AKIE BERMISS: Various times in the short history of this publication we’ve puzzled over the future of books and of reading and of literacy. We’ve discussed the demise of Borders and the rise of eBooks and the changing lay of the land in the publishing industry. And still, the ideological battles continue behind the scenes, always waiting for another shoe to drop, for some new point of data or technological advance that will further the debate. I come today not to make any dire or optimistic predictions about the future of books, but rather to say that as long as there are books and a way to read them — people will.
And so I applaud Amazon’s book-rental initiative. The Atlantic Wire has reported that Amazon.com is currently talking to publishing houses as they attempt to start up something The Atlantic Wire has dubbed a Netflix-for-books.
I know there are a slew of reasons to believe that the whole scheme won’t work from, cautious publishers to stingy customers, but I think there are quite a few promising aspects to the idea as well. Firstly, Amazon apparently intends to connect the book-renting service to their Amazon Prime membership. So members would have to pay periodic (yearly? monthly?) fee in order to be eligible to rent, but they’d be able to do it through an online infrastructure with which they are already familiar. Secondly, this isn’t them looking to do something utterly new. Recent Amazon projects have been radical shifts: they started offering videos a few months back in an effort to compete with Netflix and have been trying to get folks to join their Cloud music player. In both instances they’ve been veering off what they do best: offering options to readers. Any dedicated book-lover will tell you that reading on a Kindle is a pretty heavenly experience. That the Kindle provides one with a feeling that the device was made purely for reading sake. Unlike the Barnes & Noble Nook or the iPad, which both feature color content and touch screens and all that jazz, the Kindle is simply a way to get a book and read it. You can highlight passages and share them with other readers. And you can manage your purchases through Amazon Prime.
Now imagine if they were able to get this Netflix-for-books thing off the ground. That’s right in the strike zone of all us book lovers. Now we can read even more. After all, its not about replacing eBook purchasing altogether, but rather providing an option for books that we’re not really sure we want to own. Instead of just leaving those books alone altogether, we could consider renting them. And think of how something like this could be used socially! One of the major setbacks of the Kindle is that there is no book-sharing. Its one of the great pleasures of owning a book, that you can lend it out to someone. With this rental technology, you could very easily facilitate book clubs and shared reading and things. As I said, there’s already a network in place for sharing highlighted passages — what if that tech could be more finely honed for groups reading the same book? It could be revolutionary.
Of course, one needn’t stop there either. Why have it be a yearly fee and be forced to face the awkwardness of eventually having to deal with reigning in unlimited rentals? Look no further than iTunes where they allow people rent and buy movies. If you want to own something, it’ll cost you $10+ dollars. But you can rent new releases for $3.99. And that’s not a bad deal! I imagine that Amazon Prime members could be very easily convinced to pay a discrete, but psychological non-threatening, amount of money per rental. That is, what’s two bucks to rent a books you’re interested in? Not much for most people. Especially if they are looking for fleeting diversion.
There are many ways to skin the cat here. It needn’t be a question of pass or fail. It could be degrees of usefulness. I think its a smart move on Amazon’s part. If publishers get hip and sign on, it could be a very big thing indeed.