Amazon have recently launched a subscription service allowing what they refer to as ‘unlimited access to over 600,000 titles’ for $9.99 per month. Given other recent fusses around Amazon this has inevitably led to both praise and attacks from writers and publishers. But what interests me is how this sort of services affects us as readers and consumers of culture. Is this really a bold step forward?

(Spoiler alert: librarians can relax, I’m going to remember you this time)

Look, it’s the Netflix of potatoes!

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited isn’t the first subscription service to crop up in the past few years. The extraordinary success of TV streaming service Netflix means that these usually get dubbed ‘the Netflix of x’, whether x is books, maps, comics, llamas, potatoes, whatever.

I recently did a little freelance work for subscription comics service ComicsFix, and it highlighted the obvious advantage of these services for customers. This is a company charging $9.95 per month for access to products that normally cost more than that each, and that take less than two hours to read. Sure, they don’t have the big popular titles, but for voracious comics readers that might not matter next to the cost saving.

Wait, are you comparing comics with drugs? Short buzz, high cost, obsessive habits - alright, that's fair.

Short buzz, high cost, obsessive habits – comparing comics with drugs seems entirely fair.

So this isn’t exactly a high risk move for Amazon, and it’s one that we as customers have already proved that we like.

If it’s not bold is it at least fairly new?

Exhibit A: libraries

Stockport Central Library, how I love you

Stockport Central Library, how I love you

Libraries have been providing unlimited access to books for many times longer than Amazon has existed. And they don’t charge us (directly) for the privilege. And these days many of them provide access to e-books – in fact this one in Texas is all about the digital (thanks to Felipe for the link).

So no, not new, but headline grabbing.

So what’s in it for us?

For all that I’ve poked holes in the innovation side, I do think that subscription services have huge advantages for us as readers, viewers, listeners, and general cultural audiences.

They give us huge choice and variety.

They let us instantly access that variety without it taking up space around our houses.

By doing this, they may free us from an attachment to possessing things as a key part of the cultural process. This moves our focus more towards enjoying the experience of those things. I think that this is, by and large, a liberating change.

By removing cost-per-unit for the consumer this could also encourage us to try new things, supporting independent and obscure creators. I’d be wary of laying down a tenner to buy something like Tony Keaton and Andrew Herbst’s Wolves of Summer, an indie comic about werewolves and the Hitler Youth. But if there’s no extra cost we’re far more likely to dip in, try something new and find out if we like it – and having tried it on ComicsFix I loved Wolves of Summer.

Yes, but…

Of course it’s not all roses and sunshine. So later in the week I’ll be looking at the adjustments, the psychological shifts, and to an extent the limitations of this move towards paying for access rather than ownership.

In the meantime let me know what you think. Do you use any of these services? Have they affected your reading/viewing/listening habits? Would your attitude be different for books?

  1. malwen says:

    I am not much of an enthusiast for subscription services, as I struggle to make time to get anything like value from a subscription (witness my failure to maintain a gym subscription that required 3 visits a week to justify). I don’t get round to reading all the hard copy books or the e-books I have, and have unwatched DVDs, so no inclination at all to take on yet more stuff I won’t get round to. As you say, Andy, it needs a change in the way of thinking. When more services run like a UK public library and one is no longer accustomed to owning things, but borrows as required, and suffers no penalty for infrequent use, I may have time to participate.

    • That pile of stuff I won’t get round to weighs down on me as well. I’m still working on shifting my own perspective, realising that the cost in time of reading, watching and storing things is perhaps greater than the financial one, or can be these days, and picking things on the basis of valuing my time. That sounds good in theory, but in practice it’s tough!

  2. A few days ago I signed up for the Kindle unlimited plan you mention. Right now I’m doing a lot of reading and taking a look at a lot of books trying to find material that I really like. Amazon’s offering the plan free for 30 days. I figure that once I start getting charged, as long as I’m able to cancel if I want, and there’s no contract period longer than a month, it’s worth it.

    • Is there plenty of stuff there that makes it worthwhile for you? I’d be interested to hear how you’re getting on with it a month down the line as well, whether it’s working out well or not.

      • I found Princess Bride yesterday. I’ve only seen the movie and loved it—haven’t read it yet. Other stuff I’ve found is more obscure (some are well-reviewed, full-length novels), but I’ve hardly scratched the surface. From what I can tell so far, many things that are published through CreateSpace (an Amazon company) are automatically available to read for free with Kindle Unlimited. Not having the intent to mention my book but because its relevant, I will simply say that I noticed that my book shows up as available with KU. I would suspect that it has something to do with the options the author selects, such as “enable lending” and drm options. Books that I’ve checked out with KU show as “borrowed.” And my best guess so far is the length of time I can keep them is unlimited; at least until I cancel my KU and then they’d be auto-deleted from my Kindle.

        The best way to get an idea of the quality of books is to check out a Kindle Book category, such as Sci Fi, then select the option to only show KU-eligible titles. Just looking briefly there, I see a few books rated 4.8 stars with over 400 reviews. (I can’t say for sure if one is required to be a KU subscribe to see those results.)

        I hope that answers some questions for you and your visitors. And sure, I’d be happy to share more about my experience in a few weeks if you still are looking for opinions about it.

  3. I don’t read quickly enough for a subscription book service to be valuable to me (plus I work at a library, so….yeah), but I can see it being popular for a lot of people — even/especially as niche competition to a library collection. The problem with a library is limited funds = limited materials, and with the lending limits on many e-materials, patrons can end up in a huge queue. Many people don’t want to wait; on the library side, we added a Most Wanted collection that’s first-come first-serve, no renewals and no reserve list, and that’s helped. But I’m sure plenty of people would be happy to ignore queues entirely and just have a subscription.

    (As for comics, I’ve never had a subscription service and I hadn’t bought single-issue comics in ages… Then I went to Phoenix ComiCon and the BOOM! Studios people had a great booth so I ended up buying a bunch, then just recently they did a HumbleBundle which got me to buy a lot more… So a lot of these clever marketing tools like the HBs and subscriptions seem to be the new way to push e-content. I can dig it.)

    • If you’ve just rediscovered comics then I’m going to have to resist recommending all the things I love, but I can’t help mentioning Chew – seriously, it’s awesome.

      On libraries, I find it interesting that we work in a way where patrons have to queue to access an e-book. I presume this is a legal and business limit on how many people can read it at once, rather than one inherent to the technology, and a sign of the many ways in which we might need to rethink our process to make the most of ebooks.

      • Yep, it’s a limitation imposed by the e-book vendors, who also may require us to repurchase the title (at the higher library price) every 25-50 check-outs. This despite the fact that a well-made physical book can circulate more than 100 times before it has to be replaced (barring coffee spills or other mishaps). It’s very artificial and something that libraries have been struggling with for years, but there does need to be a balance between free and paid services, so… Maybe subscriptions will help provide that.

        • I hadn’t even thought of that, but maybe subscription services running via libraries would provide good value for all concerned. Or maybe they’d just be another way for businesses to squeeze public services – the world looks bleaker when I wake up at half five!

          • Our library buys a bunch of subscription services that we can then provide to our customers for free. We currently have an e-magazine and an e-music service, and just added streaming indie films, in addition to the subscription databases we’ve always had. The e-music has a monthly cap, but not sure about the magazines or movies — I should check. But yeah, we can coexist just fine when terms are reasonable.

  4. Finally (slightly) settled in beautiful Vermont for a few weeks, and am able to write a quick comment. I did get to read the post on the plane yesterday, which was a treat, since in the “old” days 🙂 one couldn’t do that sort of thing on the plane.

    Anyway, I love using Scribd. Though I plan to use Kindle Unlimited for at least the trial period month once I get my stash of must-reads caught up, I’ve searched the listing enough to know I (currently) prefer Scribd. Wider selection, including Janet Evanovich (some titles) and Michael Crichton (many! titles). At KU I look fwd to reading some Joe Konrath!

    Personally, the thing I like best about a subscription service (applies to Scribd, Oyster, KU, and libraries), is what you mention about being able to discover new work by authors I’m not familiar with, even if I’ve heard of them.

    Being in Scribd (and earlier Oyster, before I settled on Scribd), I’ve tried lots of short stories and sampled collections, and been able to cherry-pick chapters in pictorial books of Paris and story-collections of differing artists and writers. How nice to read and view the portions of a book without having to buy it first! Then, if a book appeals enough, and I want it, physically, then I know that’s something I really want.

    Libraries, as both CEOs of Scribd and Oyster have indicated, are a great compliment to their subscription services. This is in contrast to Kindle Unlimited which restricts self-published indie authors (but not other more well known writers) from not only not having their work with Scribd or Oyster or iTunes etc, but even in libraries.

    With Scribd or Oyster not requiring exclusivity, there ends up being literally hundreds of thousands of indie writers (many on best seller lists) AND big publisher titles. In fact, just this past week, National Geographic and others have added another huge selection of titles to Scribd.

    Anyway, I mention all these things about KU’s competitors, because they were out first, and seem to be driving the development of programs like Kindle Unlimited, which, ironically, is self-limiting via its exclusivity requirements – not very indie, self-publisher friendly, yet 🙂 Amazon’s a competitor, so hopefully that’ll change. It’d be great for readers (like me), and of course (also) writers like me.

    Nice post Andrew. The way the market is developing, esp with libraries too, I bet there’ll be a lot more info coming, thanks!

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