The Future of the Book Is the Stream

By Megan Garber

Cloud storage is paving the way for books that are sold not by title, but by time.

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So, digital books. As innovative as they are form-wise and otherwise, it's striking, business-wise, how tightly they cling to tradition. Whether pre-Gutenberg or post-Bezos, books have been sold pretty much the same way: per unit, object by object, X books for X bucks. 

There's been a good reason for that, of course, which is that books, like clothes or cars or Kindles, are commodities, and creatures of the marketplace. But there's also a good reason to think that things will soon be changing. In the digital realm, after all, books are no longer objects in the way that clothes or cars or Kindles are objects. They are things, now, only in the most broad and tenuous sense. 

Enter Audiobooks.comSimply Audio Books' new book-streaming service. Instead of sending discs of individual audiobooks, Qwikster-style, as Simply Audio Books had been doing since 2003 -- and instead of allotting book credits to customers, as Amazon's Audible service does -- Audiobooks offers unlimited streaming through the cloud. And at a flat membership fee of $25 a month. 

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What Netflix's Watch Instantly has done for movies, and what Spotify has done for music, Audiobooks could do for books. The service has the potential to reframe book-buying as a transactional thing, making it less about purchasing an object, and more about purchasing an experience. In fact -- convergence! -- the monthly unlimited access Audiobooks.com is experimenting with has less in common with, say, Amazon's approach and more in common with cable TV's: In a monthly subscription framework, the unit of purchase is the bundle, and vice versa. The price is constant -- and, more importantly, unaffected by the content that's consumed. Whether you watch 20 hours of Parks and Rec each month or 20 minutes of it, you'll pay the same thing. Because you're paying, officially, not for content itself, but for the potential to consume it. 

Cable's model is not without its problems, but, from the perspective of incentivized content consumption, it's incredibly elegant. The bundled subscription removes the pressure points from the purchasing experience, making programming blissfully -- and/or horrifically -- easy to consume. And making it, more to the point, mindlessly easy to consume. There's a reason that television is Americans' mass medium of choice, and only part of it has to do with the obvious awesomeness of Laverne & Shirley.

The book industry has been built on a business model that effectively discourages the mass consumption of its products.

Books' transactional logic, however, has been pretty much the opposite of cable's brain-bucking bundle. Since you're made to pay for each product individually, you're made to make each purchasing decision individually. And books, which are pretty expensive relative to the time it takes to consume them, don't always benefit from the resulting deliberation. (Is a book that you'll be done with in four hours really worth $26? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.) With book-buying, even online, impulse -- the driving force of so many digital dealings -- has a hard time breaking through. A price tag is a price tag, even in a one-click world

And so the book industry, like its counterparts in music and film, has been built on a business model that effectively discourages the mass consumption of its products. Which has been its only option, of course, but which has also meant that books' core audiences haven't always been as core as they could be. Book-buying binges (so I've heardfrom a friend, etc.) can become crazy-expensive, discouraging even the most passionate bibliophiles from getting their bibliofills. This is great for libraries (and for, you know, TV and movie producers); it is significantly less great for booksellers.

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But what if you could re-define books' value proposition? What if book-buying became less about one-off salesmanship, and more about ongoing membership? What if you didn't buy books so much as join them?

It's that kind of wholesale, psychic reframing that Audiobooks' model is hinting at. And while audiobooks are a special case in that, being audiobooks, they're especially suited to streaming, it's easy to see a membership model proving effective for all kinds of digital content, "traditional" e-books very much included. It's easy to envision a kind of iTunes-in-reverse subscription framework that charges customers not per book, but per month -- or, hey, per minute or week or year. Time over tome. 

And it's easy to imagine, furthermore, that shift bringing a new life to books both as consumer goods and as epistemic objects. Book-buying, made blissfully brainless! Reading, unlimited! Netflix's streaming model -- which Amazon, the rumor goes, might soon be imitating -- changed the way we relate to movies. Spotify's streaming changed the way we relate to songs. The cloud is a powerful thing. And the revolution that's taking place in computing overall -- the computer as an object giving way to the computer as a service -- is changing our approach to content consumption, as well. As more and more of our stuff moves to the cloud, and as the mechanism of stuff-storage shifts from the download to the stream, the membership-driven library seems more and more feasible. And more and more sensible. And more and more exciting.  


Images: Shutterstock, Audiobooks.com.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/01/the-future-of-the-book-is-the-stream/252001/