Tick Tock, Book Boox

April 4, 2014

A vendor somewhere had to try this approach: metered reading. And now someone has.

Yoav Lorch is the engaging and insightful CEO of an Israeli company called Total Boox. I met with him at PLA in March, and got a guided tour of his product. 

Total Boox is based on the premise that most of the usage limits that apply to physical books make no sense at all when applied to their digital counterparts. Only one person can read the book at a time? People have to wait for the book to come back? The book is now due whether or not you’ve finished it, and you can't renew it? 

For crying out loud (thinks the library patron), why? It’s a computer file, right? Has no one (for instance, librarians) heard of file sharing?

So far, the problem has been that there is no commonly accepted method of checking out ebooks that balances the sincere desire of all parties that there be payment for each use while taking advantage of the technological advantages of the ebook. 

So consider the Total Boox approach from the standpoint of the library patron:

  • Your library card unlocks a collection of books online.
  • You can download as many as you like, at no cost to you or the library. Every ebook is available for instant use.
  • You can organize the books into “shelves” that make sense to you: Must Read, Science Fiction, Recommended to Me, and so on.
  • You can put your “shelves” on up to six devices you own—again, at no charge.
  • You can share passages you admire through social media.
  • Your books never expire.
  • You cannot give the file to someone else.
  • Information about your use of the file (in aggregate) is available to others.

Here’s how it looks from the library side:

  • You pay only for what patrons read. The cost is a percentage of the retail value of the book. So if the book costs $20 to the consumer, and a patron reads only 10% of it (at a font size he or she prefers) and then quits, the library pays the publisher $2. If patrons don’t read the title at all, despite having downloaded it and flipped around the table of contents, the library pays nothing.

Here’s how it looks from the publisher side:

  • You get paid for every page anyone reads.
  • There are no fancy discounts for libraries (or distributors). You set the price for a book once, for everybody.
  • There are no returns—the extraordinarily labor-intensive process of managing items that didn’t sell.

On the other hand, a “sale” doesn’t mean what it used to. People actually have to put their eyes on a page for the requisite period. If 2 million people download a book and no one plows past page 10 (see Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time) you don’t make as much as you might think even from a title that is all the buzz.

Is this a great incentive to reduce friction, or what? This greases the tracks, which is precisely what the 21st-century publishing business is—or should be—all about. In fact, this business model starkly illuminates the truth of things: Authors who can hold our attention, page after page, should make money. And now we can track who does, and who doesn’t. In fact, we can track at what page the reader bails.

On the one hand, I can see how such information (“Ms. Smith, 90% of your readers stop reading at page 20.”) might lead to a certain coarsening of intellectual content. (“So either a bomb explodes or there’s a hot sexual encounter—preferably both, on page 19. Write that way in the future or this concludes our contract with you.”) 

Of course, this is a gold mine for true bestsellers. Authors who understand how to grab readers would make money with every page turn. And all the other authors, would now have a chance, like never before, aided and abetted by the broadest possible national network of sales outlets (that would be us, America’s public libraries), to find readers.

So many changes! Libraries: How to apportion our collection budgets? Publishers: it’s not just purchases, but eyes on the page. Authors: What will this mean to them?

This is what disruption looks like, my friends. Everything you thought you knew must be thought through again. Ain’t we got fun?

JAMES LARUE is a writer, speaker, and consultant on the future of libraries. He can be reached at jlarue[at]jlarue.com.