I have a roundup on Amazon’s latest innovation over at Mere O Notes so if you’re wanting to learn more about Kindle Unlimited, start there.
I. Our Technocratic Libertarianism
While Mark Lilla is basically correct in saying that we live in a libertarian era, that term is not without its problems. (Ross Douthat made this point quite well in a recent blog post.) Despite our libertarian tendencies, we are still creatures bearing the image of God and living in a world as creatures made by that God. So both the essence of our humanity and the nature of our creaturely existence constrains our ability to function as completely autonomous beings. But when you have a society dedicated to such stark libertarianism to the cost of all non-coercive forms of community, this necessarily leaves only the coercive forces of big business and big government as the coherent social bodies able to shape communal life.
Thus we have services like Netflix and now Kindle Unlimited, both of which are premised on giving the user a seemingly infinite amount of choice, yet all of the choices available are defined by the business providing the service. So our experience of the service might seem libertarian because there are so many choices and there’s nothing stopping us from choosing anything on offer.
Yet the choices available to our libertarian will are themselves defined and handed down by the only viable social bodies left to us. We just don’t notice them as much these days because Amazon and Netflix have so completely blended into the fabric of our lives that we seldom look beyond them when looking for a movie or book. This is particularly troubling with Amazon given their current spat with Hachette and their history of questionable behavior regarding Kindle books.
II. Reading and Subscription Services
Another question we ought to ask about Kindle Unlimited is how this service might change the way we read. There’s two significant possible changes.
The first is a sort of relocation of our reading which is simply a continuation of the change already brought about by Amazon. When I purchase books online on a site that allows me to search by author or title or uses a sophisticated algorithm to show me books, this almost inevitably makes reading a much more solitary act. My reading selections will be largely based on whatever I enter into the search bar and then whatever the algorithm suggests based on what I enter into the search bar.
True, I can still informally ask for recommendations from friends, but the act of searching for and buying the book itself is done individually and is mediated through an impersonal service with the aid of an algorithm based entirely on my own private behavior. So other persons only come into the act incidentally. This is a stark contrast to other methods of purchasing books, such as going to a bookstore where you at least have the aid of a bookseller and may also easily bring friends with you to browse. While we’re on that topic, browsing itself is drastically changed with Amazon because you only see books you search for or that it suggests to you based on that algorithm–you can’t simply stumble upon a book while browsing a section of a bookstore.
Granted, reading has been becoming a more private act for centuries. The changes with Kindle Unlimited aren’t simply the continuation of a process begun by the web or by the rise of eReaders. They’re a continuation of changes sparked 500 years ago by Gutenberg. So the point here isn’t necessarily to panic or start ringing alarm bells or shouting about how terrible Amazon is, but simply to recognize what is actually happening.
III. The Limits of Subscription Services
This brings us to a third point: I’m actually not sure Kindle Unlimited is going to work. There are several massive problems with this subscription model viewed from a purely business perspective: The first problem is that people simply don’t read that many books, so it won’t make sense for a large portion of the population to pay $120 a year for access to thousands of books they’ll never read. They’d be better off paying $10 per month for one book that they specifically want rather than $10 a month for access to thousands of books they don’t want. Amazon’s gamble is that people value choice itself more than the experience of reading one particular book they’re interested in. In the case of Netflix, that gamble has paid off, but I’m not sure it will work in the same way with books.
Second, as Netflix has learned, it is not easy to get the people who create TV shows or movies to agree to include their product in a subscription-based model. There’s a reason Netflix has started creating their own shows, after all. The problem here for Amazon is even greater for a couple reasons. First, publishers hate them so they’re not going to be terribly inclined to participate in a subscription-based model that has already wreaked havoc on the music industry and has had only middling success with movies. (More on that in a moment.) Second, it’s not nearly as easy for Amazon to start producing its own content people will pay to see as it is for Netflix. Netflix can put their profits to work making House of Cards or Orange is the New Black. But it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Netflix is able to do the same. Would they pay Stephen King some massive amount of money to write books exclusively for Amazon that would only be available on the Kindle? Why would King agree to such an arrangement? And if such a model ever did take off, how would Amazon dictate what their writers would write about? (These problems, of course, are similar to the ones raised when Bezos bought the Washington Post.)
Third, generally speaking it seems like subscription models do really well with serialized works but not as well with single, self-contained works. Put another way–Netflix is awesome for TV shows but sucks for movies. With TV shows, the subscription model actually works really well because the amount of content being created is absolutely massive and it actually works really well for people to have a subscription that gives them access to all of it at once. It works for consumers because buying an entire TV show’s DVD set is really expensive and it works for producers because it’s the easiest, best way for consumers to find their product.
Breaking Bad has been a huge winner thanks to this model as have Arrested Development and Firefly, both of which have continued to do well long after their abrupt cancellations. But when we look at movies on Netflix, it’s a different story. Looking for a movie on Netflix is a lot like browsing through the old 4 for $20 DVD shelves at Blockbuster: The movies available are available for a reason. At the moment, the only services providing movies we actually want to via subscription service are probably illegal. Granted, this may simply mean that Hollywood is massively backwards in how it handles movie distribution and a better system would make streaming movies a more viable option. But from what we’ve seen so far, it’s TV shows and their 50 hours of content that benefit from subscription models.
This then raises questions for the subscription model with books on Amazon. Having a subscription service for something like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones might make sense because the entire Harry Potter set will run you $150 if you buy them new in hardback. (Though even here if you simply buy paperbacks from a used bookstore as they become available, you can probably get the whole set for around $50.) But there aren’t many book series that have that level of success and that would justify a subscription fee in the minds of readers. Most the books we read tend to be stand-alone books that we’ll either want to buy or, if we aren’t interested in owning them, check out from the local library for free–which brings us back to that first point.
Generally speaking with Amazon, I can get the logic of what they’re doing from a business perspective, even if I almost never approve of it. But in this case I’m really not convinced that this service is going to go anywhere. Unless Amazon can get a really fantastic selection of books for Kindle Unlimited, I can’t see this going anywhere. And based on their relationship with publishers, I doubt they can manage to do that.