Spotify for Books?

When going through the blogs I read to keep up with my professional field, I ran across a post by Andy Woodworth of Agnostic Maybe, which linked to this post by Tim Carmody and asked: Would you pay $100 a month for instant access to every book on any device? There was quite a discussion in the comments to Carmody’s post in which talk of a tiered pricing system à la Spotify quickly cropped up. Spotify is a European streaming music service where you can choose from three different subscription models: Open, Unlimited and Premium. Open is free, but you only get 20 hours of listening time per month and you can only listen to a particular song a limited number of times and in addition there are ads interspersed. Unlimited is what it says on the tin: for €5.- a month you get unlimited access to all the music without any ads. Premium, which is priced at €10.- a month, gives the same services as Unlimited and you are able to stream music to your smartphone or iPod and store songs locally for offline use. Of course as soon as you stop subscribing to the service, you lose access to the locally stored songs.

The post got me wondering whether I’d go for such a proposition. I don’t have a dedicated ereader, because a) I’m still quite attached to my printed books and b) I want to wait until the format war has been settled (I’m rooting for DRM-free epub). So I’d either have to read from my iPhone or go ahead and take the jump for an ereader. But that’s just the first problem that sprung to mind. Another one was that I like to own my books. I take pride in my collection and am a rereader, especially of books I really love. If I were to subscribe to a Spotify-like service for books, that means that if I’d stop my subscription, I’d lose all the books I’ve downloaded to read. And that’s a really, really big point against such a system for me.

In addition, I have a few less technical arguments against the ‘Spotify for books’-principle. First and most importantly, instant, universal digital access to whatever has been printed ever might be amazing on paper (hah!), but realistically how many are you going to read? Right now, I’m reading about two books a week and that’s me reading at top speed and very focused and no unexpected things coming between me and my reading time. So that makes for about eight books a month in a good month. These months are usually rare, I’m lucky I’ve managed two of them consecutively, but only because I was home from work ill in one month and we had a couple days of in the next. And eight books don’t cost $100, at least not when you buy them from the Book Depository. So it’s not really cost effective, at least not for me. And, on a more professional level for me, what would such a system mean for libraries? Granted, I’m an academic librarian and a lot of the materials our patrons use are e-journals and such, but would journals be included in this system? And if so, where would that leave us? If our patrons were to subscribe to such a service, they wouldn’t need us to supply their materials anymore, so where would that leave us? Granted, there won’t be a lot of students that can afford a $100 a month subscription, so it isn’t as dire as all that, but what if prices are lower than that? Would publishers raise their library rates to make up for lessened income on the regular public’s side?

Apart from the cool-factor of having everything ever published at your fingertips, there are a few points in its favour for me. First of all, there’s the backlist opportunity; right now there are several authors I’ve just discovered that have a pretty big backlist. I’d love to go back and read all those books, but I can’t afford to both buy those backlists and to buy the ‘new’ books I want to read. The library here isn’t an option, because they have a limited English language section and the SFF section within that isn’t very big, so the chances of me being able to find the books I want there are slim. So nine out of ten times, when I get to buy new books, I end up giving those newer books preference over buying those backlists and sometimes those back listed books aren’t even in print anymore. But if I were to subscribe to this Spotify-esque service, then I’d be able to have instant access to those backlists the moment I finish a book from a new-to-me author, whose backlist I want to read and the chances of me actually getting to read said backlist would increase enormously. A second point in favour of this idea would be of a more educational nature. Imagine being able to research whatever you want and being able to chase down any book about your chosen subject without having to arrange interlibrary loans or finding out-of-print works second hand? I could happily get lost tracking stuff down!

In all, I guess that this deal just wouldn’t be for me, I don’t see myself subscribing to something which leases me books, inherently meaning that I could lose them due to external influences, instead of selling them to me. But what about you? Would this be a proposition you’d be willing to pay for?


1 thought on “Spotify for Books?”

  1. I feel this would be less effective for books than music for a number of reasons, among which is the length of time it takes to read a single book (and how intensely it varies from reader to reader). Furthermore, music is often an “additional” act – we add music to the background of other work rather than giving it centre stage, making it more necessary to have easy access. Reading receives our full and focused attention. It requires a very different mindset.

    Would I like to see out-of-print backlist titles online? Yes. In fact, this has me thinking just how much I'd like to see that happen. But I would never pay for a service of this kind (even if it was cheaper) because reading isn't consistent. I might want to read an eBook today and a print book tomorrow. I might want to read slowly then quickly and then maybe the book I really want to read isn't offered and… An idea like this would need a very different approach to reading and studying than what we currently have in place, but I don't believe the current system is all that flawed. Not yet to this degree, anyways…

    Very interesting topic.

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