I read an interesting article by Joseph Esposito recently at The Scholarly Kitchen, “Everybody Wants a Netflix for Books“, and I’ve been rather slow about posting but since I did find it interesting, I’m going to chime in here. Better late than never!
In the article, Esposito posits that a “comprehensive and fully up-to-date-library for a low monthly price [for books]” will not happen. He discusses a concept that’s frankly over my head a bit, something about “aggregation” and “windowing”. What I could make out of what he’s talking about is that publishers don’t want to strangle their profits by releasing books that would be on demand elsewhere by making them available as part of a comprehensive service.
For example: As a writer, I’d want my book to be in as many hands as possible for a maximum in readership. I want to be read. But I’d like to eat too, so hopefully, some of those hands have shelled out some $$ to read my book. Publishers may not be as sentimental as I am but they definitely want the moolah.
So, if you know you can charge $3.99 on Amazon for a NYT-bestseller (as long as I’m dreaming here, right?), why on earth would you offer that as part of a paid subscription service where a potentially huge market could download it at no additional cost and you reap the meager profits?
You could argue, what about the exposure to your product and the chance they’ll buy it after trying it out?
A Case in Point
Esposito illustrates this point clearly in a personal anecdote about his subscription to Pandora. For the record, I love Pandora. But I’ve maybe only bought 1 CD based on my listening over a period of a few years. I also used to be a Pandora One member too but when you need to tighten the proverbial money belt, that subscription service is one of the first things to go when they have a freeware version available. Sorry, Pandora. I guess I just proved Esposito’s point there (blush).
Esposito also talks about how we need to develop relationships with consumers. That’s true, but what he doesn’t directly address in his article is the presence of D2C ‘Netflix for Books’ that are already on the market and may already be building these relationships. I’m aware of a few services offering D2C such as Oyster Books, Scribd, Amazon Prime, and OverDrive, which have a similar Netflix-feel.
What we need is to change how we market to consumers and market more to educational institutions who already have established relationships within our communities and a finger on the heartbeat of the literary scene.
The Solution: Educational Institutions As Direct Consumers
OverDrive has over a million titles available from over 1,000 publishers and its publications boasts having over 22,000 libraries and schools worldwide as partners. I’d like to add that locally, St. Louis Public Library and St. Louis County Library, are also partners. Here’s how it works: OverDrive will build the website, you select the content, and your library patrons or students get instant access to the collection.
Publishers have been marketing to libraries and schools for decades so with the demand for more digital content (and cheaper), why wouldn’t you market to these consumer groups?
OverDrive uses a one-copy, one-user model that controls access to materials in their collection in the same vein as a library can only lend a single book to a patron at a time. If there’s a huge demand for Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season, then you need to order more copies. (Aside: isn’t it funny that a few years ago, we were all about Harry Potter?).
This model encourages libraries to purchase multiple licensed copies based on their user demand and ensures a stream of profits for OverDrive and presumably, the publishers using OverDrive as a middle-man. The content collection, in addition to being customizable, is not fully comprehensive, but you can purchase additional titles in the collection based on what you think your users would like.
Disclaimer: I was unable to find any figures publicly available on OverDrive’s website (but if you find them, please contact me, I’d love to take a look) and have not reached out to OverDrive to provide sales records.
A Personal Illustration
Speaking as a library patron who benefits from area libraries participating as OverDrive partners, I think that OverDrive excels as a model for the future of digital content distribution. I’ll explain. No library is likely to subscribe to individual subscription services, if even offered, by the Big Five. As a library user, even if my library DID offer access to five individual services, I’d be unlikely to want to go to the trouble of having to access multiple sites and logins.
And that’s precisely what makes subscription services like OverDrive, Oyster Books, Scribd, Amazon Prime, and the others on the market who act as a middle man for the big publisher so important to the future growth of digital media distribution.
Schools and libraries are a potentially huge market for profit and OverDrive’s model of a one-user, one-copy method. By offering the option of consumers to purchase individual licensing, you put into the consumer’s hands the power to custom tailor their collections for their local markets. I think that that’s a wonderful thing.
With the increase in Amazon Prime from $79. to $99., cost is going to be an inhibitor to the average joe who likes to read digital but cannot afford an annual membership. Libraries, most of which are supported on some level by a tax base, can fill in this gap, basically providing the “membership dues” by making OverDrive available as part of their membership benefits.
Because readers will have access to the full title, rather than a chapter preview (such as what Amazon offers), the experience leaves the reader the opportunity to decide whether they enjoyed the book enough to purchase the title later. E-readers, such as Amazon’s kindle, store the cover art on your device so you remember what you read, and include a link for purchase if you try to open the book after your borrowing time has elapsed (if using OverDrive).
As schools and libraries struggle to retain their relevance in a digital age, digital media collections (such as a ‘Netflix for Books’) are one way to provide new and noteworthy titles to the general public at a free or reduced rate. The customizable nature of OverDrive allows schools and libraries to build their own collections and act in a readers’ advisory capacity to introduce their students and patrons to all titles in the collection.