The latest leak (update: the service is now officially live for US customers) of the Kindle Unlimited subscription service comes as no big surprise. For a fixed price of $9.99 per month readers can get as many books as they like. The so called “Netflix for Books” model is nothing new. Services like Oyster and Scribd have already attracted millions of hopeful investor dollars.
Traditional publishers however, who already have their knickers in a twist due to Amazon — which they vigorously attack in lieu of much broader sweeping changes — are not going to embrace this new subscription model with open arms.
THE SALES CEILING
The most obvious reason why publishing houses are wary of models like these is because they fear for their sales statistics:
An unlimited plan is expected to put a ceiling on a reader’s total expenses for books, therefore capping the costs of the most lucrative customers. Readers will spend less, writers will be paid less, books will disappear, and the Earth will hurtle toward the sun due to an increase in fiber from the decrease in paper pulping. – Danny Crichton
It’s easy to put all the blame on companies and their business-models, but perhaps we should take a step back and examine the changes to our reading culture in general.
THE CONSUMPTION CEILING
How many newspaper articles and blog posts do you read per week? How many Facebook statuses? How many tweets? And in contrast, how many books do you purchase and actually read (!) per month?
The universe may be infinite but our attention span is not. Unfortunately, after doing all the other things dictated by our mammalian condition, from acquiring food and shelter to nurturing offspring and social connections, there is only so much time left in our life.
Social media, texting, online journalism and gaming (especially in their mobile manifestation) are already heavily eating into the remaining hours and minutes, and reading books is by far not the only way anymore to take a vacation from the drabness of day to day living.
We used to bridge these hollow moments in waiting rooms, queues and commutes by reading books and magazines. Today, most of us have succumbed to the forces of swiping and tapping, crushing candies and expressing our innermost feelings via emoji wherever we find ourselves sandwiched in between two moments.
Reading is increasingly becoming a conscious choice. We don’t just find ourselves picking up magazines all that often anymore. When we wake up in the middle of the night, our first impulse is to reach for our phone instead of the nightstand tome.
THE MESSAGE IS THE MESSAGE
If I were to predict how people will purchase books in the future, I’d say we will probably both pay for subscriptions and continue to shop for single titles. They will exist side-by-side, the subscriptions will cater to the increasingly endangered species of the voracious book-bingers and the rest of us will buy a single book each few months, in the hope that one day we’ll find the time and muse to actually read it.
It’s absolutely clear, though, that reading long form material of any kind will have to compete with the plethora of alternative entertainment activities, more of which are cropping up every day.
In other words, it’s not just the future of publishing which is at stake, but the entire reading culture is being disrupted. The way we are consuming (and producing) texts is changing faster than we can document it.
And yet, there is no need to worry. As long as there are humans there’ll always be an aching need for great stories and gripping ideas. Whether we get our fix from parchment scrolls or glowing screens, paying with seashells or BitCoins, we are creatures of words, inevitably drawn to the worlds they conjure up.
As writers and publishers, this should be our only concern. We simply have to serve these stories and ideas in whatever way people prefer. If we keep that in mind, everything else will fall into place.