A Modest eBook Proposal

I’ve got an eBook idea that I’d like to bounce off the dozen or so people who read my stuff. I don’t know if it would work. That’s why it’s called an proposal and not a plan. Ready? Here it is. To any publiser willing to experiment with a new distribution model I propose the following:

  1. We will give you a big bag of money each year.
  2. With this bag of money we expect our library patrons to be able to access your entire catalog of electronic material (books and audiobooks)
  3. We also require that the one person per title model be done away with.
    1. We’d like for our people to be able to download any book at any time without having to wait on a digital copy.

That is all we really require. So what are we willing to do to make this more palatable to you?

  1. We will limit the number of titles an individual has checked out to a very low number.
    1. How about 2 at a time?
  2. These digital copies will be packed full of DRM
    1. So copying your material will be difficult for the average user.
    2. The titles will also be unsuable after a few weeks of being checked out.
      1. and need to be checked out again
  3. We will pay a bonus for titles that are very popular.
    1. So if a certain title is checked out 100 times (just a number I made up) we will give you a small bag of money.
      1. On the flip side of this; if a title is purchased by one of our people while he/she has it checked out we get a credit.

This seems like a good idea to me. Libraries get access to a lot of eBooks, publishers get paid, and authors of popular books get paid extra. Granted, there are a lot of details to be worked out. Like:

  1. How big is that annual bag of money?
  2. How big is that smaller bag of money?
    1. How often is it paid?
  3. What is a reasonable number of checkouts to trigger a bonus payment?
  4. How do we set it all up?
    1. Technically speaking

Anyone want to discuss this proposal? Is it silly? Will it work? I’ve got no idea. I’m just tired of people complaining about eBook distribution and not providing any alternatives. So here is an alternative. This is just a starting point. Let’s talk.

reposted with permission from his blog

17 Comments on A Modest eBook Proposal

  1. The good news is that this model is already in use in most academic libraries.

    Unfortunately, subscription based plans also mean that you lose access when you lose funding. And who doesn’t have funding issues this year?

  2. Interesting thought, so taking a look at some numbers. (These are 2009 numbers)

    There are 122,101 libraries in the U.S. according to the American Library association. These are Public, Academic, School, Special, Armed Forces, & Government.

    Net sales for publishing where 23.9 Billion on books and 313 million on e books in 2009. For a total of 24.2 Billion.

    Divide net sales by total number of libraries and that comes to 198,303 dollars per library. I dont think to any publisher would call that a big bag of money.

    In my opinion corps like to compare apples and oranges to confuse people to increase their profits. They will look at what individual libraries pay as opposed to what the total is that they bring in from all of them. Just look at e-book prices vs Bound book prices.

    Have some other thoughts but this is a good starting place if this discussion grows.

  3. This sounds a lot of like the Netflix model. We could call it Netboox. I’ll pay 8.95 per month for two ebooks at a time that I can use on most platforms i.e. ereaders, android, ios, Windows, OSX, and Linux (it could happen). When I finish one I return it and get another ebook. For an extra small fee unlimited ebooks could also be streamed via flash or html5 to desktops that couldn’t necessarily to be ported to other devices or ripped. These would mostly be used by students writing papers who need access to newer books that aren’t at the library but who don’t necessarily need to own them either.

  4. I got the answers from a honest author, his agent and his publisher:

    1. How big is that annual bag of money?
    A: whatever your income is +50%

    2. How big is that smaller bag of money?
    A: the above, less 0,001%
    2.1. How often is it paid?
    a: Hourly

    3. What is a reasonable number of checkouts to trigger a bonus payment?
    A: 0,1 (reading the title of the book, which is our IP, is enough to meke you owing us)

    4. How do we set it all up?
    A: First you give us your money, then we can talk about books (just talk, note).
    4.1. Technically speaking
    a: Paypal, Credit Card or Wire Transfer will do.


  5. Seriously, I’ve asked some writers how much did they want to grant me unlimited lifetime access to the content of one of their titles, whatever the format is (audio, electronic, paper, on line, ….) .
    I still don’t have an answer.
    When I say “unlimited” and “lifetime”, they feel somehow deprived…

    So, I think the only possibile model that will work is the one we have now: honest customers will be squeezed like lemons, less honest and technically advanced ones will read for free.

  6. Thanks for the comments and thanks to Nate for posting it here. I’m interested to see what people who aren’t employed by libraries think about eBooks and libraries. This proposal is just something to begin conversation. I’m not wedded to any specifics. I’m really looking for ideas.

    @Nate you are absolutely right about subscription based plans. Is there a way for libraries to actually own a digial copy of a book while the publisher retains the rights to it? I have no idea.

    @Dragon when you look at it that way then it isn’t a very large bag of money is it? It’s probably smaller for many libraries across the country. We’d probably have to pool the money somehow. How? Not sure.

    @Jason Netboox is a great name. I like your idea. Could it work for a library? I hope so.

    @Format C: yikes! You’re probably right. Know any good negotiators?

  7. You mentioned to Nate:

    “@Nate you are absolutely right about subscription based plans. Is there a way for libraries to actually own a digital copy of a book while the publisher retains the rights to it? ”

    No one can truly own digital. It really is nothing more than a combination of 1’s & 0’s. You can hold a book you can’t hold an epub, pdf, mobi. It is not the file you hold.. just the instrument to decode the 1’s & 0’s. Lose a book it is gone, lose
    your kindle and all your ebooks can be restored with the purchase of a new kindle.

    Rights is another matter all together. Maybe the question is: Do the rights on digital media bear the same cost to consumer as physical media? Once it is transformed to digital all production costs are gone, storage costs become negligible, and distribution becomes endless.

    Just some thoughts

  8. Spotify/Netflix for books has one major problem: publishers.

    Netflix solved the problem by starting as a lending library by mail order, to the supply side, and only using the subscription model on the customer side. Spotify went into business in an already vastly evolved marketplace full of electronic distribution deals.

    Netflix-Classic-for-books with a view to eventually moving to a “streaming” model of ebooks would probably have the best chance of succeeding, but I think you’d have to start without the unlimited aspects, and simply be a lending library for the whole country with all the economies of scale that implies (many books could probably have just a couple of copies nationwide, instead of having one archived in every library system o mayb available through ILL).

    Note that this would essentially spell the end of physical libraries very very quickly. And I think someone’s going to do it sometime soon. There’s going to be a lot of vacant monumental buildings in ten years.

    Actually, I think the reason it hasn’t happened yet is mainly that kindle isn’t able to check out library books (because amazon can see that this would kill them as well), and that publishers really hate library ebooks vehemently.

  9. why would anyone buy books anymore? that would have to be one big bag of loot.

  10. @Dragon that is a better question and one I don’t think libraries will like the answer to.

    @Jasper I’d be interested to see how that kind of system would work. The end of physical libraries is a possibility. Hopefully not, but that is another discussion and one that library people should be having now…not in 10 years.

    @burger flipper it would indeed have to be a big bag of loot.

  11. curiosity killed the.. // 26 March, 2011 at 1:09 am // Reply

    i dont think having an ebook distribution system in the footsteps of netflix would necessarily spell the doom of real libraries.
    and i’ll even give 5 reasons why a real library would be useful even if netboox was out on the market.
    1. people still love reading real books
    2. minus the gas and card renewal fees the library is 99% free still today.
    3.not every publisher will adopt the netboox philosophy so there will be wide gaps of book series you will have to either still buy or borrow from physical libraries.
    4. not everyone can afford ebook readers/computers or justify buying them to read once in a while.
    5. what libraries do for the community especially for the kids couldn’t be reproduced by a corporation period.

  12. I think that there are several reasons why this won’t work.

    The primary reason is that a “netboox” type model will end up populated only by unpopular or unknown authors, with the popular authors staying away. Because there is a *huge* difference between what bestselling authors make and what less popular authors make, and I don’t think that the popular authors will give this up.

    My library buys around 300 copies of books that it expects to be very popular (Harry Potter, Tom Clancy, etc.); despite this, there is still a weeks or months-long waitlist for these books. For less popular authors, the library buys one copy. So bestselling authors are already getting paid 300x more than “regular” authors. I don’t see that level of bonus built into this system.

    The second reason I don’t think that this model will fly is because it will compete too much with booksellers. As things are now, libraries offer free books, but the tradeoff is convenience; there is a waiting list for the most popular books, or you only have a limited period of time to read them. And if libraries want their books to be more conveniently available…they buy more books. With this system, they just have to buy the book once, meaning that bestselling authors not only lose out on their library revenue, but they also lose out more on their bookstore revenue. Thus, they would not agree to this.

    3. Two books at a time is not a meaningful limit when books can be downloaded instantly with no waiting. One book at a time is not a meaningful limit when it takes 1 minute to download a new book.

    4. All this plan really amounts to paying authors less for their works, and taking away much of their ability to make money outside of the library by selling their books in bookstores. There are no advantages to the authors (or at least not to the successful authors), since this plan undercuts the principle that authors are paid based on the number of books that they sell.

    • curiosity killed the.. // 27 March, 2011 at 5:17 pm // Reply

      id like to add some things to your lists general theme.
      writing a book does not involve a multi million dollar investment in resources, props, talent,special effects,and shear manpower.
      a movie/tv show does for the most part. thats why i think netflix is tolerated and encouraged because the more ways to get people to see their stuff puts more revenue into studio pockets.
      as Andrew’s pointed out the incentives for the writers just doesn’t seem to plausible.
      there would have to be a tier system put in place based on popularity of books downloaded and that sounds a bit to much like flat fee pricing which doesnt work well with books wide range of prices.
      they would probably be better off pitching this netboox system in a flat fee + x amount of books you download per month.
      say 15 dollars a month for 10 downloads + $1 for every one afterwards. then at least the company gets their monthly flat fees and the publishers get the buck and divide that up with the authors.

  13. Interesting points. Bear in mind that an authors proceeds in royalties significantly decreases with an e-book sale and the publishers actual payment significantly increases.

    So if you focus on the authors best interest… then it would be safe to say no ebooks at all is in the best interest of the author.

    • curiosity killed the.. // 28 March, 2011 at 1:19 am // Reply

      well this discussion is not about ebook sales its ebook rentals i say that difference alone makes it at least viable as a low cost alternative to buying the books outright and better suited than directly visiting the library.
      its sort of a middle ground between the 2.
      and on the bright side if it became a norm then it would open up a flood of new readers to the ebook market and hopefully drive the costs down for tablets/ebooks in the future

  14. Thanks to everyone for taking the time to think about and comment on this idea. It seems the general consensus is that it probably won’t work for libraries. I appreciate the honesty. What good is an idea if you keep it to yourself? Maybe I’ll come up with another one.

    • curiosity killed the.. // 29 March, 2011 at 12:40 pm // Reply

      while i agree libraries would definitely not be able to benefit from this if an individual company came in and stole a bunch of their patrons. the basic model of netboox concept could be applied in another format. if the individual publishers created their own monthly subscriptions of ebook rentals.
      ie publisher x opens their full library of titles as a pay per view system like i mentioned above something like 10-15 bucks a month standard to get your foot in the door and you get 10 titles you can rent out. and anything beyond the initial 10 would be a buck more each.
      i think that enough people would do slap down 15 bucks just to read that many books even if they didnt own them at the end of the month.
      and considering the big publishers have thousands of books to choose from it wouldnt be a long shot to say this model could in time replace the paperback industry of book sales.
      hardbacks are sold 1st they are kept out in the wild internet free for the 1st 3 months and when the timeframe that a paperback version would be released at a much cheaper pricetag they introduce them into the publishers rental netboox.
      the publishers dont have to print as many paperbacks could be even a 75% reduction over time.
      people would get the option to read the hot books at a cheaper price.
      and the authors could actually benefit from an increased “sales” figure by means of a new contract for rentals based on percentage downloaded.

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