It’s Almost Time To Throw Out Your Books

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The near-unthinkable has happened. The dinosaurs are finally evolving. The publishing industry’s long war against technology, the future, and its customers may finally be coming to a close.

This week Amazon introduced Kindle MatchBook, “an innovative new program which enables you to offer your Kindle book at a discount when readers purchase your print book,” to quote its email sent to authors. About time, too; but we expect a certain amount of innovation from Amazon. The truly astonishing thing happened on Thursday, when Oyster, a “Netflix for books,” launched — complete with the participation of HarperCollins.

You may not appreciate how epochal this is. HarperCollins is one of the “Big Five” publishers, all of whom until now have fought subscription model tooth and nail. Granted, they’re only making a subset of their titles available, mostly backlist as far as I can tell; but it’s the principle of the thing that matters, especially since Oyster is reportedly “in negotations” with all the other major publishers. Barring some kind of major reversal, this is the first step down a road that will end some years hence with the majority of all books ever written made available via subscription services. That’s a big deal for everyone.

And so, just as you’ve (presumably) already discarded almost all of your DVDs and CDs, or at least moved them into some kind of musty storage, it will soon be time to jettison the vast majority of your books, since they’ll all be fully available electronically.

It pains me to say this. I grew up in a home with an overstuffed bookcase in every room, and I spent six years of my life as a full-time novelist (published by HarperCollins, in fact.) So let me be the first to say: books aren’t like CDs or DVDs. Books are special. Books are different.

…Well, some of them are.

But let’s face it; most books are really not that special, and not that different. I see both sides of that; I’ve written one or two novels which people genuinely seemed to love and want physical copies of, but also a clutch of crime/thriller novels which were well-received, and a lot of fun to write and (hopefully) read, but probably didn’t much change the course of many lives.

In the same vein, I want to own and keep physical copies of maybe a hundred books — the ones I love, the ones that matter to me, the ones I refer to regularly — but I’ve read thousands, and I’m quite content to leave most of them resident in the electronic ether. I’ll regret the loss of their tangible editions mostly because I enjoyed leaving them on public transit for others to find and read.

I confess to being somewhat disconcerted by the possibility of remote editing/erasing of books controlled by online services, as highlighted by Amazon’s sudden and arbitrary erasure of George Orwell novels from Kindles a few years ago; but, again, keep physical copies of those books which actually matter, and that becomes less of a problem. I’m also slightly worried that Oyster might pay authors as poorly as Spotify does musicians, but since, unlike Spotify, they’re competing with Amazon royalty rates of up to 70%, this seems unlikely.

The presumed growth in subscription-model book services also means it becomes increasingly advantageous for authors to make their books available for free via a Creative Commons license. I’ve now done that for all of my books (except the Vertigo Comics graphic novel I scripted; they still control its rights.) I don’t know of anyone else other than Cory Doctorow who has CC-released their entire oeuvre, but I expect our number to grow, as authors realize that most readers will eventually wind up using some Oyster-like service, so we’ll receive royalties even though our books are also freely downloadable.

With luck we’re entering a world in which readers have access to any and every book for a flat fee; authors get paid depending on how much they’re actually read; publishers remain a vital but decreasingly visible part of the process; physical books are still available via online print-on-demand and niche physical stores; and zillions of CC-licensed books are freely available to readers in the poor world who can’t yet afford books or subscription services. Call me Pollyanna, but it seems to me that that’s a win for absolutely everyone.

Image credit: Vanity shelf, yours truly.