The Latest Random “Future of Ebooks” Prediction

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.


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

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