Will there ever be a successful “Netflix for Books?”

by | Feb 5, 2014 | Business of Publishing | 24 comments

Ever since I’ve been connected to the book world there has always been talk about a “Netflix for books.” The latest (very good) comparison was made this week by Peter Osnos in The Atlantic.

It’s important to remember, as Osnos does, that the publishing industry innovated with subscription services long before movies ever did. Ever heard of the Book of the Month club? There are also these services that allow you to check out just about any book you want called libraries.

But snark aside, a true subscription service that allows readers to pick the books they want for a monthly fee has proven to be a bit of a white whale for some time.

We seem to be closer than ever. Scribd, Oyster and the Kindle Lending Library are all hoping to be your go-to source for on-demand book rentals, and they’ve gained more traction than most of these attempts in the past.

And yet is really something people really want? Few people read more than one book a month. That is, in fact, one big source of the appeal of the BOMC. And an e-book rarely costs more than $9.99. And the people who read the most books (such as hard-core genre readers) are the ones who are reading books that are cheaper to begin with. And the library is free. So do we really need a an e-book subscription service?

Call me a skeptic. I spent most of January reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt on my iPad, and it set me back $8.85. That’s less than a month of Netflix.

What do you think? Can a subscription service take off?


  1. Bryan Russell

    I think it's unlikely when digital access to books is already so widespread, cheap, and easy. Think of the headaches for a company trying to secure rights to all books and then figuring out some remuneration scheme for a million different authors (rather than a very limited number of production companies). And if the selection is limited in any way, how would that compete with the vastness of Amazon and other purchasing systems? And what would be the benefit for authors and publishers to participate when it's likely just shrinking the profit pot?

    My vote is no.

  2. abc

    I agree with you. I read 1-2 books a month on average and it just seems easier to buy, download, or borrow from the library.

  3. Richard Sturgis

    Don't we essentially have this? It's called a "library." It's free to the public and many libraries lend out ebooks.

    Now, I know I'm being a little snarky as sometimes you have to wait for an ebook to be "returned" as it's not truly "on demand."

    I'm doubtful of an independent service, though. I think it would work best with the Amazon model, where it's part of a set of premium benefits.

  4. LadySaotome

    You didn't have to return Book-of-the-month-club books. Any subscription service that only lends books would have to offer seriously low prices for me to even slightly consider it. And instant access to a vast selection that competes with my library.

    I'm already annoyed enough that most ebooks can only be loaned once.

  5. Marie

    It would be better to update the book of the month club to include predictive ratings, like Netflix's predictions, or the more reliable movielens.com's algorithm. Every month, you get the book with the highest predicted rating for you. Good way to offer something new and useful, and a way to discover new authors.

  6. LR S

    I've been searching for one to subscribe to that has both traditional and indie books. Since I gulp down books, it would be more economical for me.
    Yes, I borrow from the library too, but popular books are often unavailable, and most indie books don't make it to the shelves.

  7. S. Kyle Davis

    A Netflix for audio books out do better, I think

  8. Daniel Martone

    I think it could work… if you follow the same model as Netflix, with feature films. You have access to ebooks, a while after they have been released. Self-published works would have an easier time finding an audience. And I could read something and stop, if I don't like it (beyond the 10% sample that Amazon provides). You could also start reading one book, stop to read something else, and then pick back up on the original book whenever you want to. They could do all of this while still allowing you to have access to only 1 book at a time.

  9. Daniel Martone

    And they already have a Netflix for audio books… sort of… Audible has a monthly subscription service that works quite well.

  10. Molly

    I just want a subscription to the library. I'd pay them double if it meant I didn't have to worry about late fines accruing every day that I forget to renew.

    Yes, I could spend that money on buying books, but the books I like never reach mass-print status, and my bookshelves are too full already. There's something pretty satisfying about giving back a book you enjoyed but don't need to own.

    When it comes to ebooks and online reading, I'm far more scrutinizing. I want short and to the point. Anything over 1000 words better be damn good to read. As someone who grew up with unlimited access to internet, technology and media, ebooks don't impress me. I want paper.

  11. Nicole L Rivera

    Maybe if they combine ebook and video rentals in one monthly fee–that would be worth the $8/month. Or even if they up the fee to $10, it would still be worth it (I think)…. And no wait times for ebooks.

  12. adan

    "Call me a skeptic. I spent most of January reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt on my iPad, and it set me back $8.85. That's less than a month of Netflix." –

    will it work for books?

    my short answer is i honestly don't know

    my longer answer is, there's a really good chance one of these or someone else's plan will


    because, using your own example Nathan, for less than $9 –

    you could have read the same book that month (if it's avail via subscription) and "also" sampled any number of other books you might also want to spend time with –

    you could have skimmed or read any number of shorter works (short stories, poetry, and photopoem pieces) –

    and still not spent any more money

    it's what i'm beginning to experience in just a few weeks using both Oyster and Scribd's free trial offers, and mirrors (somewhat) what my wife and i have seen happen with our use with Netflix over the last decade, more expermentation with work we wouldn't otherwise try, without worry if it's more than x amt of money (we're retired, it matters to us)

    being a reader and an unknown writer 😉 this appeals to me on both levels

    i don't know if one of the three subscription services you mentioned will "make" it, but, along with audio books and ebooks and print books, I welcome the chance to see if one of them will, and how things'll develop from there

    best wishes, for all of us, Nathan 😉

  13. Magdalena Munro

    My initial gut reaction was no way, however, the more I have thought about it, I wonder if there might be a great use for this sort of service for self help genres or reference books not to name children's books.

  14. Inkling

    I suspect the prices of most subscription services will be too high. Most people aren't going to pay for ebooks what they pay for movies if, for no other reason, than that with movies can entertain friends and family.

    About the only service I've seen that may be priced right is:


    They're $4.95/month and they have a free subscription. They've yet to open for business though.

  15. Cab Sav

    I think it works better for non-fiction books than for for fiction. Particularly industries where you need to keep up-to-date. IT, law, medicine. Any industry where you tend to buy a lot of books anyway, where the books cost a lot anyway and go out-of-date quickly because things change so fast.

    Safari Books Online for example.

    It could even work for textbooks.

    I could see it working for novels, but before I subscribed it would have to cost less than a couple of books a month and, more importantly, provide access to pretty much every book I wanted to read.

    I'd read more books if it subscribed.

    I'd still buy hard copies of books I really like. I do that now with eBooks.

  16. Bruce Bonafede

    You're talking about the melding of an existing industry with tech distribution (meaning not just the tech distribution of today). This is very possible. The one great lesson of Facebook is this: even if something already exists, if you package it right and make it easily accessible you can create fundamental change. There were plenty of Facebook-type sites before Facebook, and I don't mean just the generic MySpace type sites. Facebook invented nothing, yet now – at least temporarily – it owns the social media space. It's quite possible that even with all the other book distribution services out there somebody will come along and figure out how to do something similar. And they'll change everything.

  17. Kentish Janner

    Can't see it taking off. Doesn't bring anything new to the party, as far as I can see.

    I think it works for movie and music DVDs because they're a completely different media; you know in advance how long it's going to take to assimilate the whole thing because it's, say, three hours long in total. You can plan a three-hour session for it before you have to return it. But you've got no way of knowing in advance how long it's going to take to read a book – it might be a day if you've got the free time for it – but if your life gets busy it could be weeks, months… in which case, you might be renewing the rental two or three times over – by which time you may as well have just bought it. At least with libraries you can borrow them for free (unless you forget to renew them on time, of course… Possibly why library use has also declined a bit in these busy-busy modern times. Three weeks can go by in a flash these days – and if you get charged something like £1 a week in overdue fines… well, again, you might as well buy the thing online or even in a charity shop for peanuts.)

  18. Anonymous

    I'd be interested, but not at $10/month, and I wouldn't want to be limited to certain publishers.

    I have yet to find a book I was enthused about reading or actually finished from the Kindle lending library. I'm always on the hunt for new authors to add to my auto-buy list, but the Kindle Lending Library hasn't produced any.

    Amazon's recommendation engine has been failing, too, as I have no way of saying I never want this or that author to be recommended to me. I can say what I like, but not what I didn't like on an author level.

  19. Jennie K

    Well, I currently use the library for ebook lending. I am also an Amazon Prime member, so I could take advantage of their one book per month loan out. But I think the one book per month rule is rather pathetic. Any "reader" is going to find that inadequate, and thus, frustrating. Not a fan of audio books at this point, so I haven't tapped into Audible, though I can see how much of a benefit audio would be to specific types of readers, and perhaps travellers. My answer is: Yes, probably so.

  20. StellaStar

    Libraries have rented VHS, DVDs and blurays for as long as I can remember, but Netflix is still popular. Who wants to wait for a feature film to be available and wait (Your Hold number is 976 out of 978). Also, sometimes the selection isn't that great at libraries.

    I think this will really take off for people who use eReaders frequently, but don't want to have to wait for good title to be available at their library (our library lends digital copies, but the rental period is a week and the good books have lengthy wait lists)

  21. KMarth

    This is an interesting question. I can think of one group of people who read more than a book a month – kids. My nine year old reads 1-3 books a day, depending on the length. And re-reads favorites like Percy Jackson multiple times. Then she wrote a book herself – Magic The Crest (on Amazon) – but I haven't figured out how to market it as a self-published ebook because middle grade readers don't use ebooks.

    This age group is some of the most voracious consumers of video services like Netflix. Maybe kids would have to widely use e-books before a subscription service model can profit from their prolific reading habits.

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  23. Jason Bougger

    I see no purpose for it. E-Books are so cheap that a "Netflix" for e-books wouldn't be cost effective.

    And like Nathan said, most people don't even read a book in month, so it wouldn't be worth it for them either. Also, I'm weird, but I still use used bookstores for most of my buys.

    As for audiobooks, it might work, but there are already similar services out there. I have no idea how successful they are.

    What I'd recommend people for audio books instead is visit your library and use their inter-library loan service. You can borrow books from literally any library on the planet with that. I spend 8-10 hours a week in the car, listen to tons of audiobooks doing so and barely spent a penny on it.


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