Will a 'Netflix for Books' Upend the Publishing Business — or Save It?

Will a 'Netflix for Books' Upend the Publishing Business — or Save It?

The book-selling world continues to change, more rapidly than ever.

Last week came word that Liberty Media will unload virtually all of its stake in Barnes & Noble, the country’s sole remaining big box bookseller, only three years after it hoped to acquire the chain outright. What Liberty’s chairman, John Malone, once confessed was a bit of “flier” for his broadcast-oriented media empire seems to have ended with a crash, even though both companies spun the move as one that would give Barnes & Noble more flexibility in planning future strategic moves.

Meanwhile, the number of businesses trying to muscle in on Barnes & Noble’s traditional territory, and trying to reshape the relationship between book publishers, retailers and readers, is growing constantly.

The biggest of them all, of course, remains Amazon. But a new breed of startups wants to turn book buyers into book consumers.

Related: Amazon Refunds Have Readers Asking: Whose Is Bigger?

Once, the two were analogous – unless, that is, you made the trek to and from your local public library to borrow books. Unlike movies, where rentals of VHS tapes and, later, of DVDs, had become standard by the 1980s, “renting” books never caught on as a business model. So while consumers have long gravitated to, say, Netflix as an alternative to a bricks and mortar Blockbuster store, the ability to send digitized books to an e-book reader hasn’t been followed as rapidly by a “rental book” model.

Until recently. Now at least three different companies are duking it out for reader eyeballs and market share: Entitle Books, Scribd and Oyster. The idea behind each is similar: You pay a flat monthly fee and can download books from their library. The details vary slightly: Entitle lets you hang onto the books if you cancel your subscription, but limits the number you can read each month; Oyster, so far, is only available on iOS devices.

Comparison of eBook Lending Services
Service Price Books Available Borrow Limit/mo Can You Keep The Books? Platforms
Oyster 9.95/month 200,000+ Unlimited Nope iOS Only**
Scribd 8.95/month 300,000+ Unlimited Nope iOS and Android
Entitle 9.99/month 125,000+ 2+*** Yes! iOS, Android, Nook, Kobo
Amazon Prime Lending Library $99/yr 500,000+ 1 Nope Kindle only

The overall point, however, is that their founders are taking a radically different view of what readers are looking for.

“A lot of people just don’t buy DVDs, CDs or books in their discrete form anymore; they prefer to use the ‘access’ models, and increasingly this is how people will consume e-books as well,” argues Eric Stromberg, CEO of Oyster, which rolled out its service last September and raised an additional $14 million in financing in January from a group of venture capitalists led by Highland Capital Partners.

“It’s all about bringing in a new audience of readers, by bringing content to them on the devices they use,” he explains. Putting an array of 100,000 or so books at the fingertips of Oyster users on their iPads or iPhones and enabling them to sample at will – as many books as they choose at a flat fee of $9.95 a month – means that in aggregate these Oyster subscribers end up paying more than they would have otherwise to read books, and funneling more than they would have otherwise to the bottom lines of publishing companies.

So far, the publishers themselves appear divided on that issue. Some big independent publishers – Algonquin and Melville House – as well as Perseus, home to some great non-fiction imprints, have inked deals to supply Oyster with content. But thus far only one of the “Big Five” – HarperCollins – has agreed to play ball. The rest of the gang – Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Hachette, Penguin Random House – are warily watching the experiment from the sidelines.

Clearly, Stromberg’s ability to woo new customers hinges on his ability to convince them to jump on the bandwagon – he admits it’s a “top priority” – but all he’ll say about the talks is that the model’s ability to “capture the excitement of reader has registered with them.”

For some readers, the Oyster model, also being used by Scribd, will resonate – if Oyster can roll out onto more platforms (that’s in the works) and if both can find a way to coax stubborn holdouts among the publishers into sharing their vision of the future of reading.

“We believe this is the best way to read books,” says an enthusiastic Stromberg. “Once you pay the monthly fee, you never have to think about it again. You end up experimenting more; you read more than just the books that you know you will love. For instance, I was never a big mystery reader, but now that I know that I don’t need to pay for a book I might not love, I might check out a new mystery book a friend was reading.”

Related: 6 Top Non-Fiction Books for Your 2014 Reading List

Still, Oyster is set up more for readers who are going to be happy with that serendipitous discovery than those who have just heard about a new author from a friend, or spot an interesting-looking book in a store and decide to check it out. In many of those cases, interested readers will find the specific title is not available.

“Oyster as an experience is more driven by browsing and discovery than other platforms are,” Stromberg says. Similar to Netflix and Amazon, the site is set up to learn users’ tastes and preferences and suggest books they might like to try next; it also offers up curated lists of books, under titles like “Life of the Party” (characters who like to party) and “Good at Being Bad” (books about tricksters and con men).

If you’re a casual but dedicated reader, this may be just the ticket for you. If you’re more of a bibliophile, or a focused reader with a list of books or authors that you know you want to read, you may be better off looking at Entitle, which may be slightly more costly on a per-book basis (if you read heavily) but seems to have more books and more new books (as well as allowing you to keep your books).

Or, if you already have an Amazon Prime subscription, you can just borrow from free, with no return dates, from the Kindle Lending Library and its selection of more than 500,000 titles. That’s a reminder that, even if one or more of these players does emerge as the “Netflix for books,” they’ll still have to contend with the 800-pound gorilla of the industry.

Related: Get Ready to Pay More for Amazon Prime

Ultimately, though, there are reasons to doubt that we’ll ever really have a “Netflix for books.” First, for most casual readers, the value of a monthly e-book subscription for $8.95 or $9.95 is less obvious than Netflix’s $7.99 rate for unlimited streaming. Also, we consume books differently than we do music or television or movies. That doesn’t mean that we don’t consume them digitally – simply that as readers, we seem to value retaining all kinds of different options.

Sales of e-books topped those of “dead tree books” for the first time two years ago. But we’re still buying books, not just viewing them as downloads. And some of us are still mixing and matching: buying some from bookstores as hardcovers or paperbacks, selectively borrowing from libraries, choosing which books to add to e-readers and scrutinizing these new services to decide which might best fit our needs. It’s not a one-size-fits-all world – yet. 

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: