Weekend Tech Blog: Amazon to offer a sort of Netflix for book lovers?

Amazon's rumored efforts to start an "all you can eat" monthly subscription service for ebooks may be another weapon in the Seattle-based company's ongoing battles with traditional bookselling and book publishing.

Amazon's rumored efforts to start an "all you can eat" monthly subscription service for ebooks may be another weapon in the Seattle-based company's ongoing battles with traditional bookselling and book publishing.

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon.com was in discussion with book publishers about launching an “all-you-can-eat” digital book service, in which people would pay a monthly subscription to read books.  Call it the Netflix effect on bookselling.

The story didn’t go unnoticed, especially by people in the public library sector, who saw it as yet another step in the continuing battle between the traditional book world and Amazon: Seattle’s uber-powerful media colossus.

It also made the director of the King County Library System, Bill Ptacek, wonder anew why good neighbor Amazon in South Lake Union won’t even pick up the phone and talk to the nation’s top public library system, whose offices are just a few miles away in Issaquah.

According to the Journal report, customers would pay an annual fee, and the book selection would be open to older titles and not to the more profitable newer titles.  The story adds that the content would be available to consumers who are Amazon Prime customers who pay Amazon $79 a year for expanded services, including free 2-day shipping and free online access to a wide variety of older movies and TV shows (e.g., “Notting Hill” with Julia Roberts; the original “Twilight Zone”).

Such a service, some speculate, would be an added inducement for people to buy a much-rumored Kindle tablet from Amazon — so often written about that it has been the subject of online mockups despite the reality that Amazon has not even confirmed its existence. It’s not clear whether any publisher has signed on, or whether Amazon Prime customers would have limitations to the numbers of books that could be read in a month.

In a phone interview with Crosscut, Ptacek confirmed that Amazon would have a difficult time getting publishers to sign, especially since the company “hasn’t been exactly endearing itself to the publishers,” he noted.  “There’s talk that Amazon will have a rough time getting publishers to buy into this [concept],” he said. 

The King County Library, according to the Library Journal, is the nation’s busiest library system with more than 22.4 million items in circulation. Ptacek would love the library system to be working together with Amazon because “we feel its important that libraries should circulate these books.” While several other ebook readers, including Barnes & Nobles’ Nook and the Sony reader, are compatible with library-circulated ebooks, Amazon’s Kindle reader is not. “They were going to announce [a library linkup] this month," Ptacek added, but it did not happen.  “Our suspicion is that they will make it a download to the new [Kindle tablet]."

“We’ve been trying for years to meet with them, to circulate their books but they’re not very friendly,” he added.  “It’s been difficult to make connections with them.”

It’s not as though libraries are getting their books for free, he noted.  “We’re willing to pay.  Publishers are coming around to the point that it’s good to work with libraries.  We’re good for their business.  You as a civilian can buy more from the publishers than we can.”

The library has been in head-to-head ebook competition with Amazon for some time, Ptacek noted.  Ebook borrowing by library users is up 30 percent over 2010, with ebooks borrowing anywhere between 150,000 to 200,000 digital volumes. The library system sees ebooks as an additional book outlet, not the print-book killer that some may think. “We’re not seeing a diminished interest [in print books],” he added, “but we don’t buy as many printed reference books.  Electronic resources are better for that.”

Crosscut asked Amazon for a response to this story; none had been received at the time of writing.

Publishers have been nervous for quite some time about Amazon going into the publishing business: hiring authors and marketing directly to the public and bypassing traditional publishing houses altogether. A recent Publishers Weekly article outlined how Amazon may now be competing with literary magazines like The New Yorker in addition to its ongoing battles with book publishers by contracting writers to write short fiction and see their work published and purchased exclusively as Kindle ebooks through the Amazon website.  Writer Tom Rachman (“The Impressionists”) is apparently the first novelist to take the plunge: his short story, “The Bathtub Spy” is on sale as a Kindle Single for $1.99.

Amazon is already a haven for self-published books

Now there is even a further wrinkle in Amazon’s continuing plans to lure more people into its ebook tent: a service quietly introduced a few weeks ago called “@author,” which uses Twitter to allow Kindle ebook readers to ask an author a question while actually reading a book on a Kindle device. It is part of Amazon’s efforts to mine the social media for more ways to connect readers both with books and with each other.

The ongoing turmoil in the book business, typified by Amazon, is part of the general movement of all content to the Internet — movies, TV, music, books — and that suggests this trend is logical and viable. Content owners who have dug in their heels resisting this societal change are finding ways to make it work for them. The “TV everywhere” initiative , for example — letting you watch your favorite TV shows on virtually any mobile media but forcing you to maintain your cable subscription in order to get this added service — is gradually reshaping the definition of TV itself.

For a thoughtful piece on this industry transition, this blog from CNET’s Stephen Shankland  hits all the right notes. But then there's a different angle that some of us are thinking about: more about the society we live in, rather than the technology we use. 

There’s little doubt that the digital revolution offers all of us a far greater ability to fulfill our curiosity about our world. More of us are turning to tablets, smartphones and similar devices because we’ve grown accustomed to having the world at our fingertips. If you, like I, have fallen in love with those little gadgets that are our eyes and ears to the bounty of human knowledge, you know what I’m taking about. Try to imagine what life would be like without them. I really would rather not.

No longer is it a valuable argument to say, “Well, if you didn’t waste your time on those gadgets, you’d have time to read a book!” The reality is that many of us read more books because we can carry them with us all the time.

What is being lost, however, is a piece of our society that we’re missing terribly and haven’t yet come to realize what its loss means. 

I’m talking about the loss of gathering places: the record stores, book stores, libraries and movie theaters, among others, where people met in person to see what’s new, to learn from one another, to see all their choices and come closer to each other even if it’s something as ephemeral seeing someone pulling a book off a shelf and wondering what they’re looking at.

This isn’t a reminiscence of the old days although, on one hand, it certainly qualifies as that. But it does raise the question, at least in my mind, about what portion of our society, our culture, our well-being, we could be giving up with this shift toward individual experiences and away from the common face-to-face, person-to-person sharing of humanity.


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