Can a ‘Spotify for books’ really work?

Over the last year, we have reported on the emergence of Oyster, 24symbols and Bookboard — all planning to offer rental of multiple ebooks for a monthly subscription.

But, with the conventional ebook download craze still taking off, can this Spotify- or Netflix-like ebook access model attract consumers so soon?

A survey by media strategy agency Oliver & Ohlbaum (O&O) shows 29 percent of current UK ebook users very interested in such a prospect — and only three percent not at all.

That is a large slice of the ebooks market that is prepared to switch from ownership to access. So how would such a move affect money in the business… ?

Right now, UK ebook buyers spend an average £33 ($53) per year on ebooks, according to BML Bowker and Publishers Association data crunched by O&O.

For a “Spotify for books”, most consumers say they would like to pay only up to £5 ($8) per month. But consumers will naturally always aim low when asked — and the high end of even that margin (£5 per month) would double UK ebook buyers’ annual ebook spending to £60 per year ($96).

But there is also willingness to pay more, up to £10 per month. That would raise ebook spending to £120 ($193) per year — the same rate Spotify charges for unlimited music.

Note that, since UK ebook spending so far lags that in the U.S., the American boost from a move from ownership to access may be relatively less pronounced.

Whether this move makes sense for the industry’s value chain may depend on how many books all-you-can-eat subscribers would really use…

Right now, the majority of consumers download fewer than five ebooks per year, O&O’s Bowker and Publishers Association data shows. An unlimited-access service may need to target those who download more than one ebook per month. But that represents a combined 41 percent of all current downloaders — a sizeable enough segment to go after…

One other factor may be that even UK ebook customers, on average, spend far more on printed books each year than on digital — just as with all content types, operators swap analogue dollars for digital pennies…

My colleague Laura Hazard Owen says the prospect is distant, however:

“Success for these kinds of services depends on what offerings consumer are imagining. Are they thinking they would pay this much for a truly unlimited selection of titles, like a library with a lot of new, front-list books?

“It is still hard to conceive of how this would exactly work, because we are so, so far from any kind of model that gives access to publishers’ new titles.”

If the book publishing market does grow as an unlimited-access service like music is, expect the same kind of debates over royalties from the creatives who supply the content in the first place.