Book 'Rental', All You Can Eat/Read

Renting books sounds like a great idea. In the case of textbooks, it is; those buggers go for way too much, so anything you can do to reduce costs sounds like a win. More generally, getting books for free at your local library sounds even better, but in that model there are inventory and general availability issues.

In other media, an all-you-can-eat (watch/listen to … ) business model works out great. There’s a reason we all pay Netflix that $8 monthly fee to watch random videos and one of the many music streaming services fees ranging from $5 to $15 per month. Now, Oyster wants you to get on board with all-you-can-read books, and when they opened up their system to new readers yesterday the story got picked up all over the web, mostly in gushing tones.

And it won’t work.

Oyster isn’t the first company to dip a toe into the all-you-can-read waters, and at first blush it sounds like books should be subject to the same pricing and elasticity rules as video and audio media. And my concern for Oyster’s success has nothing to do with the Amazon-and-Jeff-Bezos-as-Doctor-Evil issue. I still like new ideas in e-book publishing. Influency comes in many colors, and e-books seem to be abut the last place in the media business where Influency is shifting. But all-you-can-read has one big problem, and the fact that Oyster is actually pricing its service (and making it available only on iDevices for the time being, no less!) higher than Netflix, Aereo, and the other players on the video side of the unlimited media equation isn’t even the thing that worries me!

The problem with all-you-can-read is that reading a book requires a commitment of several to several dozen hours. So unlike “I want random music for my workout or party” or “I want to mindlessly watch reruns of I Dream of Jeannie until I pass out”, both of which are defined by being undefined in terms of time commitment, there becomes a value equation for all-you-can-read that will only serve a small and shrinking market. Sure, some people plow through six or eight books per month, and for them all-you-can-read is a great deal. But for everyone else, $10 per month to read a book or two—or less—isn’t a great deal at all. Passive viewers are not at all the same thing as committed readers.

I want Oyster to succeed. And I’m not even sure that the price Oyster is going to market at is necessarily the issue to be concerned about. But unless Oyster can find a way to be attractive to a wide swath of people, it won’t work. Maybe the right Influency move for Oyster is actually to sell for a higher price. That’s worked for other businesses.

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