I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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An ant is incredibly strong for its size. But nobody uses ants to do useful work, because they all run around in different directions.

Mike Mayberry


<March 2018>




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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 4:42 AM Pacific

  08:41 PM

On the radio I've been hearing an ad blitz for Paperspine.com, a company that rents books. I found the premise sort of curious, but I went online and looked around a bit, I found that there are in fact several companies already in this business. (#, #)

The notion of renting a movie is so entrenched that we don't even think about it. Many of us probably have only distant memories of a time when the only way to watch a movie at home was to wait for it to be on TV. For a generation we've been trekking down to the video store on Fridays to pick up something to curl up on the couch in front of. As a business, movie rental is so lucrative (around $7 billion a year) that it spawned international chains of brick-and-mortar stores.

Of course, you can also buy movies. This model for watching movies didn't emerge until the popularity of VCRs, and has gained momentum with DVDs.

And then the Web. The clever folks at Netflix introduced several innovations to the movie-watching model. One was that they leveraged the mindspace that Amazon had already created--you could do all your business over the Web (and the mail). The second and third innovations were that they switched from a per-movie, per-day model to a subscription model, and they eliminated late fees. Like Amazon before them, they had to offer something in return for the immediate gratification that a bricks-and-mortar store could offer; Netflix eliminated time limits on rentals. Finally, of course, like video stores attempt to do (but probably more successfully), Netflix has enough copies of the most popular movies that there isn't much of a wait, if any, before you can watch the latest releases.[1]

To review ... if you want to watch a movie, your choices are: go to the movies; wait for the movie to come out on DVD and buy it; wait for the DVD and rent it; wait for it to come out on premium cable; wait for it to show up (if ever) on free TV[2]. (One more option exists, as I'll note in a second, but in comparison it's a tiny slice of the pie here.) Important point: for the most part, the model for watching movies has historically been pay-per-view, with only the fairly recent development of VHS and DVD ownership being an exception.

Ok, now books. If you want to read a book, what are your options? Buy it, of course. Your other alternative is to get a book from the library, which since the days of robber-baron philanthropists has been an option that is both generally available and free, at least in the US. (Libraries also offer movies to lend, as I promised I'd mention, but it's not a significant player in the movie market compared to other watching options.)

So, apparently inspired by the success of Netflix, there are now these several companies that offer the option to rent a book. In a sense, these companies needed Netflix to establish the model, especially the concept of keeping the rented item as long as you liked. Overnight rentals, obviously, wouldn't work for books. In fact, all three of Netflix's innovations were probably a prerequisite to establishing a book-rental market.

As I said, the idea of renting books initially struck me as quite odd, so I had to sit down and think about why this seemed strange to me. A primary reason is that for me personally, books have an emotional value that goes beyond the content. I have a lot of books[3]; acquiring and keeping books satisfies some instinct or other. I don't have this attachment to movies.

The other reason I thought that renting a book was odd was that a very well established way to get books is to borrow them free from the library. Libraries are vast, and in their contemporary manifestations, their catalog incorporates the city's, region's, and technically, world's entire library system (via interlibrary loan). The catalogs are pretty much all online, and you can do your reserving via the Web.

More generally, the book market has not been predicated on a pay-per-view/read model, at least not in the same way as movies. Obviously, if you buy a book, you've paid to read, but it's not a per-read charge as such. (In practice of course it is a pay-per-read in the vast majority of cases -- who re-reads books?) And of course the library model is free.

If the book-rental model had been pitched to me as the sole customer, therefore, it would have been a thumbs-down. But does it make sense for an audience of the set of all people less me? I thunk on this for a bit, and in that process I came up with a list of "features" for books, which, I guess I should point out, are independent of, you know, the actual content. Here's the list:
  • Immediate gratification. If you hear about a book that sounds interesting, how soon can you get your hands on it?
  • Get popular titles easily. Can you get your hands on a bestseller?
  • Read when you want. Can you read (or reread) the book at whatever pace you want?
  • Shelf appeal. Does it complement your decor?
  • Direct-to-door delivery. Do you have to go somewhere to get the book?
  • Try before you buy. Can you "sample" the book?
  • Expense. Does it cost money?
  • Must be stored. Do you have to find a place to keep it?
Using these criteria, here's how I rated the different book options, recast so that a Y in a column is A Good Thing.

Immediate gratificationY?N
Get popular book easilyYNY
Read when you wantYNN
Shelf appealYNN
Direct-to-door deliveryYNY
Try before you buyNYY
Save storageNYY
A few points here need clarification.

Expense. A hardback is around 3x the price of a movie (assuming about $30), roughly the same as a new-release DVD. (Paperbacks are about 2x a movie; used books anywhere from 50 cents on up.) Book-rental programs start at about $10/month for two books out at a time. A price comparison between buying and renting would depend on how many books you consume -- if you use a rental service only rarely, it can theoretically be more expensive than buying.

Shelf appeal. Culturally, having books is generally considered a positive, in a way that owning movies doesn't seem to be. Do you have a different impression if you walk into a house that has many shelves of books (and no movies) versus walking into a house that has many movies (and no books)? Note that this is inextricably tied to the issue of storage.

Read when you want. If you own a book, you can read it on your own schedule. (Mine: slow.) You can look things up in the book at your convenience. With a rental program, you can re-read a book, of course, but you have to re-rent it. Ditto library books. Neither of those two options lets you look something up at your convenience, really.

Storage. A collection of books incurs the expense of specialized furniture, aka bookshelves. (A kind of proto-entertainment center, haha.) If you move, you have to schlep it. (Book people will often complain that moving their frickin-frackin books is a disincentive to moving again any time soon.)

Presenting the information in the table is a little deceptive, because it doesn't assign a weight to each criterion. The column for borrowing has the fewest Y's, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the worst option; I've certainly known people, heavy readers, who get most or all of their books from the library. Or perhaps the issue of immediate gratification is not important to you because you're ok to be number 572 out of 716 people waiting to read, dunno, The Secret.

I sure haven't convinced myself that I should be renting books, but I don't think the idea is as preposterous as it initially struck me. What do you think?

[1] A limitation of Netflix is that you don't get to see the DVD packaging, which occasionally contains interesting information. People don't seem to complain about that much, tho.

[2] "Free" here means whatever you get either via the airwaves or (not technically free) over basic cable.

[3] Fewer these days.

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