Amazon as a 'Netflix for Books'? How Reading Changes

VIDEO: Amazon is negotiating with book publishers to launch service similar to Netflix.
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Back in the dark ages -- say, 1995, -- there was an upstart little website called Amazon.com that fancied itself as the first real online bookstore.

People didn't need to try a book on or squeeze it for freshness, the logic went, so books were a natural for e-commerce.

Flash forward to 2011, and Amazon says everything has changed. With its Kindle e-reader, it now sells more eBooks -- electronic downloads of books -- than it does physical books on paper. And if leaked stories are to be believed, Amazon is looking into becoming "a Netflix for books," offering as many books as you care to download for a fixed annual subscription price. (Amazon has not commented on the story.)

Oh, how things change. It's been some years since the book began to be transformed from a physical object to a digital file; now we've reached a tipping point. People are readily buying eBooks, in rapidly growing numbers, while conventional book chains like Borders go out of business.

"We can easily say that eBook sales in the U.S. will grow from just less than $1 billion in 2010 to more than $2.8 billion in 2015," said James McQuivey of Forrester Research, Inc.

There are still plenty of conventional books out there, of course. Paper is convenient, portable, nice to look at, and doesn't have batteries that run out. At the end of last year, McQuivey said, just 7 percent of American adults with online access read eBooks.

But that number will double by the end of this year, he predicted, and e-readers, led by the Kindle, are making a big difference.

"Once people catch the eBook reading bug, they rapidly shift a large portion of the books they read to digital," McQuivey said.

All this is obviously fearsome news to bookstores, just as Napster and the iPod brought record stores to their knees. And it will mean seismic changes for publishers, who stand to make less money from book sales, but spend less on printing and shipping.

But what does it mean to you? Well, how much time do you have for reading?

"The new model strips revenue from publishers and increases the requirement for authors to build their own audience," said the technology analyst Rob Enderle in an email. "But just as there are lots of websites that support many more independent writers, and the Internet has become a better launch platform for independent bands and artists, so too this model is allowing writers who could have never come to the attention of a publisher to profit.

"In short," he said, "while it reduces the opportunities for publishers, it increases them for writers, but forces them to do more of the job."

McQuivey said we can expect to see more "adjacent media industries" getting into the eBook business when it suits them.

"This means that the Discovery Channel will publish eBooks that combine video and text assets," he wrote. "Games like Halo: Reach will simultaneously release digital novelizations that combine modest gameplay with a graphic-novel-like narrative; and the music industry will publish audio biographies of bands or individual artists.

"All of this will occur without the help of a print publisher," he said.

For the moment, most eBooks roughly resemble conventional books; on an iPad you find yourself "flipping" virtual pages with your finger. But that is already changing, as writers meld written text with pictures and video.

"I'm a huge eBook reader myself and much of what I read on my Kindle has never been printed on paper," Enderle said. "A little is junk, but most has turned my Kindle into the one device I don't go anywhere without."

Old-school publishers are shuddering. On a rainy day, there will be nothing like curling up with a good download.

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