I've now seen two references to a recent prediction made by industry consultant Bill Rosenblatt in regards to the emergence of ebook subscription services over the next decade. The first was via BoSacks newsletter and the second was via the Hotsheet by Jane Friedman. Here's Rosenblatt's recent post on Forbes that details his line of thinking.
I have problems with Mr. Rosenblatt's prediction of the emergence of ebook subscription services over the next decade for a couple of reasons. First, from a more visceral level in my gut, I certainly hope buffet-style reading does not win the day, or the decade.
I think it is critical that we differentiate between niche subscription services and something more like Kindle Unlimited's all-you-can-read style subscription service. These are very different in their effects on readers and therefore their effects on storytelling.
Buffet-style reading will turn back the clock to the days of cable packages.
A niche service provides something very specifically requested and desired by the reader. A buffet-style subscription provides "unlimited" access to a whole bunch of content some of which will probably (or hopefully) be desired by the reader. This difference is comparable to the difference between subscribing to a specific cable network and purchasing a package of three hundred channels in order to get the one network you really want.
For as antiquated as publishing is when compared to television and music, I certainly hope the promise of the next decade is not "reading meets Direct TV" or "books plus Time Warner." And this is exactly the kind of future being predicted (possibly unintentionally) by Ronsenblatt's piece. To be fair, the piece was by no means an editorial and Ronsenblatt says nothing about his hopes or desires. He merely prognosticates. I am most definitely editorializing.
Publishing has not technologically matured to the point of genuine content streaming.
This leads me to my second problem with Mr. Rosenblatt's prediction. He opens the article by comparing "ebook" subscription services with digital music, movies, and television subscription services while totally glossing over a critical difference between publishing and these other industries. I'm a child of the 80's, so I automatically hear the Sesame Street song playing in the back of my head, "One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn't belong."
Can you guess which one it is? Ebooks! Yep, digital publishing in the United States and most of the world is so far behind music, film, and television that we've completely skipped a step. We're now talking about publishing subscription services while the publishing industry is still living in the mindset equivalent to downloading mp3s to mp3 players. Subscription services for music, television, and film are all streaming.
Digital publishing has yet to produce a truly successful streaming platform other than Tencent's China Literature (QQ Reading is it's most popular streaming literature app), which is beyond any doubt a massive success in China. Amazon created Kindle Unlimited as a partial solution, but the program is still built on their retail ebook store's framework. Amazon's innovation was to compensate content creators based on "page reads" rather than ebook product downloads. This results in something that feels partially like streaming an ebook in that the user is able to select a title and read "for free."
But there is no other benefit for the reader and all of the detriment for the creator. With KU there is no interactivity for the reader. QQ Reading enables writers to upload weekly, daily or even hourly to readers. Fans can pay in app currency to be in live chats with content creators.
Right now I'm streaming music over Soundcloud, and I have the option to leave a comment at any particular moment in the song. I can create a playlist of songs already uploaded to SoundCloud by the original artists and share that playlist with others. I can embed the playlist on my website.
While the reader temporarily "benefits" from gorging themselves on all the available ebooks they can read in KU, the writer is subject to a payment system worse than the one that has been broadly criticized by musicians for years due to the fact that Amazon's subscription service is openly "pay to play." Kindle Unlimited is a subscription service built on a retail store and ad platform NOT on an actual content streaming platform.
This is a very bad thing, and unless we see either an innovative start up or a combination of publishing stalwarts come together to create a legitimate streaming platform to compete with Amazon's current model, I sincerely hope our current pay-to-play, buffet-style reading is not the future. If that happens, we all lose.