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The Big 6 & Netflix

(Update: As of 9/12/11, the Netflix for books business idea I proposed in this article is now in development, but instead of the Big 6 jumping on it, Amazon has jumped on it.)

Why aren’t The Big 6 (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House and Simon & Schuster) acting like Netflix?

Netflix offers an ever-expanding library of movies and television shows that you can either rent with hardcopy DVDs through the mail or through the internet in what is called “streaming.”

By paying a monthly subscription of less than $10/month, I can stream movies on my television at home or on an iPhone or iPad anywhere with internet access at anytime.

Why can’t I do this with books? Why aren’t The Big 6 offering subscriptions to their backlists — the largest backlists in the world of publishing — for a small monthly fee? 

HarperCollins made a huge blunder recently when it decided they would allow libraries to lend out an ebook only 26 times before the library had to purchase that ebook again (read about it here). Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. Libraries are a HUGE part of the publishing business and telling them to spend even MORE on a title that they’ve already bought is just plain ridiculous.

Yes, a standard book would get dogeared and well-used after a high number of rentals and the library would need to buy another copy. Maybe 26 is a magic average number for that occurrence (though it seems to me that since average library rentals are two weeks long that HarperCollins just wants libraries to buy an ebook once every 52 weeks), but ebooks are NOT standard books. They never tear. They never turn yellow when left in the sun. Their spines don’t break. No one can spill coffee on them. They don’t get dogeared. So, it’s not fair to charge libraries for a new copy of something that’s not in need of replacement.

But if HarperCollins starts acting like Netflix, there would be no problem.

If the libraries had a monthly subscription to HarperCollins, they could access any ebook at anytime. They could lend them out to people who don’t have the subscription service anywhere and anytime. In fact, HarperCollins could put ads in the beginning and ending of each ebook with direct links to their subscription site. If readers have a good time reading that book, they may want instant access to more HarperCollins titles. Make it easy to subscribe.

Also, they could make it easy to buy that ebook if the reader likes it. That is something that Netflix does not offer which The Big 6 could. Once someone reads an ebook, or is in the middle of reading and they realize they want to own this ebook, the publisher’s retail site is just a single click away. Make your purchase. It’s sent directly to your reading device and continue reading. Piece of cake.

And if that’s the case, who needs Amazon?

Of course, a subscription business model would change everything about how money is made in the publishing business. No easy feat.

The majority of money is made with hardcover books and opening “blockbuster” weekend sales, which are based on previous sales of the author or on the guess that the book will be a big hit. It’s gambling and publishers try to hedge their bets by putting money on authors who have hit jackpot in the past. It totally makes sense.

But with a subscription model, blockbuster weekends become less important. What’s important is maintaining a higher and higher number of subscribers by constantly creating a larger and larger library of quality titles to chose from. Easier access to the books I want. Better experience as a reader and as a shopper through my ereading device.

Publishers would still get behind a few titles in order to push their big moneymakers but that push could come AFTER readers have responded to particular books. If something goes viral, you can track it. Publishers won’t have to guess at what makes and breaks their business. They can simply have it ALL available and push certain titles once readership has responded.

The sad part of going this direction is the impact it would have on libraries.

Yes, libraries would have fewer ebooks to purchase because they would have access to ALL of them. But, if I can have a subscription to The Big 6, my need for the library’s services go down.

I would still need libraries for research, for a quiet place to read and to have access to titles by smaller publishers who I don’t subscribe to (because their libraries aren’t big enough of the stuff I read to afford the cost), but other than that I don’t know why I would go there.

Especially if there is an e-library which is even more like Netflix which has access to all ebooks by ALL of the Big 6 and small publishers. This e-library would lend out ebooks two weeks at a time to my ereader and it would earn affiliate cash for each ebook or subscription purchase I made by clicking on a link in a lent ebook.

Maybe that’s what Amazon will become (and they’ll be earning a heck of a lot more than affiliate cash because they will an affiliate to their own retail site) if The Big 6 don’t do it first.

Marvel is starting a subscription service, right now. I’m curious to see how it goes. I think it’ll have trouble until ereaders that are capable of showcasing comics properly or comics that are made for ereaders specifically become standard (not a problem for text-based ebooks), but we’ll see.

Categories: Blog, Comics & ePublishing
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