Sunday, March 27, 2016

Book 21: There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, and there's also very little in here about this book.

Here's a thought I had that I figured I'd discuss because I only have a little to say, actually, about Stephen Colbert's book, and that little amounts to (1) has anyone seen Stephen Colbert lately? and (2) a little Colbert goes a long way.

Before I get to those, though, here's the thought I had: Do you suppose that there ever really will be a "Netflix of Books?" I have subscriptions to Netflix and Hulu, the cheapest version of each, and I haven't watched cable or network tv in probably two years. Lately I've been watching The Flash (Netflix), 1978's Battlestar Galactica (Hulu) and The Magicians, online through Syfy, although to be fair I only get that because we do have DirecTV (Sweetie likes it; we have the cheapest version of that, too.)

So for $16 a month I get all my TV shows/movies fulfilled, as many as I want, rewatching them if I want.

But books? Books we pay through the nose for, or would if I didn't get them from the library. This is book 21, and the cheapest version of it would cost me $11.18 on Amazon. That's more than Sweetie and I paid to rent Creed from Amazon last week (awful movie, boring, don't bother), and about 1/2 of what we paid to see Batman v Superman in the theater. (Great movie, no matter what people are saying).

Out of curiosity I went back and added up how much I would've spent on books so far to get through 21, using the cheapest alternative on Amazon.  The total? $192.69. And that's with one book free (The Book of Bar Arguments) and one (Owen Meany) at $1.99 on Kindle.

That would mean I would spend a hypothetical $917.57 to read 100 books this year, at the average cost per book right now. That would make books if I paid for them my biggest indulgence by far: Sweetie and I rarely go out to eat, and we see 5-6 movies a year. Possibly Mr Bunches' toy budget (he is allowed one new toy per month) might equal the book tab, but if so it'd be close.

That raises the question: why are books so high-priced, at all?  And why is there no way to have books streaming? I get free music by giving Pandora control and allowing ads, or by going to Youtube and listening to whatever I want whenever I want. My movies and TV are essentially free: I watch enough episodes (and have them on in the background while I work) to make the cost of each episode of a show or a movie I watch be about 25 cents. But books stubbornly stay up there at $10 for each.

Every other popular art form has a free or low-cost version of it: you may have to wait a while to get it, or you may have to accept commercials, but either way: you can get the entertainment for free.

There have been attempts to do a Netlflix of books. The most recent was "Oyster," which actually billed itself as the Netflix of Books. It announced last September it was shutting down, as the founders were going to work for Google.  Google apparently is making a push into entertainment, because you can buy books from them and they've started advertising Google Play's music, too. That same article I linked to said Scribd, which also moved into the ebook subscription field, was pulling romance books because people got too many of them, causing Wired to speculate that ebook subscriptions work like gym memberships: they don't really want you to use them.

Back when subscription music services started, I figured they'd never catch on; people, I figured (based solely on me) wanted to own their music, not rent it. But I didn't anticipate how my music listening would change, especially after my asthma made it a near-death-experience to try to work out. Now I mostly listen to music while working, or driving in the car, and in small bursts -- so I'm happy to have my music be owned by someone else.

Ebook subscription services mostly don't have new books, which critics say holds them back: but Netflix rarely has the hottest new movies, which have to go to the theater, then pay-per-view and DVDs, then finally cable or online. So that wouldn't hold back many readers.

Some of it may be demand, both good and bad: 30% of Americans didn't even read a single book in 2014. The median number of books read by Americans that year was four, which is kind of startling to someone who loves books. Half of America read 4 or fewer books in 2014. If most people are reading 4 or fewer books per year, there won't be much of a demand for an unlimited supply of books.

On the other hand of the supply-and-demand relationship are avid book lovers like me: books aren't really able to be substituted easily for other entertainment. TV and movies are relatively interchangeable; they compete for eyeballs. Music can be produced by many sources: live, CD, online, etc. But books, regardless of if they come in print or e-versions, are books. When there are a relatively few people demanding a form of entertainment that cannot be easily copied or created by someone else, the price will remain high. Think ballet, or live sporting events.

Here's another thing that makes subscription book services less likely: the time it takes to use a book (by reading it). I can watch a television show a day during the workweek during lunch, watch a movie on Friday night with the boys, watch one on Saturday with Sweetie and then catch up on episodes of The Flash on Sundays, while still working and going outside and etc etc. That's a lot of different movies in a single week. But even trying really hard to read as many books as possible, I'm averaging a book every 4.1 days -- or less than 2 a week. And that's while trying hard to do that, skipping other kinds of entertainment. (For example, I eschew podcasts while driving now, and listen to books instead.) If I really worked at it I could get 3 books a week, but that's a tiring pace I'm unlikely to keep up with forever. Last year, I read 2-3 books a month. At an average cost of $9-10 per month, most subscription services would be more or less break-even for me, or at least only somewhat cost effective.

If, on the other hand, I wanted to purchase every season of The Flash for download if would cost me about $40 bucks a season, or roughly $2/episode. This month I've watched six episodes using my Netflix subscription, so I'm ahead of the game. Subscription services, like gym memberships, give you the biggest bang for the buck if you use more than average. That's really hard to do with books.

There've been a few innovative attempts at book-selling to make it more affordable. There's a place that will ship you audiobooks or actual paper books like Netflix does with DVDs. Plans start at $8.99 per month for 2 books a month. But I have a harder time reading actual books: I have to wear glasses to read them now, and I need a light source -- so if I'm sitting in Mr F's room until he falls asleep, it's harder to read them, especially because a flashlight keeps him awake but a computer screen doesn't.

Cory Doctorow lets you download his books as a pdf for free; I once printed a paper copy of Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom and took it with me on a trip to Washington. It wasn't too bad keeping the papers straight, and if you're tech savvy you can read those on your Kindle with a bit of work.

It looks like it'll be hard for subscription books to work because not enough people like me will sign up for them, leaving them to really avid readers.  I mentioned the "gym model" above: gyms make money when people don't use them. They don't have enough facilities to have everyone who signs up for them use them on a daily or weekly basis, so they want you to sign up and use it just enough that you keep signing up.  Book subscriptions almost certainly work like that, and like insurance: heavy users need to be subsidized by people that don't use the service at all, or very little. It'd be hard to do that with books, which might be why Amazon tried Amazon Prime along with Kindle Unlimited. We briefly looked into Prime last year. It lets you get 1 book per month, borrowed, for a $9.99 monthly charge. That's nowhere near worth it to me, since I wouldn't probably buy $9 worth of books in a given month. So Amazon threw in free 2-day shipping and some other discounts. I assume the intent is that people will get a free book every month and then maybe buy one, or buy other stuff to offset the price of the books, but the model is the same: they don't really want you getting free books.

Another possibility is the Pandora model: Pandora lets you stream music for free, but there's ads every so often, and you can't choose the songs: you pick a genre or artist or song and it provides songs like that one. (If you go by song, the song you put in is never the first one played but it'll show up eventually; Pandora has legal reasons for that rule.0

I'd subscribe to a book service that gave me free books in exchange for sitting through ads. I have the cheap version of Hulu that's chock full of ads, and I don't mind them that much. If I could, say, download a book and read it for free but had to sit through a 1 minute advertisement each time I opened it up, I'd do that in a heartbeat.  (I even once planned on selling adspace in my own books, but they sell so little it was a nonstarter).

But ads-for-books seems to be something no book lover really wants. Amazon introduced an ad-supported Kindle Fire 5 years ago.  You paid $20 less than list price for the Kindle, and in exchange your Kindle screen-saver was an ad from Amazon, which disappeared when you swiped it on.  Apparently they're still selling it, but I've never heard about it until searching around today. That's not quite what I envisioned, though: while I'd still get the ad-supported Kindle and save $20 (that's two books!) I'd rather have free or cheaper books.

There have been ads in books going all the way back to Charles Dickens' serials, and 1970s paperbacks used to have ads in them for things like Q-tips. The ads-in-books were driven in the 70s by cigarette manufacturers, who had just lost the privilege to advertise on TV and radio. By the 1980s author contracts were forbidding it.

Would that really be such a bad thing? There are ads all through magazines, and on TV, and we deal with them. Ads in books are especially easy to get by: you can turn the page without bothering to read it.  And unlike TV or movies, ads in books don't necessarily alter the mood. I remember a time I sat down to watch The Exorcist late at night on TV.  It hit one of the really scary spots and then broke away for a bright-and-sunny detergent ad. Not quite what you want in a horror movie. But if there'd been a color page-long ad for detergent in Slade House I don't think it would have changed the mood much. After all, reading is interrupted all the time. I read (listened to) Colbert's book in brief spurts over three days, and in between saw movies and went to a family get together and cooked dinner, etc., never losing the mood.

In the end, reducing the price of books means getting someone else to pay for them: either publishers and authors provide them for free (or at greatly reduced profits), or other subscribers/members don't use their benefits so I can use mine, or advertisers pay for the book and I get to use it in exchange for watching those ads. Or I use your tax dollars and keep getting them from the library, which is, after all, another subscription service: all the taxpayers join, but only a few use it.

Anyway, quickly about the book: If you like Stephen Colbert, you'll like the book, but I'd recommend breaking it into smaller segments over a longer time. I listened to the book in only a few days and by the end it was losing steam. Stephen Colbert's "Colbert Report" was funniest in small doses, and when it was taking on real news issues that were topical. The book is a lot of Stephen Colbert, and doesn't deal with any specific issue. As a parody of conservative political books, it does a fine job but parodies wear thin after a while, and this one does.

On that note, what ever happened to Stephen Colbert? For a while there it was like he was the biggest thing around: he was influencing the Amazon-versus-publishers fight, getting parts of the space station named after him, holding rallies. He took over the world there, for a while. Then he went to what, The Tonight Show or something? I'm not even sure. I can't tell you when I last heard Stephen Colbert mentioned in relation to anything. It's like he retired, even though I'm pretty sure he's doing something.

I think it's because he had to lose his edge. Like McDonald's cheeseburgers, or pop songs, any time you try to appeal to nearly everybody you have to take so many steps to not offend anyone that you end up being inoffensive -- and inoffensive people or things rarely get attention, positive or negative. I'm sure Stephen Colbert is out there somewhere being funny in a bland, Leno-esque kind of way, but it was a sad day for humor and politics when he decided not to be "Stephen Colbert" anymore. I always thought that things like his show and The Daily Show were incredible because they made people want to pay attention to otherwise-boring-seeming subjects. I feel less informed since he's gone to do other things. This book just reminded me of how funny and sharp he could be; it didn't rise up to the level of his show, but since the show's gone it's at least a dim reminder of what we're missing out on now.

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