At bottom all this talk about possible subscription models for signing up to a list of books — stimulated in large part by the music business and occasionally referred to as Spotify or Netflix for books — is describing nothing more than the book club reborn. True, with Book-of-the-Month-Club you didn’t pay for the book till you got it, but there’s no reason a book club can’t charge an annual membership fee and supply (printed) books throughout the year. New York Review Books runs one such club which works quite well. With e-books it is only simpler. One service already up and running is Scribd — this GalleyCat link reports their Kindle Fire app and gives some idea of their growth. C/Net interviewed the founder of Oyster which is offering subscriptions to a growing list of books from many publishers. This story from Business Week on 15 January suggests that Amazon will simply take over this business from the publishing industry too — you can always rely on someone to say those dumb publishers will lose out on whatever whenever to the efficiency of the giant Amazonian.

Brave New World has an extensive analysis of the subscription model in three parts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. They correctly point out that Scientific, Technical and Medical publishers have been selling their content on a subscription basis for years, and with considerable success. True their customers tend to be libraries, but databases full of journal and monograph material have been being accessed that way for a considerable time. Maybe trade publishing is different — “In the U.S., it is claimed that some 25% of people are reading ebooks, but is this enough to support a subscription model, where it’s not that you read an ebook, but more dependent on how many and how often you read them?” Brave New World asks. But I’m not sure that’s the right question: at $8.99 or $10 a month the deal must be attractive to some readers who are used to paying that sort of sum for an individual e-book — whether they read few or many need not concern the provider — one of the beauties of the e-book world is that your marginal cost is zero or thereabouts.

Brave New World ends “However it is often harder to see an industry which is often slow to change and diverse in its structure making those changes.” This I think is a bum rap: it’s an easy thing to say, so people say it a lot — but publishing has always been changing, is changing now, and will change more in the future. Nobody running a large business can just say “Stop what you are doing, and do something else”. Like the proverbial ocean liner, it takes time to turn this thing around. There are laws preventing industry-wide collusion, so naturally it is hard to discern any uniform direction.

Later: here from The Digital Reader of 30 April is a report on more publishers signing up with subscription services.

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