Another one Bites the Dust: Will “Netflix for Books” Ever Actually Happen?


The publishing news floating around the interwebs today concerns Oyster, the subscription e-book streaming service that was oh-so-hopefully referred to as “Nexflix for books.” After a mere two years of operation, the service is shutting down operations, with many of its staff jumping ship to join the Google Play team.

The premise for Oyster is/was simple: pay a reasonable monthly fee ($9.95/month) to get access to their library of over one million titles. It’s just like the wildly popular video-streaming Netflix, which offers, you guessed it, unlimited movies and television episodes for a monthly fee.

So Oyster’s success was practically a done deal, right? Except it wasn’t.

I think the problem with Oyster was not the concept of subscription services, which has certainly proven in other media formats—but in the notion that these services can be easily translated to the book industry. The fact of the matter is, I don’t see how book subscription services are attractive to anyone—not to readers, not to publishers, and not even to the service providers themselves.

First, let’s look at readers. Of course readers like to get a good deal on books, and $9.95 a month for a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of stories sounds like a dream come true. But how many readers are likely to reap the benefits of such a system? Reading requires time, focus, and commitment. It may only take twenty minutes to watch a television show, or two hours to watch a movie, but it could take eight or more hours to read a book. Television and movies can act as background noise, and many are able to multitask, performing other chores while binge-watching reality TV. But reading a book requires focus and the desire to block out other distractions in favour of the pursuit—a difficult sell in our connection-obsessed culture.

It seems almost ridiculous to us book lovers, but consider the statistics. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Canadian Media Usage Study, Canadians spend on average 26 hours per week watching television and about 18 hours per week on the internet. These numbers can be much higher depending on age group. Compare that with the approximately six hours of weekly reading estimated by the Canada Council for the Arts. With these numbers, it is not difficult to surmise that Canadians just don’t feel like they will get their money’s worth. Add to this the fact that unlimited access to books (even e-books) is available through local libraries, and the subscription service just doesn’t make sense.

It’s a difficult sell for publishers, too. With a relatively small subscriber base, the likelihood of acquiring a new customer via a service like Oyster is quite low, and the cost of creating and distributing ebooks can be prohibitive, particularly when return on investment is iffy. A recent WIRED article notes that the main attraction for many publishers in participating in these subscription services is access to aggregate data, and while that may be sufficient for the multinational houses, small publishers lack the massive administrative machine to make such data useful. Add to all of this inertia, the difficulty of adopting new practices and confusion surrounding pricing, payments, fees and royalties, and you’ve got yourself a headache that many publishers would prefer to avoid.

Now what about the services themselves? The whole system is predicated on a presumption of moderate use. Just think of your local gym. They regularly sell memberships to thousands of customers, but take a look around and you’ll see maybe a couple dozen machines, mostly empty. The reason the model works is that a significant proportion of members rarely—if ever—show up. The happily pockets the $40+ monthly fee on these no-shows, and you get to work out in blissful solitude.

Not so with Oyster. At $9.95 per month, we could generously surmise that a reader need only access a couple of books per month to feel like they’ve got their money’s worth. But consider the voracious readers who can consume vast swathes of text—even a book or more per day. Just a few months ago, Scribd announced that it would dramatically reduce its romance list, purportedly to achieve a more balanced proportion of genres offered. But many industry folks agree that this cut might represent fear of cannibalized margins at the hands of high-volume readers. Basically this translates to readers eating them out of house and home.

So where does that leave “Netflix for books”? In my opinion, our society is just not willing to accommodate the system. There will always be some who are attracted to the concept—these are the bread-and-butter of a company like Oyster, and they represent a solid target demographic. But the demographic is a relatively small one, and arguably, one that is shrinking. In order to achieve Netflix status, you need universal appeal, industry support, and a medium that lends itself well to the format. Unfortunately, Oyster is a casualty in this endeavor, and a cautionary tale to those branded with lofty expectations.

Apparently more isn’t always better.

portraitThanks for reading my musings on the book subscription model. I’m interested to hear if any of you have participated in one of these services and what your impressions are. Feel free to chime in the comments section below with your thoughts on the matter.

Best, sig

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.