Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Everything I need to know about bookselling I learned from iTunes

iTunes logo


…but I should probably take some cues from Netflix and Hulu, as well.

For people in the publishing world, it’s easy to be scared of the digital revolution. We saw what happened to the music industry because of the MP3, and we’re watching it happen to movies.

At the same time, though, I’m often optimistic about word publishing’s prospects in the digital age. Since we watched it happen to them first, when the tidal wave comes for us we’ll already be wearing water wingies, right? We saw that people want to buy digital formats and, in many ways, we’re ahead of demand with the availability of ereaders, tablets, and digital content. Rather than succumb to landlubber pirates, we took a cue from Apple’s book and offered the people what they want at a cost that can support us (in theory).

And music isn’t really dead, either, just different. As Dan Seitz said in an UPRoxx post,

What’s brought the music industry down was not pirates, although Napster helped in a way. It was nothing more or less than the culmination of some painful economic karma that was richly deserved, and one company, Apple, seeing a weakness in an entire industry and striking like a cobra. 

"Bring out your dead" scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail


Er… so maybe the music biz is a little unhealthy. But still. It’s not dead.

Arguably, the MP3 has given rise to a new life for music: it’s now easier than ever to access and share music. When the MP3 arrived on the scene, people were excited. Rather than shell out big bucks for a whole album, or $5.99 to get the single at Sam Goody, we could get just the song we wanted (’cause tracks five through eight were usually a letdown anyway). And Apple generously allowed us to do so legally. We can even buy TV shows by episode.

iTunes taught us that people want to buy things in wee chunks. So not only are we selling ebooks in online stores before ebooks become the dominant format of the book market, we’re making teacher proud and selling smaller ebooks, too: we have Nook Snaps, Kindle, and a host of other such services (please comment and add links if you know of any good ones); we’re even seeing a return to serialized content.

The problem? iTunes isn’t the only game in town when it comes to getting music and movies online. If we’re really going to learn by example, we can’t just pay attention to iTunes; we also have to pay attention to the companies that are doing it differently, like Pandora, Rhapsody, Netflix, and Hulu.

These companies aren’t selling us stuff to own. We’re over ownership. We like streaming. They’re selling us subscriptions to access stuff that they own. It’s just like it’s ours, because we can watch it whenever the heck we want.

Is there a market for subscription services for ebooks? Like paid ebook lending libraries or membership services? If there isn’t demand for such a service now, will there be one?

Muze is one site that’s already trying it, coupling unlimited ebooks with social reading for a monthly fee. If publishers themselves were to get on board with subscriptions, it might be a way to avoid crippling losses as people switch to a newer buying model. There were reports Macmillan was to launch an ebook subscription service last month, albeit only in the UK. Where art thou, Afictionado?

And I know, Amazon did a bad, bad thing with the Kindle Lending Library. But for the right price, it doesn’t have to be all bad for publishers. Especially not if they’re the ones doing the lending.

Personally, I’m not sure I would ever subscribe to a book service. For one thing, subscription services offer a limited selection based on what content it owns rights to, and therefore you have to pick and choose which service is best suited to your taste. Sometimes a service only offers one song for a particular artist, and especially in reading I wouldn’t want to be limited that way.

Still, I think it’s important to pay attention to what people are buying anymore when it comes to media. When it comes to music and movies, we’re not buying them anymore—we’re buying access.

Would you consider a subscription to a digital book or magazine service? What would the company need to offer to justify your monthly payments?

One comment on “Everything I need to know about bookselling I learned from iTunes

  1. Pingback: What’s the cost of credibility? « appazoogle

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This entry was posted on February 29, 2012 by in Culture, Opinion and tagged , , , , .

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