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Old 09-08-2007, 04:09 PM   #1
Bob Russell
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Imagine an e-book subscription that includes every book in the world

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.
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Old 09-08-2007, 04:46 PM   #2
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I think it should be a tax thing, just let everybody pay a little and get acess to all books, music and movies. People will not be very happy about it in the begining, but just see it as a punishment for all the illigal downloading, but after a while it will be the most popular tax, (if there is a such thing as a popular tax ). It would stop piracy and it would spread culture. It will probably be less money for the big pop stars but why should a pretty girl with a decent voice earn more money than a doctor? And after all they will get a lot of money when they play live anyway so I am sure they wont end up at the street,

That is what I think is the most realistic way to do it, but some ways may work better in some parts of the world and others in some other parts.
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Old 09-08-2007, 08:23 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bob Russell View Post
What do you think about some of the obvious questions?
* Can such a universal library ever be truly created?
Maybe... Google sure seems to be trying! I think all the content is going to end up online. If publishers are smart, they'll figure out a way to get some revenue from this kind of system, because otherwise the content will get distributed anyway and they'll just lose out.

* Should government be involved? How or why not?
I don't think it's necessary, and I don't think it would help. Governments vary too much for this to be a global solution.

* Would you like to see such a subscription plan work?
Oh yeah.

* Will the general public ever be interested enough to subscribe?
No. Most people don't read enough books to be interested in something like this. That's also why I don't see government support being helpful. Certainly not in the US, though I know there's a tax for TV access in the UK-- but that's TV. I doubt a "book tax" would fly, even there.

Unless it includes textbooks -- you may get more luck in that case. But I'm still skeptical.

* How much would you pay annually for access to all books?
Let's see. I read about 3 books a week, but I re-read a lot and some of my books come from the library or friends, so let's make that 2 books per week, at an estimate of US$4 ea (Baen type pricing or a mix of new/used paperbacks, with the occasional new hardcover thrown in for favorite authors). If it's less than US$400 I'm still coming out ahead. But I'd be a bit nervous about not being able to guarantee ongoing access to the books-- let's cut that number in half.

I'd like to pay monthly, rather than annually. Make it $20/month and I'm in -- that way I can still afford to purchase copies of books I want to keep.

* Would you prefer a flat fee or a "per use" fee?
I favor a mixed model. Flat fee for access, but I still want to be able to buy ebooks that I don't have to keep paying for.

* Do you think the revenues can support such a system?
Actually, yes, I do. When looking at how much people spend on books now, you need to look at the median rather than the mean. There's a lot of inefficiency in the current system, and a lot of the access that would be offered with a system like this is "long tail" content, much of which is out of print (even if still protected by copyright), so publishers (and authors) aren't making anything on this content now.

The people who could be most hurt by a system like this are probably used book sellers.

* Or is it more important to you to own and control the content you buy?

Only some of the content, maybe 1/4 of what I read, tops.
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Old 09-08-2007, 11:11 PM   #4
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Although I don't see governments involved in the program--and let's call it what it is, a Universal Library--I do see the possibility that a government would take the responsibility of paying for its citizens' access to the UL, and taxing the public as part of its "utility" taxes to finance it. I see this as an essential function of a government, because I see information as being available to all, like any other utility.

This model would work in the U.S.: It gives everyone equal access, and the tax system can make individual adjustments for income to even out payments across the constituency (as it supposedly does now). But other parts of the world may want more control over exactly who has access to the UL... clearly, it's up to them to work that out.

However, there may need to be a distinction set as to what constitutes "a book everyone should have access to," "a book that should have limited access," and "a book that's entertaining, but otherwise non-essential." In other words, should my government pay to allow me to have free access to Star Trek: The Undiscovered Nose Appliance, or should I have to pay for it as pure entertainment? Is a weight loss book by Dr. Phil considered a textbook, general informational, or comedy? Should my taxes go to making Dianetics or Mein Campf available? And then there's porn...

There is a similar situation regarding food, in which certain U.S. states will charge a larger tax on fast food like hamburgers than on "subsistence" groceries like vegetables. And this situation is already controversial, with people arguing over what is considered "fast food" and "subsistence food." (Riddle me this, Batman: When is beef considered worthless? When it's been given to you by McDonald's!)

In order to avoid such distinctions, everyone should have an account of their own, and decide for themselves what they should have access to. But many governments simply won't allow that, including the U.S. (You don't think the government will want to restrict the reading choices of pedophiles, rapists, suspected terrorists, etc? Think again).

Last edited by Steven Lyle Jordan; 09-08-2007 at 11:13 PM.
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Old 09-08-2007, 11:30 PM   #5
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Is a weight loss book by Dr. Phil considered a textbook, general informational, or comedy?
Actually, it's a tragedy.
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Old 09-08-2007, 11:45 PM   #6
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I don't see $30/year happening, but I could see Amazon trying $29.95/month. Since their new Kindle is supposed to includes EVDO, that would be pretty simple for them to implement securely (until hacked.)

That is probably where the $50 rumor came in. I could see offereing the Kindle for $50, but requiring a 2 year subscription, just like Phone, Cable, etc. It sure seems like a sustainable business model, you'd need to get a phone company and the publishers to agree to keep the prices down during startup. Heck, I'd be awfully temped to buy one with that model.

My 2c,
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Old 09-09-2007, 12:10 AM   #7
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It all depends on the details; what content is out there, how can I access it and how much it costs.

I do not see such a program viable without government (or a foundation) paying at least partly for it, since I do not see it viable at more than 15$ per user a month, maybe 20$ at a stretch, and that most likely will not generate enough revenue

I profoundly doubt though that such a thing will even be considered unless there is massive external pressure on publishers that causes huge revenue drops like there is today in music, where something like that will come into effect sooner or later.
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Old 09-09-2007, 12:46 AM   #8
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I would like to see how the numbers are computed. If the $2000 contain the current bestsellers then it is biased. Also if it contains earnings from public domain books. Publishers do earn money from a good chunk of books available at Project Gutenberg.
It would be easy to limit the library to books older than a year or 5 years. Most of them do not sell anymore.
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Old 09-09-2007, 08:53 PM   #9
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Treating books published within the past year as "premium" content and making the rest available for a flat rate could work. Cable TV works more or less like that in the US. You could have a higher fixed rate for particular areas of content (e.g. I'll pay a bit more to have access to new SF, but I won't pay a dime for romance if I can help it).

I really don't see the US government being willing to get involved in this at all, though. We can barely get PBS funded, and that's TV, which Americans like. Municipal libraries have enough local presence to manage to scrape up some funding each year, but it's a tough fight every time, as local librarians can tell you, and that's an institution with a long existing tradition.

As for the censorship issues Steve Jordan raised, I don't think the US government is stopping anyone currently from buying "undesirable" books in bookstores, or even borrowing them from a library. They like to track what people buy and borrow, though, and I could easily see that being a factor in an online library. (Some public libraries refuse to keep records of what their patrons borrow, for exactly that reason, but I think an online library, whether for fee or publically funded, would be pressured into keeping such records and would be forced to divulge them on demand.)
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Old 09-10-2007, 11:28 AM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by nekokami View Post
As for the censorship issues Steve Jordan raised, I don't think the US government is stopping anyone currently from buying "undesirable" books in bookstores, or even borrowing them from a library.
True... actually, I was thinking of state and local jurisdictions, some of which refuse to make certain books available to its patrons, and who often object strenuously to nationwide access to those same books and try to block such efforts. I suspect that the US government would get the same pressure from certain states and municipalities to block e-books' access to their areas, for this reason.

Also, I'd expect similar public pressure to influence the govt to attempt to block certain citizens from certain books, just as citizens attempt to prevent the government from relocating, say, convicted rapists and child molesters, in their neighborhoods, and as governments bar those same people from school jurisdictions or proximity to former victims even after release. I see this as a natural extention to existing practices.

I'm not making a judgement, here, just saying that even in the US, there can be limits to who should have access to what.
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Old 09-10-2007, 11:42 AM   #11
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I'd rather not have any government involved in anything that's not a government function. By definition, the flow of ideas is most definitely not a government function. Setting aside First Amendment implications for the moment, governments tend to make everything much more expensive when they get involved than it would otherwise be.

I'd far rather see someone like Google (Their motto is "Don't be (too) evil" after all! You don't get that kind of a promise from a government!) succeed in this sort of thing.
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Old 09-10-2007, 12:13 PM   #12
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I'd rather not have any government involved in anything that's not a government function. By definition, the flow of ideas is most definitely not a government function.
Maybe not, but providing access to a Universal Library (through taxation) would be seen as promoting and supporting Education, which is a government function (in the US).


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I'd far rather see someone like Google (Their motto is "Don't be (too) evil" after all! You don't get that kind of a promise from a government!) succeed in this sort of thing.
Better for a non-profit organization with some international govt oversight to do it. As well-intentioned as Google may be, for example, if someday a new CEO comes in and redefines what is "too evil", and they go over to the Dark Side, we are stuck with an evil organization holding a monopoly over the world's books, and no outside control over them.
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Old 09-10-2007, 12:35 PM   #13
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Yeah, but isn't Google already gathering "Universal Library" content? Google Books has an astonishing number of books, and many in the public domain (though, alas!, not all) are available for PDF downloading. They've also done some auto OCRing (no checking, though, as far as I could tell) so that ascii text is availabe to view (but not download).

So the elements seem to already be in place. Rather than a subscription service, I'd love to be able to buy a particular still-in-copyright book to download instead of being redirected to Amazon or some place similar.

Maybe a subscription-with-rental service would work for research/reference books. If I'm doing a research project, I could "rent" the text of the book for, say, six months, then have the rights to view it end after the specific rental time. I say rent instead of buy because so many research/reference books are priced astronomically high.
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Old 09-10-2007, 12:38 PM   #14
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Maybe not, but providing access to a Universal Library (through taxation) would be seen as promoting and supporting Education, which is a government function (in the US).
An excellent point, Steve, but the cost bloat still worries me.

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Better for a non-profit organization with some international govt oversight to do it.
You're probably right. I don't guess the Red Cross is game to branch out ....
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Old 09-10-2007, 01:11 PM   #15
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An excellent point, Steve, but the cost bloat still worries me.
My thought was, if the Federal government was only setting aside a dividend of the (slightly increased) national tax, to pass on to a separate, non-profit, multi-national organization as a lump sum, there should be very little "bloat" involved. (I would say "none," but we are talking about the US government...)

Keeping track of the payments of less than 100 countries should also be a lot more efficient than keeping track of almost 7 billion individual accounts and payments, thereby decreasing the organization's bloat.
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