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.