Amazon is disrupting the publishing world….again

by Sarah Firisen

Books have always mattered to me. When I was single in my 20s, I mentioned to my then boss that whenever I first visited a date’s apartment I would look at his bookshelves. He didn’t get it. Why did it matter what books a person read? I tried to explain that for starters, it mattered to me that someone actually read at all. Soon after this, I met my now ex-husband. The circumstances of our meeting had a tangential connection to his love of the Thomas Pynchon novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (long story short, we connected over the Internet in its early days and his persona was Tyrone Slothrop). I’d never read it. For our second date, he brought me a copy of the book. To this day, that was the single most romantic gift a man has ever given me. When we moved into together a mere 6 weeks later, the merging of our books was a major undertaking – interestingly, while there were a lot of authors we didn’t share a love of, like Pynchon, we had a lot of books which completed each other’s sets of various authors. We gave away a fair number of duplicates. When we divorced 18 years later, the process of remembering whose books were whose was challenging. I actually left some behind by accident. He kindly returned them to me, or let me take them off his bookcase, when one, or both us realized. Books have always mattered to me.

But how many of those books have I ever reread? Yes, there’s my beaten up copy of Pride and Prejudice that I’ve been rereading over and over since I was 17. And every so often, searching for something to read, I go shopping in my own bookcase and I either find a book that I own and never ended up reading or a book that I read so many years ago, that I read it again with totally fresh eyes and no memory of what happens (a middle aged memory has its pluses).  So all these books sit on my bookshelves, taking up precious space in my one bedroom apartment. It goes against everything I feel about books to throw them away. And giving them away involves boxing them up and schlepping them, something that isn’t so easy without a car. When my father died, some of the more meaningful items I inherited from him were books. Books that I remember sitting on his bookshelves all through my childhood. So a part of me feels that I should keep my books so my children can one day have these kinds of mementos.

So books matter to me. But for quite a few years now, I’ve barely bought anything but e-books and they’ve been “cluttering” up my phone and iPad, unread after the first reading. I’ve even switched from my hard copy version of Pride and Prejudice to my now digitally threadbare e-book copy.  But these days, I don’t even buy e-books. I subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s book subscription service, where I can “borrow” up to 10 at a time. Not all books and authors are on this service, and from what I’ve read, Amazon tightly controls the authors who are, but through it, I’ve discovered new books and authors I would never have read otherwise and who I’ve fallen in love with. I like historical novels, particularly mysteries, and Kindle Unlimited keeps me in a, well unlimited, supply of these. At $9.99 a month, if I read one book a month, and I often read more than one a week, it’s a great deal.

Quite predictably, there’s been a lot of hand wringing by the publishing and bookselling industry over this service, and I’m sure for very legitimate reasons, “Kindle Unlimited is essentially a Spotify for books, and Spotify has resulted in lower revenues for artists; there’s reason to think Kindle Unlimited could unleash the same havoc on the publishing business. If people only read through subscription services, he said, they’ll stop buying single books. Retailers will continue losing market share, and Amazon will gain it”.  Like so much disruptive innovation, and certainly like Amazon-caused disruption, this is likely only the beginning. The trend across media seems to be step one, digitization and mostly illegal downloads. This leads to the iTunes model of legal digitization and distribution which is hugely disruptive to brick and mortar businesses and the “things” that they sell. Then comes the subscription model. Netflix is a great example of this trend of disruption, just ask Blockbuster. I remember the days when the ex and I used to go to Blockbuster on a Saturday afternoon and take out a few movies for the weekend. The idea that I used to leave my home in order to rent individual movies (that I would then have to remember to leave my my house to return) seems almost incredible now, it certainly would be incredible to my children. Now, 99% of the time, if I can’t find a movie on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime, I watch something else. And this is how I feel about Kindle Unlimited; there are some authors I’m prepared to pay the premium for in order to read their next book, but mostly, I’ve had enough enjoyment out of reading from the Unlimited catalog, that it’s worth the subscription cost to me.

Truly, I appreciate the sadness that many people feel over the changes to the publishing and bookselling industry over the last 25 years or so. I was on the Upper West Side in New York last night and was amazed to see that a new Shakespeare & Company bookstore was opening. I didn’t think anyone was doing anything but closing brick and mortar bookstores these days. There is something incomparable about spending a lazy Sunday afternoon browsing the aisles of a bookstore discovering new books and authors. But I suspect that Kindle Unlimited is the thin edge of the wedge: “Apple plans to turn its News app into a bigger venture, and the Times backs those up. Its story says that Apple plans to “bundle access to dozens of magazines” for a monthly fee, much like Netflix does for TV shows and movies. Newspapers could be included in the bundle, too.” Not surprisingly, “publishers have mixed feelings on Apple’s involvement. While it could help them find new readers and subscribers, they’ve been burned by tech companies promising new audiences and income — like Facebook — in the past.” But like so much disruption, particularly technology disruption, like it or not, it’s coming. There will always be people who rail against innovation, people who try to stand in its path, and sometimes a lawsuit will have a temporary effect, but ultimately, the direction is always forward. There will be winners and there will be losers. I think that, for the most part, consumers are usually the winners. We’ll see whether the same is true of Kindle Unlimited and the inevitable copycat services it spawns.