CHECK IT OUT

The future of books looks a lot like the past

The future of books is more books—books on Kindles, books on iPads, books on laptops, books made of paper (still), books as podcasts, books as apps, books as blogs, books as books.

Familiar, in other words. But also high-tech. And judging by what we heard at the Digital Book World conference and expo in New York this month, the future of how we will find all these books will feel the exact same way.

The library, Spotified

Last July, Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited, where subscribers pay $10 a month for access to 700,000 books available on their Kindle e-readers. Kindle executive Russ Grandinetti reported to the conference that the service “overall, is healthy,” while sales of “à la carte” books have remained relatively strong, compared with online sales for music singles and TV shows. But the changing way in which we consume media online—streaming versus downloading, borrowing instead of owning—will become the way we consume books, too.

Applying the Spotify and Netflix model to digital books—it sounds forward-thinking, but it’s not much different from the idea Benjamin Franklin brought to Philadelphia in 1731, when he established a subscription library, where members paid a fee to check out books.

Nearly three centuries later, companies such as Amazon, and rivals like Oyster and Scribd, are trying to bring essentially the same idea to our tablets, already with some success. Scribd, for example, tells Quartz that subscribers to its unlimited e-book service has grown an average of 31% per month since it began offering the plan in October 2013.

“Subscription is a model that succeeds at some level,” Amazon’s Grandinetti said. “I don’t think books will be immune to this.”

Everyone is a publisher

There were many other not-new ideas on show at Digital Book World. The expo reaffirmed, for example, that it’s getting easier to self-publish books.

Brady Kroupa, the product director at Blurb—a site that helps writers turn ideas into digital and physical books—said that financing options like Kickstarter can replace the need for a publishing house to upfront the costs for a book, even one that ultimately proves unsuccessful. Enthusiasts can vote with their wallets for niche proposals, which myriad companies like Blurb, or Ingram, Manipal Digital, and Ixxus (all of which were at the expo) are looking to help turn into realities.

Much in the same way Garageband and Myspace freed indie musicians from costly software, recording time, and promotional tools, companies geared toward laptop-wielding writers have sprung up to help launch the book industry’s next breakout author.

But Amazon and Apple still win

The majority of the indie e-book business still runs through the same big players as most other media content today. Many of the indie-book-building sites like Blurb sell the books they produce on Amazon or Apple’s sites. Amazon is still the largest retailer of e-books in the US, and Apple is closing in on second place. Both take at least a 30% cut of e-books sold directly for the Kindle or on the iBooks Store.

While Amazon wouldn’t release Kindle Unlimited subscriber numbers, its Prime service is believed to have up to 50 million paying customers. It’s not unreasonable to think that Amazon could roll its two on-demand subscription services into one offering in the future. Apple may be moving into the book subscription space also. So while the book-borrowing model may not be a new idea, it is one on which tech giants and indie publishers alike seem to be pegging the near future.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search