News & Opinion

The Library is the Original “Netflix for Books”

by on October 24, 2013

The news that tech start-up Oyster is launching a “Netflix for Books” caused some lively debate among the eBook Team at the Indianapolis Public Library.  There are of course those who believe this could be the next big thing, but I still say “Netflix for Books” already exists—in the public library.

Some had their doubts when Netflix launched in 1997.  It did, in fact, take several years before it really caught fire.  Although you didn’t need to visit the local video store to pick up a movie, you did have to wait until that movie was mailed to you.  The instant gratification that our technological society is now so accustomed to was still out of reach.  When the (instantly gratifying) streaming service dropped to $7.99 per month, more people were paying attention.

The closest thing to Netflix right now is cable television, which can easily cost $100 per month, if not much more.  Some could argue that libraries offer everything Netflix does right now, but that’s not true.  Libraries are not currently able to offer streaming service to a collection of media as large as that of Netflix.  We may have a similar catalog of items, but that requires actually visiting the library to pick them up.

Ebooks are a different story.  Libraries are able to offer patrons thousands of eBooks and audiobooks, accessible from anywhere a wireless connection can be found.  I can sit on my couch and open a library book from my Overdrive app (for free!), but I can’t open a movie from the library on my phone.  Free movies from the library still require a library visit.  Therefore, I use the library for my eBooks and Netflix for my movies.

There are, of course, limits to the digital material libraries are able to offer.  Various publishers and authors don’t allow us to circulate their eBooks.  Many new titles require a waiting period before we can purchase them for circulation.  Those who enjoy instant gratification may use Amazon or Barnes & Noble to purchase these.  Ebooks are often sold for as little as .99, though, while Oyster is starting their pricing at $9.95/month.  Most disappointing for book fans who hate the wait for new releases, Oyster won’t offer the instant gratification of Amazon.  In fact, in their FAQs, they say “We generally secure rights to distribute a title a few months after its initial release.”

In essence, eBook users will have three choices when they sit down to download a book.  1.)  Check it out of the library.  2.)  Buy it.  3.) Use Oyster.  Those who are frugal will likely check the book out of the library, while those who don’t worry about money and simply want convenience, may buy the books they’d like to read.  I don’t really see an in-between crowd using Oyster.

When you look at the average consumer, their book budgets are not as large as their television and movie budget.  Most people simply don’t read as much as they watch their media.  The same person who pays $7.99 for Netflix will likely not pay the same (or more) for books.

It’s impossible to know what the future holds, especially when it comes to media and how the public accesses it.  For now, I maintain that the library was the first “Netflix for Books” and is still the best option for easily accessible, low-cost (free) eBooks.  We’ll have to keep an eye on Oyster, though, to see if they offer a more appealing platform or extras that the library isn’t currently providing. 


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