Could this kill e-book sales?

Could this kill e-book sales?

I’m heavily invested in e-books…both economically and emotionally. 🙂

Their sales growth has been huge, although the rate of expansion has apparently slowed.

Many people wonder, though: is the pattern meteoric? Will they flash across the skies, and then burn up in the atmosphere?

Piotr Kowalczyk, of


(which I highly recommend) has suggested that

Ebooks will disappear sooner than paper books


I think the e-book, even though it is an evolving form, is likely to be around for quite some time. Even if the current crop of devices eventually fades away, and the companies that produced them become fallow, I don’t see books being delivered  electronically  as doomed.

They have too many advantages over paper. Sure, you might need some sort of emulator to read older ones, but I expect both paper and electronic books will be with us into the next generation.

That doesn’t mean, though, that sales of e-books will remain as strong.

Why not?

Am I suggesting piracy? Or a weakening of copyright?


I’m suggesting a rising alternative to ownership.

By October of 2013, sales of digital music were down about 1%.

New York Times article by Ben Sisario

I’ve written before about how the music industry and the book publishing industry are not parallels. You can’t directly take what happened with digital music and physical music and compare it to books. One of the biggest things is that the use pattern for a song (or an album) and a book are quite different. Most people listen to songs repeatedly: most people read a book once. That changes the way that distribution affects sales.

However, I do think we can draw a parallel with a likely cause for the dip in music sales:

Subscription services

With a subscription service, you pay* a set amount per month (or year), and then you “borrow” the content. You can listen to a song on Pandora (at AmazonSmile: support a non-profit of your choice by shopping**) or Songza (at AmazonSmile)(an app I like on my Kindle Fire HDX 7″ (at AmazonSmile)), but you don’t own it.

The subser (subscription service) can withdraw that song, and you don’t have access to it any more.

We’ve started to see this model for e-books, and I’ve predicted that we may see Amazon get into it (in a different way) this year.

Amazon already lets eligible Prime members borrow up to a book a month. That’s a nice perk, but I think they may do something more like Kindle Freetime for adults.

We would pay something like $10 a month, perhaps, and be able to read from a pool of books…perhaps as much as we want (an “all you can eat” plan).

We couldn’t control which books were available to us.

Part of why I think this would work is that I’ve seen a significant change in younger generations.

I would say (without the statistics to back it up) that New Millenials (born roughly 1980 to 2000) are much more comfortable with the idea of buying access, as opposed to actual ownership, than, say, the Greatest Generation (born roughly 1922 to 1945) or the Baby Boomers (born roughly 1946 to 1964).

I do think that older folks are also getting used to it.

It’s a big change for me. I certainly have been a collector and a completist in my life. I have, on bookshelves, all of the Doc Savage Bantam reprints (181 adventures, although it isn’t that many books). I like owning them. I like seeing them there.

Recently, though, I’ve become accustomed to Netflix and Amazon Prime. It feels…decadent to want to buy a DVD. I have plenty of stuff to read and to watch. I claim to be an eclectic content consumer: I should always be able to find something to entertain and educate me: it doesn’t have to be a specific title that sits on a shelf in my house.

Interestingly, I’ve never been much of a re-reader…which, on reflection, makes it seem odd that I was so much of a collector.

I think that love of ownership is a territorial imperative thing, a hoarding thing: I don’t think it’s logical as much as emotional.

That doesn’t mean I want to get rid of the p-books (paperbooks) I already have. I certainly have some books that you aren’t going to find online.

If I could digitize them all and have access to them, would I let them go then? I think I might…I might donate them to places that could preserve them better than I can.

If Amazon did a subser that worked for me, would I buy fewer books?

Yes, I think that’s likely…and I think it would be even  more likely for other people.

Does this mean that subsers will kill e-book sales altogether?

No, I don’t think that’s the case. For one thing, people will want to give books as gifts: that won’t end with subsers.

I do think that if Amazon successfully introduces something this year, we could see it having an effect (a small one at first) on e-book sales.

It’s complicated, of course: how do you compensate an author for borrows?

Amazon already does that, with books in its KDP Select program. The publishers who make their books available in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) through that program divide up a pool each month…and they can get more from a borrow than they do from a sale (if the price of the book is low enough).

We also see these sorts of deals a lot in video. Amazon may pay a studio X amount for movies for Prime for a given period (“$100,000 for six months”, for example), and it doesn’t matter how many times each movie is borrowed.

That situation can be very attractive for the studio, even if they might not make as much money as if people bought each video or paid to rent them individually. One of the key things is that the studio has a budgetable amount of income.

They know how much money they’ll have in, say, the next six months. That makes a company much more efficient.

It’s like being an actor. I used to do that, and the best thing for me was when I became a repertory player. When you are in rep, you actually get a salary. You don’t wonder if you’ll get a part next month: you know you are set for maybe a six month or one year contract.

There are disadvantages: we didn’t get to pick our roles. 🙂 When I would see the slate of shows, I could guess which parts I was going to play.

We were employees, not independent contractors.

Still, that security was worth a lot. The theatre even invested in us, giving us lessons in Shakespearean analysis and movement classes.

Similarly, if you are paying a subser, they have a motivation to “invest” in you as a customer. They know you are committed to them. A book publisher doesn’t even know who you are, typically, when you buy a book. They don’t need to keep you as an individual happy: they need to keep an aggregate buying population happy.

That should hypothetically mean that they will give you better service, and work to cement the relationship, so you’ll continue it during the next period.

That’s what I think will bring about a reduction in e-book sales: e-book borrowing through subsers.

Let me ask you a couple of questions:

What do you think…will subsers hurt e-book sales? Would tradpubs (traditional publishers) sign up for it? Would you be interested if the selection was similar to what it is now in the KOLL (independently published books, books published by Amazon ((which includes James Bond and the 87th Precinct)), and books from some other tradpubs)? What if you were limited to a certain number of books a month…maybe ten? How would that affect your decision? Are e-books doomed regardless? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

* Some subsers have free levels. Typically, you pay for those by experiencing ads

** I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


16 Responses to “Could this kill e-book sales?”

  1. D. Knight Says:

    I wouldn’t feel comfortable subscribing to a pool of books; I’d feel too much like my reading was being directed. Plus I read a wide variety of books, some quite obscure, so I can’t imagine that a subser would have the books I want.

    Bufo, do you not fear people’s reading being directed too much, or perhaps the pool of authors being limited eventually?

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, D.!

      My “reading being directed” doesn’t concern me too much. It’s already affected by which books the Kindle store carries, for example. I read a wide variety of books as well: I probably would subscribe to a subser, but that wouldn’t stop me from getting other books other places.

      I don’t have either fear, really. Both are countered by books being available from other sources. Now, it’s true that Amazon gives publishers incentives to make the books exclusive to Amazon when they are in the KOLL (in fact, it’s a requirement for KDP Select authors), but after that period, they can be gotten elsewhere. An author that wanted to skip the subser would be able to do that.

      Our reading choices were largely limited for years by the tradpubs: that has been weakened through the easier distribution that comes with e-books. I can’t see how the existence of subsers would be likely to significantly reduce our choices…

  2. Carolyn perreau Says:

    I have a very wide variety of books and ebooks as an inheritance to give someday. I have very old books. 1846 lady Godey s to king , rice and Gabaldon
    I love my books but now at my age they do sometimes seem a burden. but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to give them up and I made sure my sister’s family will have access to both.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Carolyn!

      I too have p-books and e-books, and our now adult kid will have access to both. The p-books will, of course, present more of a burden, but our kid does prefer them. I assume most of those would get donated, however…

  3. Eileen E. Says:

    I don’t think I’d feel comfortable subscribing to a pool of books either. I’d prefer to pay a fee to a public library system that allows non-residents to check out ebooks. It may seem similar, but I don’t think so. I actually have just done that, for a system that has a larger selection than my local library system. I love being able to use both, in addition to KOLL, to borrow books! And the non-resident fee is $2.25/month (paid yearly), which I think is reasonable. 🙂

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Eileen!

      Arguably, since you use the KOLL, you already subscribe to a form of subser. 🙂 Also, I’m curious: what do you see as the significant difference between your relationship with the library, and a commercial subser: is it only the profit/non-profit comparison?

  4. Zebras Says:

    I would certainly give a subser a test drive. I read a LOT and I’m starting to get overtaken by the availability of good free and well priced e-book options that pile up calling to me so I think I would really weigh the cost per book I actually ended up reading. And would really want to see a good selection.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Zebras!

      Sure…I could see a one month free trial on a one year commitment, for example, or a one week on a one month.

      No question, selection will be important to people.

    • rogerknights Says:

      I’m starting to get overtaken by the availability of good free and well priced e-book options that pile up calling to me so I think I would really weigh the cost per book I actually ended up reading.

      Hmmm: Since subscribers wouldn’t be book-price-constrained, wouldn’t they tend to select the better-reviewed, higher-quality books in preference to the lower-priced, OK-quality books? That would be a good thing, I think. (Abhi / Switch11 was worrying a few months back about how the competition from low-priced authors was leading to a race to the bottom in terms of content-quality, copy-editing, etc.)

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Roger!

        It would be interesting to see. I may take a look at the KOLL at some point and figure some of the bestsellers and their sources. I know that Amazon’s backlist well-known titles don’t tend to appear first for me when I check the KOLL…I have to work my way through to find them.

        Update: I just took a quick skim of the top 50 in the KOLL…none of them were well-known, backlist titles. Most of them looked they were priced at $2.99 or lower, which suggests (just on a glance) that they aren’t tradpubbed.

  5. Lori Says:

    They already have this for free, called the local public library. Cost is a big determining factor for me. I don’t save books. Since getting my kindle in April, I have read so much more than prior to it, many best sellers. I am 53. Contrarily, my son is 18, not much of a reader and has several book collections.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lori!


      There is an interesting comparison to make between public libraries and subsers, but they aren’t really the same…in particular, in regards to e-books. While there has been a considerable improvement in the past year or so in terms of publishers allowing access to e-books for public libraries, I think most people still find long wait lists for popular titles at the public library. Public libraries also tend to limit the number of books you can have at a time, and for how long you can have them.

      Those same issues might apply to a subser: in the case of the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL), you can only have one book at a time, although you can have them for as long as you want. Scribd doesn’t limit the number of books you can read in a month: there are a number of possible models.

      Public libraries may be free to use, but most people pay for them through property taxes or other assessments of some kind. I think perhaps surprisingly, some people prefer to pay for things more directly, as a way of feeling a reciprocity for the product they receive.

      The public library is a great institution, of course. However, public libraries having music to lend has never supplanted people getting music outside of them, and I think the same will be true as e-book subsers become more popular.

      • Lori Says:

        I’m glad this world is big enough to allow many opportunities for readers, users and entrepreneurs to create needs and meet them. We all win from the diversity, and I am eager to see what our entertainment and education worlds will look like in ten years.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Lori!

        I agree! It’s been fun to watch the evolution of entertainment. 🙂

    • rogerknights Says:

      Lori says: They already have this for free, called the local public library.

      The downside, for people like me who highlight and reread their highlights later, is that one can’t save one’s highlights in a library-borrowed book (I assume). (I assume also that subscribers WILL be able to save their highlights.)

  6. Round up #235: Little Free Library, “Buy It Now” public library button | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] Could this kill e-book sales? […]

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