Focus Groups
Blackberry: 1, Yahoo! Music Unlimited: 0

Content: Rent vs. Own

A discussion on Jim Minatel's blog sparked my interest the other day...  Is there a lesson the book publishing world could learn from the music world? Now that I’ve finished loading all my CDs onto my new MP3 player, I’m about to sign up for a subscription to Yahoo! Music Unlimited. I mentioned this to a couple of people and they said, “You realize you don’t own the songs you download, right?” Of course I do – and that’s the beauty of it!

I look at the various all-you-can-eat music download subscription services as a replacement to the randomness of radio stations. I’ve got 2,700+ songs I already own on my MP3 player. If I only listen to that stuff I’ll never discover something new. If I add another 5,000 or so other songs, rotating some in and out over time, I’ll wind up with the best of both worlds: everything I know I like already, plus the possibility of some new favorites I might never have discovered otherwise. Unlike the radio, where you have to listen to the entire song you don’t like before you hear the next one on that station, I’ll just hit the fast forward button and skip the junk. What’s not to like about a commercial-free, $5/month (introductory price only!) service like this? I might never listen to the radio again.

How does this apply to book publishing? First of all, you have to accept the fact that one day there will be an e-book/e-content device as appealing as the iPod is today. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I realize we’re not there yet. It’s not just the device, but more importantly, the way the content is built for the device. I’m convinced this device/platform will appear in my lifetime though.

Once we get there, will you prefer to own everything you want to read, or simply rent it? I’m likely to have a mix, but with an 80/20 split, rental vs. owned. Why? The vast majority of what I read winds up on a shelf when I’m finished. Most of those books on my shelf never get opened again. I’m off to read the next book and figure I’ve absorbed all I’m going to from the ones on the shelf, except for the true reference books, of course. When I was a programmer I often pulled books back off the shelves to check syntax, usage, etc. Even if you tend to use more reference books than tutorials, for example, wouldn’t it be just as easy to access them from a well-designed electronic format?

What if there was a service like Yahoo! Music Unlimited, but it was for book content? What would you be willing to pay for something like this, knowing you could take all your books/content with you in one small, not-yet-invented, easy-to-use device?


Naba Barkakati

Joe, For some just-in-time "how to do I do this now" kind of needs, I'd like to be able to go to an online store, pay five bucks with Paypal and immediately download the 75 or 100 pages that contain the information I need. On the other hand, renting is appealing for my need to look up information now and then or just keep up with an area. Something around $10-15 per month subscription fee would be okay. I think this is the type of access you get with the current online subscription-based services such as O'Reilly's Safari Bookshelf and Books24x7. Wiley probably has books in some of these services. Does providing titles to these services work well for Wiley and its authors? Also, do you have any idea if these services are doing well? One potential problem that I see is the number of books that the service offers. Unless you can get to something like Amazon's scale, services may have too few titles to be attractive. I mean if a service had 100,000 titles, it's okay even if my subscription allows me to access only 10 books at a time- - at least the chances are good that I'd find what I need. Anyway, the bottom line is that there's probably room for both - - own as well as rent, each with its price points.

Ethan Watrall

Joe - I've often thought that this would be a great model. The primary hurdle, however, is not the system by which the books would be served, etc. The primary hurdle is the reading device itself. More specifically, the problem has to do the general reluctance on behalf of the reader to read off of a screen. Most people, given the choice, would rather read paper instead of pixels. Why? Well, many studies have shown that people read from 10-15% slower when reading from a screen than when reading from a page. Given this, its difficult to convince people to use some sort of ebook device when they could read from a real book. A case might be able to be made for books that aren't read from cover to cover - reference works, technical manuals, etc. The kinds of books that you go to for specific information, and then put away after you've found the info you want (only to be reopened when you are looking for something else). Then, you need to deal with having to convince people to buy a dedicated ebook reading device when they could buy another hand held electronic device (PDA, Ultra PC, etc.) - a device that can do so much more than just read ebooks - for about the same price as the ebook device (which can only do one thing).

Michael Miller

Joe: Hasn't this been tried already, by Informit and others, in the form of electronic "bookshelves" where you get X number of books or chapters or whatever that you store on your own personal "bookshelf," and then access as often as you want, for given monthly fee? Be interesting to hear from someone who has experience with this...

Brad Hill

I have no problem with book rentals in principle, but I don't see any demand for an electronic book reader. Previous attempts to migrate the market have failed because the solution fixes something that isn't broken. It's different with music, because most people want to carry a "library" of music, and to fulfill that demand music technology needs to undergo digitization, file compression, and new licensing models. We won't reach the end of this evolution until any connected individual can access any part of the entire recorded catalog from any place, wirelessly ... then, the distinction between locally stored music and remotely stored music will disappear, and our concept of music ownership will be completely altered. In the meantime, we speak of owning, renting, and stealing music. These terms and concepts are stepping stones.

Book publishing is not moving along similar stepping stones because almost nobody wants to carry around a library of books; one or two is enough for most people. Digitization, compression, and universal access are not galvanized by consumer demand.

But I could see a book-rental service modeled after Netflix; in fact, I (who have never subscribed to Netflix) would sign up in an instant. The book ain't broken; don't try to fix the book. But find new ways to get books into my hands.

Joe Wikert

Maybe my problem is a function of how I tend to read things: not one at a time, but several concurrently. For example, I'm not only currently reading the two books shown in the left column here, but a couple others as well...I just haven't had a chance to add them to the list. Also, I generally have no less than 20 or so magazines waiting for me on my dresser at any given time. One of my biggest challenges is trying to decide which book and handful of magazines to take on my next plane ride. I can't take them all...but I could if they were all available digitally on this magical reader.

Mike, to answer your question: hasn't this already been tried before? Well, sort of, if you can count Safari or Books24x7. But there are two key missing ingredients there. First, neither of those services offer the broad type of content I'd be looking for. In short, I'd like to have the ability to download anything off Amazon onto my special device, which leads me to the second component...the device. I haven't seen anything today (PocketPC, Palm, dedicated e-book reader, etc.) that suits my needs. As I've stated before, everything available for those platforms is a simple port of the print product. That too doesn't seem too exciting to me. It's a radio show on TV, not taking advantage of the medium.

John Neidhart

Well, ever the book curmudgeon I'm becoming... "book rentals" are easily found, for free, at a place called "The Library". It's true that there are good and bad libraries. Maybe effort should go into improving that system. The county library system I use here in Westchester NY is superb, includes an online system to search all the branches in the county, and have the books, DVDs, and CDs delivered to my local branch for pickup. In the case of books I want to own, those I simply go out and buy.
As for electronic readers, I once listened to a fascinating presentation by the guy heading up the Microsoft Reader program. This was several years ago. It was interesting in that the bulk of his presentation was devoted to explaining how amazing the physical book is - how it evolved over centuries, how its size has been designed to exactly fit our field of vision, how serifed type leads our eyes across the page, how reading itself is not a linear process, but one where your eye jumps several lines ahead (and back) to help give meaning to the words that are "in focus", how the book itself is so easily "indexed" by our minds in a spatial sense (as opposed to scrolls, which are not). And this is just the tip of the iceberg; many more obstacles have to be overcome, including screen resolution, and the simple tactile pleasure of the book itself, how each one - particularly reference books - becomes uniquely one's own, filled with notes, stickies, dog ears, etc.
Maybe I'm just old fashioned...

Joe Wikert

I guess I'm all about having options without being loaded down. I want all the things I'm interested in reading on one simple device. Otherwise, I have to lug around an extra 10-15 pounds on a plane, for example. I also don't want to wonder if I made the right choice when I decided to bring book X with me rather than book Y. Why not have both, in case my mood changes between here and the end of the flight? You're right about the appeal of a physical book. I too find it hard to read too much on a screen. But, I'm still convinced we'll figure out how to solve this problem before too long...

Jim Minatel

Jim's jaded though for the day: I'm less and less convinced every day that the heralded ebook device is just around the corner. Sadly, except for technical documentation, for the general public books are being replaced by too many other forms of entertainment to warrant large investments in new ebook reader technology. Movies, music, games, and the portable devices to play them, will kill the book as an entertainment form within our lifetimes. Small, portable, universal media devices (think a best-of-breed device combining a PSP, iPod, LCD, and DVD player) no larger than a PSP will become the only portable entertainment people need. There will be a small niche for bestselling authors but why bother reading the Illiad when you can be entertained by Brad Pitt in Troy? A handful of eccentrics like myself and Joe will opt for the audio-book if it's available but everyone else will watch the movie.

Joe Wikert

Ouch! I suddenly feel so old-fashioned...

Brad Hill

No, literature is not in danger. It has withstood disruptive entertainment technologies before. Sorry to repeat myself, but the book is a beautiful piece of technology that doesn't need fixing. But there's room for improvement in distribution, beyond bookstores and libraries. Give me NetBoox ... the main foreseeable difficulty there is high postage costs, as books are much heavier than DVDs.

John (Free PSP Music Downloads) Malkovich

I would just say that it is important to see value for money and suggest you to purchase a subscription which provides you just that.

Free PSP Music ? Mp3s?

In regards to free psp music or downloads of free music a lot of people use illegal downloading services. I cam across this blog where a kid tells about his experience as a rather active file sharer and downloader. This poor guy didn't know that all the free psp music he downloaded to his pc and psp... all his games... that they were illegal and he got busted big time. Read it... it's quite depressing to know that all the people downloaing free psp music out there are not doing it legally.

I would really say that a service like the one you are talking about here, seems appealing.

PSP Blender

Very informative article you've written.

Would surely be visiting this site regularly. Thanks for posting!

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