Good bye to the book as we know it?
By Alberto Mingardi
Amazon selling $9.99 monthly subscriptions for “all-you-can-read” on Kindle is exciting news.
Some have argued that this will change completely our relationship with the book as an object. Indeed, many people who invest lots of their time in reading tend to develop an obsession not just for reading books but for owning, touching, treasuring them. I belong to this club. Besides spending far too much money out of my pocket on Abebooks, I still frequently visit bouquinistes here and there. Sometimes I feel like a philanthropist at an orphanage in some old Disney cartoon movie: I would like to save them all from the odds of being acquired by a cold and not-so-really-appreciative new owner. This isn’t rational, nor it is an attitude I would recommend to anybody. And yet sometimes it has served me well.
For example, in one of my last “rescue missions”, I found a spotless copy of the 1958 Italian translation of “Atlas Shrugged.” I am very fond of this edition, not least because I find the dust cover truly beautiful. I already had one copy of the same edition, plus of course “Atlas Shrugged” in English, and a more recent (and I hope more successful: that 1958 edition didn’t sell much, in Italy) translation. However, I couldn’t resist the impulse to buy it, as I found the price rather convenient. I was happy to have rescued a little baby, and even more so when the bookseller told me (no way to check whether this was true) that the copy originally belong to the library of the Italian singer Franco Corelli (listen to him here singing Nessun dorma from Puccini’s Turandot – and read the comments as well).
This is just to say that I do understand why laudatores temporis actii may react with a sense of scandal to this new offer by Amazon, which seems to be a rather effective move towards the de-materalization of books.
Not that Amazon got there first, this time. Scribd and Oyster have been already offering a similar service, and they do so at a lower price.
However, I think once more Amazon’s initiative is interesting because what all these providers are doing is basically updating to the digital age something that has been around for quite a while: i.e., the idea of a public library. It is not true that we aren’t used to the idea of “renting” rather than “buying” a book. I would argue that public libraries have been an important part of almost any “heavy reader’s” life, and something people are passionate about preserving. Amazon is renewing the concept and, yes, adding a charge. But is the fact that we pay for a library’s membership enough to endanger the validity of the concept of a library?
“Kindle unlimited” will shock publishers and force them to revise their business model (something they’d rather not do). And will they be able to come out with a new one?
Virginia Postrel asks:
If Amazon manages to do away with (or perhaps limit) the agency model, it will then face the problem of how to compensate authors in an all-you-can-read rental model. Given the value of variety, a book can make a bundle more valuable even without selling a single copy. Should authors be compensated by how many copies they sell? Or should they get some kind of flat fee just for joining up? And will authors themselves, rather than publishers, have any say in the matter?