Netflix For Books

I have been spending a lot of time thinking about ebooks lately. There are a number of books I would not want to merely have a license to read, but to actually own, or more simply, in whatever format – paper, digital, stone tablet – I would not be able to lose my ability to access the text contained inside. Other books though? I just want to read and move on. Like watching movies on Netflix.

With Netflix streaming I can pay less than ten dollars per month for as much TV and movie content as I want. Why not a Netflix for books? One of the necessities of the streaming service is DRM. The studios are afraid, as usual, of piracy. Ditto ebooks. But where DRM is providing a benefit for Netflix users, allowing a vast selection of films and television shows that is simply not available from traditional cable and on-demand services. iTunes and Amazon downloads can not match the price per episode Netflix hits. Even their rentals are more expensive past only two or three shows per month.

But ebooks are a downgrade from traditional books. They do not have first sale rights, have limited if any ability to be lent to a friend, are subject to lock-in for a particular e-reader or reading app, and cost nearly as much as their physical counterpart. A streaming counterpart to the Kindle store would make a lot of sense. It would be like a library in that books would not be owned by readers. The inability to lend is lessened, the permanent access is not at stake and the file format is less likely to lead to lock-in or obsolence. 

The remaining problem of course is dedicated readers. On a tablet like the iPad, or something running Android, books could be streamed from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or anyone else, each in a separate app. The same is currently true for purchased ebooks, but the risk that one company shuts down and takes your digital library with them simply does not exist with rentals. I know even for the few free ebooks I have downloaded it is frustrating that some books are in one store and some are in another. This may not be the answer, but rental of ebooks, with a similar use model to existing libraries, should be part of the ultimate solution.

Wherein I Have An eBook Dilemma

The Kindle is a wonderful device. Ditto the nook. Small, light, easy to read screens and simple interfaces make buying and consuming the written word a futuristic experience. Yet I have not purchased an eBook reader or a digital book. Between the iPad and my phone (not to mention a laptop) I finally feel like I could, at times, supplement my physical books with digital versions. And I would have last night had it not been for one problem: that book I want has not been published yet in a digital edition. 

Every few years I break out the Star Wars classics by Timothy Zahn. Originally published in the early ‘90s, the Thrawn trilogy marked the first time the story from the original (before the prequels!) Star Wars saga continued – after the events in Return of the Jedi. As a Star Wars fan and nearly exclusive reader of non-fiction, these books are a great vacation. Like the movies that preceded them, Zahn’s stories are ideal for repeat exploration. And my copies are well read.

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With a long plane ride in my future and a but of leisure time this summer, I thought about simply grabbing a copy from the Kindle store. I could read it on the iPad, my phone or laptop and not have to drag three dog-eared volumes cross-country.

To my surprise, the first book in the series, Heir to the Empire, is not available yet. Somewhat strangely, it is available for pre-order, with delivery later this month. A couple weeks later that I would have liked, but what are the odds that I look for a digital copy weeks before it comes out? There is a twentieth anniversary edition being released in the fall, which I am likely to purchase. Of all the authors out there, I’ve supported Timothy Zahn pretty well over the years. 

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But the question is why is the digital copy of a twenty-year-old book not available today? Why have a preorder? Why not just push it out? The publisher either has the text now or they do not. I doubt someone is slavishly typing each word right now and they will be finished by June 28th. Right now I could download the text in PDF or other digital formats from torrent sites. So why not Amazon? To be fair, the nook and iBooks stores are also without the digital version because the publisher is still working on it.

When we all began ripping CDs in the 90s it was great. This music powered the surge of MP3 players. I own the book, not the text, but there is no way to say “I own this book, let me space shift my copy for travel.” Maybe someday.