collections of books (collections with shifting contents) but individuals will be able to buy 'life time' access (quasi ownership) to individual titles. The assymmetry in the settlement between the market for individuals and for libraries is striking, and not really explained or justified, but it may be completely the wrong way round. Perhaps Google should go back to the negotiating table with the Books Rights Registry and strike a different deal? Or is that a complementary proposition that the BRR should offer to a Google competitor? The competing service would have the franchise to sell 'term of copyright' licenses to libraries for particular titles and short term access rights to individuals. That should introduce some competition which could help to mitigate the monopoly charge.


Anonymous said...

I have started reading a lot of books online, or I download them to my PC. I Guess I could by a eBook reader, but I have been able to drop the books on my smart phone, although the screen is smaller, it is very convenient. I have recently come across a site that has a lot of books that I have downloaded, and enjoyed. kirtasbooks.com. They digitize the book when you order it, which I find to be convenient. I understand they are adding 200,000 books in the near future.

Anonymous said...

A Netflix model would be perfect. Monthly fee for access to giant library. Instant online access to any/all. Ann 10 (or N) books at any time downloaded on my local devices(s)

Publishers get paid based on initial "stocking" fee, with per access/per download amounts and bumps for tiered levels of concurrent usage.

moz said...

If I could get every book ever published on subscription then maybe I'd pay an extra $5 or $10/mo on top of the device rental, but the device would need to be very cheap and work exceptionally well, and come from a company with an exceptionally good reputation - Rolls Royce rather than Amazon, for instance, with their reputation for supporting old products until demand goes away. Devices like the Kindle or Sony PRS would not cut it, I'd want more screen area and longer battery life. And the idea that I'm buying a subscription from someone like Amazon where the T&C are likely to change every year or two and the device is unlikely to last more than a year... just doesn't work for me.

Because the day I walked past a bookshop and a new release wasn't available on the device would be the day I dumped it. The only point of a subscription that I have to pay every month whether I have time to read or not, is that anything I want to read is right there when I want it. And could I just say, good luck with Mrs Heinlein on that one.

The alternative is simply to sell the content in a reasonably portable format and let me worry about the details. The current ExactEditions system is kinda bearable (I subscribe to VeloVision, AtoB and a couple of others), but I'd much prefer something other than pdf as a download for the text parts of the magazine - TPM is especially bad, it's very text-heavy and I'd like to read it on my PRS505 but that just does not work. I'd much prefer to be able to read it on my phone, my laptop, my liseuse, even my fridge if that happens to have a screen.