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In which I save the publishing industry

December 31st, 2009 No comments

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I am going to save the publishing industry from itself.  And no, they don’t have to thank me, shower me with roses, send young virgins my way, or pay me (that’s the important part).  It’s very simple.  I’ll even put it in big font so the old hats in publishing can read it with their aged eyes.  Ready?  Here it is.

Rent the books

No, no, please.  I can’t accept your praise and thanks.  It’s enough knowing that I did something good in 2009 (and boy was I cutting it close!).  Oh, what?  You don’t understand?  Geez do I have to do everything?  Ok let me explain it to you.  Pay attention, old publishing – don’t become even more of a dinosaur.

Most people I know don’t like to buy books.  I know lots of people who like to read, but they don’t necessarily want to buy every book they read.  This is why libraries exist.  However, there are times that a library is too small to have the latest book you want, or they take too long to get a copy to you when you want to read something right away because there’s only one copy and it’s being read by some geriatric who’s going to keep it the damn full three weeks plus renewals.  This is why used bookstores exist.  But those tend to be rare, messy, and rarely stock the book you’re looking for.  Turn to Amazon or eBay and you might as well buy the book new after you add in the shipping costs.  And let’s face it – most books aren’t really worth buying.  I mean c’mon – do you really need to buy the Star Wars or Star Trek or D&D books that seem to be released by the dozen every day?  99.99% of those are throwaways – read them once and throw them away.  Even the best books are typically throwaways – read once and never again.  I’m willing to bet a year’s salary that the publishing industry loses hundreds of sales each day because the number of people willing to pay $7.99 plus tax for a throwaway book is small and getting smaller.  Rather than trying to fight for a piece of an ever shrinking pie, the publishers need to think about getting a bigger pie.  Book rentals are the bigger pie.

Imagine you’re an average reader.  Average in that you buy maybe one or two books a month (if that – I consider myself an above average reader and I buy maybe one book every three to four months).  What if you could get access to a set number of books per month for a flat fee?  And to add spice to the offer, what if you could get a free e-book reader for signing up?  Let’s say you could rent books in units of five, ten, twenty, or thirty books a month for a range of prices.  Five books might cost you $15/month, while ten books might cost you $25/mo and so on.  Every month, on the first of the month, you get access to your alloted limit of new books.  Those could be books you pick out that day, or over the course of that month, or you could build up a list of books you’d like to read, from which a subset would be released to you each month.  Of course the books you’d already rented for the previous month would disappear from your reader, but that’s OK cause you can always re-add them to your list.  You read through your allotted books and everything is hunky dory.  Every month, you’re guaranteed access to your subscription limit.  But you read through your limit already?  Well, you could be offered the chance to increase your limit for the month or from that point forward.  Similarly, you got access to 20 books but only touched three of them.  Maybe you get asked if you’d like to downgrade your subscription.  The point of the service shouldn’t be to maximize immediate  revenue – the point of the subscription should be to maximize long term usage, and you do that by making things as convenient as possible for the user.  If that means giving up some short term revenue for long term gain, so be it.  And the thing is, Mr. Publisher, you’re getting money for books that YOU NEVER WOULD HAVE GOTTEN OTHERWISE.  Let me say that again.  YOU’RE GETTING MONEY FOR BOOKS YOU NEVER WOULD HAVE GOTTEN OTHERWISE.

People are going to say that there’s nothing like the feel of a book in your hands.  Those people are, frankly, luddites.  Are there some books I’d rather own permanently rather than temporarily?  Sure.  I can name maybe a dozen or so.  All other books I own are books I’ve bought, read once, and have thrown onto a bookshelf because I was too lazy to sell it or wouldn’t get enough money from the sale to make it worth my time.  This service removes the need for me to have bookshelves of paper that I rarely use (the bookshelf industry is screaming bloody murder right now) plus gets me access to a universe of books I’d never have bought in the first place.  For authors who still live for book signings, there will always be a cadre of fans who will buy a physical copy of your latest tome so that it can be graced with your signature.  But those people would have bought your book anyways, and I guarantee you that that set of people will only get bigger when you combine them with the set of people who will read your book once and never think about it again.

The beauty of a subscription model is that it’s a steady revenue stream for the publishers.  The only cost to them is for an e-book reader and digitization of their collection.  Once those are funded, they can count on a constant flow of dollars, punctuated by the occasional best seller that people decide they absolutely must own a physical version of.  It removes the need to front a bunch of stock to booksellers that they then have to buy back.  It encourages reading and the concept of temporary ownership – a key point upon which the music industry floundered.  Most importantly, it means that it DOESN’T MATTER what books people read.  If I decide to read the same five books over and over again each month, it DOESN’T MATTER because I’m still paying the publishers for the same five books.  Can you do that with a paper-based model?  Likewise, it doesn’t matter if I read 30 books a month because most likely those were books I wasn’t going to buy if I didn’t have a rental option.  The number of people who can afford to buy 30 books a month (much less read all 30) are probably less than 1% of the US population.  But the beautiful thing about such subscribers is that the publisher is still being paid for 30 book rentals a month regardless of whether or not those rentals are actually used.

What about sharing?  What if people get a 30-book subscription and share the reader amongst themselves?  WHO CARES?  At some point, the publishing industry (and every other industry) needs to get out of the mindset of maximizing every dollar and decide how to grow for the long term.  Even if five people share a 30-book subscription, there’s only ONE reader.  Think those five people can shuttle that reader amongst themselves for an entire month without impacting their ability to enjoy/read the books?  I doubt it.  It’s easier to just get a single reader for each person with a small monthly subscription.

Here’s a great example.  Manga.  How many people actually buy manga and read it more than once or twice?  Not many.  My daughter goes through manga like a pig goes through excrement.  Each book is $10 a pop.  How many do you think I buy her on a monthly basis?  One?  Two?  (Try none.)  Instead she spends tons of time at Borders or Barnes & Noble, sitting on the floor and reading.  And she’s young enough that coffee has no allure, so those stores aren’t making any money off her (and neither are the publishers).  What if she had an e-reader with a five-book subscription?  Five new manga every month and each month a check from me for the service.  Maybe she finds one or two that she wants so much that she asks for a physical copy.  Well hey – a bonus of $10-$20 on top of the monthly subscription, shared between store and publisher.

Are you getting the idea now, Mr. Publisher?  Do you see how magical this is?  And how easily you could implement something like this?  All you’d need is a Kindle equivalent with Whispersync but minimal local storage and featureset.  No need to provide external storage because you only need it to hold the maximum number of possible rentals (and 30 rentals won’t take up more than a gig).  No need for a keyboard – you could have them manage everything via a web site.  Every 30 days you’d get a burst from the transfer of data, but it’s basically the data equivalent of a 30 minute phone call (if that).  You could start with books and then expand it to magazines, newspapers, comics…the possibilities are only limited by what you can print electronically on a regular basis.  I can even tell you what the starting point should be in terms of a price per rental.  Want to know what it is?  Are you sure?  Want to maybe guess before I say it?  Here it is.

$3.00 per rental MAXIMUM

Why $3.00?  Because Amazon charges $2.99 for shipping used DVDs and $3.99 for shipping used books, and you’re not shipping anything.  At $3/rental for a five rental subscription, that’s $15/mo, which seems reasonable when you consider that buying two paperbacks will run you almost $16.  And it can only get cheaper from there.  In fact, over time, I’d recommend dropping the maximum price per rental to $2 once you figure out how many people will buy what price points.  DON’T GET GREEDY.  The music industry got greedy and they’re being destroyed.  The movie industry is greedy and is in the process of trying to fight getting destroyed.  You guys don’t know how to fight and you’re not big enough to make it a big fight.  Do it right and focus on the customer.  More so than music and movies, your industry is based on a fickle public.  Don’t give them reasons to hate you.

Now go on and build this thing before Amazon or Google does.  You’re welcome.