Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Why A Netflix For Books Is WRONG

There has been a lot of talk in both the real world and the internet realms about a supposed "Netflix For Books". I'd like to add my two cents to that idea and explain why I think the entire enterprise is completely wrong.

Netflix is known as the little DVD distribution company that expanded into a streaming service almost exclusively a few years back. I remember being signed up for their disc option before the streaming plan was even in existence. Basically (for those of you who have been living under a rock) people pay a monthly subscription fee to gain access to as many of Netflix's streaming titles as they can stream within thirty days. You have access to two devices at a time so that your account can be used by more than one member of your family and enjoy two programs at the same time.

I will admit that this subscription was one of the best investments I made back in the day. In the beginning, Netflix solved my problem of constantly buying seasons of television programs and movies while running out of shelf space. I could watch a season of television and then forget about the physical product because there wasn't one. It was all about the experience and completely economical for a college student like me.

Looking now to the world of books - many people have been saying that libraries are, and have been, the Netflix for books - which is wrong. See the article by Kelly Jensen at BookRiot for the complete rundown. With that argument blasted out of the water, readers and the media are now turning to Amazon's new KindleUnlimited service and asking if this will be the mythical Netflix for books.

I highly doubt it.

Here's why.

When you, a reader, are searching for a book at a library, you know that you do not own any of the materials that you are borrowing. You are doing simply that: borrowing something for free. There is no risk because you are not paying money for a product, and if you are, it is because you are using a library that is not in your town (which I have done) and the fee is generally very small, splitting the one-time yearly fee into roughly $1.50 per month.

Your brain is already predisposed to the concept that you are borrowing these books, typically physical books for the most part, and have them for a week or two weeks at a time. This is fundamentally different from the Netflix model where you are able to select any single title from thousands of titles at any hour of the day. With the library, you are going into a physical building and planning ahead that the title you are taking home will be yours to read for the following week - not just at that very moment to be discarded in an hour or two for something else.

Books are long-term investments for your mind. They take time to devour, sometimes forty hours for a single title - or more (here's looking at you, Stephen King's It!). You don't simply flit from book to book, sampling bits and pieces as you please when you leave the library. That just isn't possible.

Looking at the idea of a subscription service for books as a purely mental experience, it isn't very realistic that you would need to pay to sample a bunch of eBooks or audio books as KindleUnlimited advertises you will be able to do. Already within Amazon.com, you are able to read the first ten percent of any eBook available via Kindle. You are also able to listen to three-to-five minutes of any audio book available through Audible.com - without paying a dime. Browsing is free, even with you are looking to spend real money on a product.

What about the ability to consume books and audio books each month? Personally, having a time limit severely dampens my ability to focus on a work and enjoy it as I normally would if I owned the book or eBook. Readers with two jobs like myself are only capable of reading maybe three to four books per month if they commute an hour to work and listen to audio books during that time or ride a subway or other form of public transportation. Is it worth it for the $8.99 or so fee in that case? Perhaps. An audio book is generally much more expensive, averaging $25-$45 dollars (here's looking at you, JK Rowling and George RR Martin!).

But, when it comes to books, let me steer you to the key ingredient of the reading experience that most of these articles are leaving out, and that is ownership.

A book is not just a product to be thrown away once you are finished with it. A book is something to own, something to add to your own collection. If this weren't such an integral part of the process when it comes to books, why are so many people clinging to physical books that are threatening to overgrow their personal libraries?

A book, be it an eBook or a paper book, is something that you add to your shelf if you enjoy it. True, I have not loved every book that I purchased in the past, and this led me to get rid of a fair amount of titles in exchange for store credit at BullMoose. But, the ones that I loved - I added those to my collection. Books are a collector's item. Even on my Kindle, I have great joy in knowing that I own the complete Harry Potter series and can read them any time I please without restraint. I also own the complete physical library of JRR Tolkien - among my most prized possessions. They are just beautiful volumes that I had to own.

If I borrowed these items through a subscription program, I would have to return them. Furthermore, I would have to pay the fee once my month was up in order to enjoy them again. This is part of the process of reading that negatively affects my experience. I don't want to return the items that I love. I want to own them.

As far as Netflix is concerned, the media that is being offered up by them is cold media. That is, media that takes very little mental involvement to enjoy. Have I been tempted to purchase the television shows that I watched on Netflix in order to add them to my personal collection? Personally, no. That medium is not one that I am devoted to rewatching over and over again, except in very rare cases (LOST, Smallville, and certain anime series).

Have I been tempted to buy books that I loved from the library after I read them? Absolutely. My reasoning for this is that books are something that can be read over and over and new discoveries can be made upon second readings. True, watching an episode of LOST a second or third time may yield discoveries that I hadn't picked up the first time, but reading a book a second time is an entirely rewarding and mentally stimulating experience. Books can be referenced over and over and not lose their relevance. Why would Dickens be collected on shelves today if not for the timelessness of his work?

Books can be analyzed, and the rewards are great. Books are food for thought. Books are not meant to be read and thrown away. Furthermore, KindleUnlimited and other various subscription services have access to only a limited number of titles, narrowing down your selection as a reader. This is the same as Netflix having a constant rollover of titles, which is frustrating to me when a title I have in my queue suddenly expires because of a licensing expiration. A subscription service is not the ideal way to discover new literature.

As someone who took five years worth of Honors Writing and Literature Courses, I can tell you that the words in a book are worth more than any television program or movie that I have watched. Even when a movie was exceptionally moving to me, I have to go back and realize that the movie in question started out as words on a page - a screenplay, a book of scenes for the filmmakers to visualize on screen. Without these words, we would have no voice in the future - nothing to leave behind for future generations.

Will future generations still collect Dickens on their shelves, or Rowling, or JRR Tolkien? I believe so. When the choice to get rid of a book or some other piece of property came up in my move to the big city, I always chose to keep the book over the other property because of the mental and emotional connection I have with the book. Will people in the future hesitate on whether or not to keep their DVD volume of Keeping Up With The Kardashians or some other piece of property?

I highly doubt it.

Books are meant to be owned for a lifetime. This is why a Netflix for books is entirely wrong.