If you are a book lover, the date Friday, July 18, 2014 may turn out to be a day of infamy for you, up there with 9/11. An ad was posted on Amazon, along with what the Washington Post described as various memos on Google’s “in-house blog.” Well, as quickly as the vigilant Post saw the memo, it was just as swiftly taken down. What precious info was on this elusive blog item? A manifesto for something that may have reverberating repercussions in the publishing industry from now on. It seems that there is, looming out there but not yet official, a new service called Kindle Unlimited. Potential subscribers are about to be offered unlimited access to over 650,000 book titles as well as thousands of audio titles for a fixed fee of US$9.99 per month that can be adjusted to fit any of a number of reading devices you may own.
Calling it Netflix for books, shrugging and accepting it as one more probably useful service for us busy folks in our workaday world might be okay. I’m not so sure. There are also citizens out there who’ve felt the same way about music for a couple of years and embraced streaming. An apt comparison might be the way you pay for water, electricity and natural gas. All the culture that’s necessary – music, movies and books – for $10 per month each and soon maybe even cheaper if you bundle them.
Is Steve Jobs in hell? When Apple destroyed retail record stores in one fell swoop by creating technology that could collect thousand of tracks onto tiny files called iPods, it was significant. Indeed, it was so convenient for both consumers and the mighty music conglomerates that they were able to eviscerate any need for a middleman. But then even that model was inconvenient for consumers, who were forced to read digitized information and make choices. Like frozen TV dinners, an alternative, online music services like Spotify stepped in to take instantaneous note of your tastes and serve them up ready-made.
Kindle Unlimited follows the same model. Think of the Kindle e-reader as an iPod for your eyes and the Kindle store as best buddy to iTunes. There is a difference, however. Amazon is on the very cusp of destroying the remaining, troubled retail book industry and slowly choking off supplies of cheap reading materials to free libraries with a diabolical plan to force everybody to read streamed books exclusively while presenting this coup as being progressive and ‘green’. We can all feel better that trees in the Amazon rain forest and Oregon are no longer chopped down to create ‘hard’ books while Amazon make collective suckers of us all. Meanwhile, it’s worth considering that the original perpetrator, Apple, has struggled mightily in cashing in on the transition from selling music files to streaming, until it recently bought out Beats with a view toward starting its very own streaming service.
One of the more fulfilling aspects of utilizing Kindle is the built-in networking, which is a help if you’re an academic, a critic like me or just someone who likes to make notes and underline old-school books. Users can highlight and copiously annotate chapter and page while they get lost in the book. They can also request to see what passages other readers – like class colleagues, teachers, or just other readers – have highlighted. One thing is for sure, your Kindle talks to Big Central at Amazon. If you’re traveling light, say, that night, and carrying the Kindle app on your smartphone, you can keep reading the same book, picking things up at the same spot you left it in.
Soon, inevitably, we will experience mass protests and end-of-the-world rhetoric from all the big New York conglomerate publishers and the star authors in their stables as the likes of John Irving, Ann Rice, E. Annie Proulx and John Grisham et al, hit the talk-show circuit to protest at how their already infinitesimal earnings from bookstore sales and royalties are being destroyed. This is a battle that major record labels and their bands have already acknowledged losing in the music business. Just as thousands of independent bands have assented to giving away their music free off the Web and making up their earnings by touring and selling souvenir clothing, the few bestselling authors out there will be forced to adjust back to living on teacher’s wages or finding new D.I.Y. ways of selling their own material.