The Latest Random “Future of Ebooks” Prediction

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Free kindles? You bet.The only question is “How long will it take?”

Columns  •  Mar 08, 2011

Free kindles?

You bet.

The only question is “How long will it take?”

In 2010, a few random bloggers were musing on the idea that Amazon should just go ahead and give away Kindles in order to sew up the ebook market for the long haul (the long haul, in the digital age, being three years at the outside).

Recently Amazon announced its free live-streaming video content for Prime members, those who have chipped in their $79 a year for discounts, free shipping, and other bonuses. The moment I saw that announcement, it confirmed one of my beliefs about the future of e-books: a major e-book source is going to launch a subscription model, where you pay a flat fee and get access to all the books in that source’s catalog. Sort of a Netflix for books.

We saw how e-books killed the chain bookstores, and how Redbox and Netflix teamed up to kill video stores. This may be the move that kills e-book stores before they really have a chance to form.

I thought last year some of the major publishers might move swiftly to capitalize on the one asset they have in the e-book era—a ton of content on hand and available for license. Yet those publishers did the exact opposite of launching a subscription to their books and allowing people to get all the books they wanted for, say, $9.99 a month. Publishers were still laboring under the unfortunate (for them) illusion that their content had intrinsic artificial value just because they said so. They also failed to employ their massive back catalogs, instead preferring to let their cheapest resource molder away while they “wait to see what happens.”

Here’s what happens: you become obsolete. They should have listened to readers, who were voting with their wallets and moving to independent authors and small presses in droves, finding new authors at fair prices. I don’t weep for corporate hubris. The only downside was the great books that didn’t get to reach readers because of short-sighted corporate politics.

Anyway, bashing New York’s mistakes was old and sad at about the point Steve Jobs was holding a press conference and making the hilarious claim that Apple controlled nearly a third of the ebook market. So let’s move past that and explore what it means to you, the indie reader and the indie writer.

First, I think everything’s going to get a lot cheaper, and the $9.99 debate will seem silly in retrospect. Now the only question is whether 99 cents will become the standard price before subscription models and free ebooks rule the day.

Obviously, readers love “free,” but let’s be careful what we wish for. If the author doesn’t have a way to make money, there won’t be much new content. Professional writers won’t exist and all your new stories will derive from the precious hands of dilettantes who “write for love.” Obviously without investing a whole lot of time at the craft.

But I suspect Amazon—the one company that over and over has pushed the edge and led the charge here—will protect some value, and that it will closely follow the Netflix model where some books are available “one at a time” while others can be downloaded at any time. In other words, there will be a forced restriction of some kind that gives popular books and authors additional value.

I won’t predict how the money will be divided up, but I suspect it will be a lot like the way recording artists and songwriters are paid when their song plays on the radio—pennies, or fractions of pennies, per play.

Some innovative indies may pool resources and create their own catalogs and subscription services, but it will take a lot of time and commitment, and indies aren’t always know for their communal collaboration. Individual authors may find ways to monetize their own content, but again, they will always lose strength of numbers unless they are on par with Seth Godin and James Patterson.

But predictions keep proving themselves foolish and outdated as soon as they are uttered. Now I want to take back my “All books will be 99 cents by 2015” prediction that people laughed at last year. Because it could happen as soon as 2012.

Heck. Who knows? It may be 99 cents a month by then.

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Scott Nicholson is a reckless futurist and a relentless optimist. He’s also written 13 novels, including The Red Church, Forever Never Ends, and The Skull Ring, as well as the children’s book If I Were Your Monster. He’s also written seven story collections and three screenplays and works as a freelance editor. His website has more reckless stuff: Hauntedcomputer.com

  • http://www.jobreepublishing.com/wordpress/ Margaret Lake

    Not sure how I feel about that, Scott. I think the Netflix model would work for the Big Six but I think it would kill the indie movement.

  • http://a-r-williams.com A.R. Williams

    Hey Scott,

    Stopped by from the Kindleboards to see what you had to say.

    I’m not sure I agree with the idea of a subscription model. Is it possible, sure, but there would have to be a big change in the way contracts are written for that to happen.

    How would authors get paid if the subscription model did away with the purchase of individual books?

    How would that initial subscription fee be divided among all the people who needed to get paid for their work involved in the production of the book (retailer, publisher, author, and agent)?

    There seems like there would be just too much controversy about how these percentages would be paid to everyone.

  • http://www.hauntedcomputer.com/newsletter.htm Scott Nicholson

    Margaret, I don’t think history cares about the “indie movement.” If it works for the world and for readers, it will have a place. I think it will regardless, and a stronger place than before.

    AR, if it works for movies, which are far more complex, then I don’t see why it can’t work for books, which only have one rights holder (per territory). It could work as either a flat fee (you get X per year for making your book part of the library, or you get x cents per download. Certainly less than you can earn now, but it’s not like inventing the wheel. The wheel is there.

    Scott

  • http://wwwolfgang.blogspot.com/ Wolfgang Kolb

    What you said about a bunch of indies banding together to start their own catalog…BINGO, that’s the model. It’s called co-op model. Artists have done this with some success. They band together and start their own gallery with studios available for rent in the back. The battle is really setting up for where the writer is going to even post their work. Amazon is already contracting directly with some writers. It’s shaping up to be one heck of a battle with some publishers falling and others rising into major forces. Just think if you could only get Stephen King on Smashwords or Amazon(I know it’s preposterous, but think about it). The more and more people speculate , the more this is starting to look like when cable hit and then grew into what it is today–MAJOR AUDIENCE FRAGMENTATION. The problem publishers are going to have is that they have NO BRAND AWARENESS amongst their consumers. Few people buy according to publisher. This overlook could be their undoing, or their opportunity. I still like the Indie Writer Co-op idea. Sweeter royalties to the authors. Now get to work on it Scott!

  • http://www.nomadhacker.com Michael

    I definitely agree that e-books are going to be less than $10, as well they should be for such an ephemeral format. They definitely should be less than paperbacks (instead of more like some currently try to be). New York’s Big 6 are full of delusions right now.

    However, I’m not sure you can reliably draw the conclusion that all e-books will be less than .99 or that their value should approach free. First, there is the issue of content value that you mention, that professional authors would disappear and your ‘dilettantes’ being the only ones who could afford to keep producing content. But I don’t think you appreciate exactly the numbers behind that. If ‘standard’ price for books everywhere went very far south of .99, that would already cause the issue you mention. Professional authors would not be able to make money on a dolled out ‘pennies per play’ model that you later mention.

    The second issue is if you’re looking at the path that the movie and music industries have taken, you need to remember that model doesn’t exactly fit the same scenario. The market for movies and music was already undercut and devalued by there being no legitimate source to purchase downloads of the content. People had to get their content from Napster, Limewire, Torrent, etc. People grew used to digital content necessarily meaning free content for these two things, so paying more than a pittance seemed unreasonable.

    However, with books, as soon as there was a viable digital platform for consuming them (kindle), there was also a platform for legitimately purchasing. So consumers never got used to the default for digital content being free.

    I think that it’s perfectly reasonable for the ebook price to range from about .99 to maybe 4.99 on the outside — with a couple of bucks being a reasonable standard price. We’ll probably see .99 becoming the standard to replace the drugstore paperbacks, and 2.99 becoming the standard higher-end book, with occasional hot ‘Harry Potter’ style items being 4.99ish.

    I don’t think it’s reasonable, though, to expect authors to plan for their content to be worth ‘pennies per play’–or less! ‘Play’ for a book is a lot more than just a two minute song streaming on Pandora or the radio, or even a 2 hour movie on Hulu (which is surely more itself than the music is per play). It’s a full day, at least, of content. Probably stretching out to days or weeks for a lot of people. (Also, books are inherently slightly more niche than movies or music. Everyone listens to music or watches movies so making it up on massive volume of sales is no problem.)