Let's face it. We all have a suspicious eye toward content subscriptions. Whether it is for music downloads, cable tv, audio books or online content, there seems to be two common themes: 1) It's too pricey and inconvenient, and 2) It's like rental money - you end up with exactly nothing if you cancel your subscription.
But wait a minute. What if I offered you a subscription to almost every book ever written in the world, past or present? What if you could have it as an e-book in a popular format, or for online viewing if you prefer? And suppose you could get all that for about $30 per year? Now it's getting pretty interesting, isn't it? Even with DRM, it's still pretty interesting.
Believe it or not, that sort of scenario is not entirely impossible. The idea is not new, but was brought up yesterday by the if:book
(the Future of the Book blog) while pondering various new developments at Amzon and Google. Of course, Google is in the process of digitizing the world's library, and wants to charge for access to books with publishers' permission, and with a portion of revenues going to the publisher.
There is a similar model for the use of Christian music by churches and performers, where the CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) takes it even further and asks member churches who want to use copyrighted material to record what songs are used for their worship services and report them so that royalties may be properly distributed. The bigger the church, the higher the fee.
The numbers seem to show it's not going to work... If only 10% of the people in the U.S. subscribe to this service, they would be getting a great product, but they would have to pay nearly $2,000 a piece to match current publishing revenues from books! (Based on Book Industry TRENDS
projection of over $40 billion in U.S. net revenues for all books by 2010 and the U.S. population of adults age 20 or over in 2007 calculated from numbers given in Wikipedia
coming out to 218,544,291.)
But we don't know is what portion of book revenues are coming from businesses and other commercial activities outside of typical consumer spending on books to read. I find it very hard to believe that annual consumer book spending is anywhere near $2,000 per adult. I don't have the numbers to work out what's really happening, but I do think that on the consumer book spending side, if you offer a subscription with acceptable technologies, more people will subscribe. Corporate subscriptions could be based on company revenues. Can it be a revenue positive change for the industry? I don't know. Can all publishers be convinced to participate in such a model? I don't know that either. It's a complex question.
There are surely some bright minds at Google doing the calculations right now with real estimates. And you can bet that they know exactly how it should play out, with all kinds of mixed partial participation scenarios. You might think publishers of popular books might not participate, but if you reward popularity you can incent them to join in. The bigger issue is probably control - publishers will not be exactly excited to hand over control of their market to a third party, whether it be Google or another world library organization.
What do you think about some of the obvious questions?
* Can such a universal library ever be truly created?
* Should government be involved? How or why not?
* Would you like to see such a subscription plan work?
* Will the general public ever be interested enough to subscribe?
* How much would you pay annually for access to all books?
* Would you prefer a flat fee or a "per use" fee?
* Do you think the revenues can support such a system?
* Or is it more important to you to own and control the content you buy?
The world's changing, and as book technology advances we will certainly see opportunities for entirely new paradigms to be sustained in the marketplace for books/e-books. No matter how it shakes out, I hope that it's an improvement for the average Joe who likes to read, and I really hope that books remain more easily available than ever to all readers.