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A budget for Babel

Last night I started thinking about e-books, partly because I was frustrated that I wanted to buy some books that aren’t available for Kindle. (If you’re curious, the two I was pining over were John Ashbery’s new translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Eugene Jolas’s Critical Writings: 1924-1951.)

Truth be told, I probably would have talked myself out of the purchases anyways, because I haven’t had any spare money for my drug of choice (books) in a while. But I was bothered because I couldn’t buy them. I wanted them, and if I had enough money, I wanted them all. And if I could have them all, I’d find a way to get enough money.

So I took to Twitter with this idea, with the following results.

So, so far, we’ve got a few different possible models (assuming everything could be worked out on the back end with author consumption, etc., which is a pretty gigantic assumption):

  1. Every book that’s ever been made digital or easily could be made digital (I’ll come back to this second point later);
  2. The same thing for movies and TVs. Which might be an even bigger, more popular idea;
  3. A curated digital book club/book channel, a la Netflix, that offers you enough popular and backlist material to keep you busy;
  4. What else?

Casey Gollan also pointed me to a similar thought-experiment a couple of years ago by Kevin Kelly:

Very likely, in the near future, I won’t “own” any music, or books, or movies. Instead I will have immediate access to all music, all books, all movies using an always-on service, via a subscription fee or tax. I won’t buy - as in make a decision to own โ€” any individual music or books because I can simply request to see or hear them on demand from the stream of ALL. I may pay for them in bulk but I won’t own them. The request to enjoy a work is thus separated from the more complicated choice of whether I want to “own” it. I can consume a movie, music or book without having to decide or follow up on ownership.

For many people this type of instant universal access is better than owning. No responsibility of care, backing up, sorting, cataloging, cleaning, or storage. As they gain in public accessibility, books, music and movies are headed to become social goods even though they might not be paid by taxes. It’s not hard to imagine most other intangible goods becoming social goods as well. Games, education, and health info are also headed in that direction.

And Mark Sample noted that really, you already can get almost any book, movie, TV show, etc., if you’re willing to put in a little work and don’t mind circumventing the law.

Here’s a thought: How would this change the way we read? If I haven’t laid down money for a particular book, would I feel less obligated to stick it through to the end? I’d probably do a lot more dipping and diving. I’d be quicker to say, “this isn’t doing it for me โ€” what else is on?”

And remember, a lot of the books โ€” cookbooks, textbooks, reference material โ€” would be geared for browsing, not reading straight through. We might actually find ourselves plunking down extra money for a digital app with a better UI.

Ditto, imagine the enhanced prestige of rare books that were off this universal grid, or whose three-dimensionality couldn’t be reduced (without difficulty, if at all) to an e-book.

Still, I think whatever I pay for cable, internet, my cellphone’s data plan, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, Dropbox backups, etc. โ€” I’d pay way more for the Library of Babel.

What do you think? What would you need to make this work for you?

(Comments enabled. I’ll shut ‘em down at the end of the week. Be nice.)

Reader comments

Matthew BattlesMay 04, 2011 at 12:45PM

At the hundred-dollar level, I'd want the fee to cover use, too?set the terms by which, if I want to quote something in a book, I can go ahead and do so with notice but without further fee; I've already bought the license.

Also, I'd want the books to be *much* better scanned, prepared, and edited than we typically find among ebooks today. Kindle books are nearly useless for anything but general reading; the edition information on them is very poor. And the problems with Gbooks are legion: multi-volume works disaggregated, etc. In short, the prospect of a complete corpus is tantalizing, but it seems pretty far off. The state of the ebook remains closer to Netflix grab-bag than Library of Babel.

Gavin CraigMay 04, 2011 at 12:49PM

$100 per month is steep, in my mind. I pay about $100 per year (that's not a typo) for basic cell service, and about $200 per year in property taxes for the library. (My property taxes are more than that, but that's the part the library gets.)

I think I could be sold on $50 per month if it includes everything, on demand AND it includes some ability to obtain a limited number of permanent, printed copies at no extra charge. (Maybe this is only one per month, or every other month, but no dice if I have to use my own printer, ink, and paper.) With a good reader (Kindle, Nook, etc.) the number of actual printed copies I need might actually be fairly minimal. But I need something.

IrwinMay 04, 2011 at 12:53PM

I think the $100/mo number is about right -- (it's like a gym membership for your brain!) At least my gym now offers a pay-as-you-go plan (cancel at any time), as well as the $1000/year discounted rate, which could make sense here.

Incidentally, I assume the UI of this Library of Babel will not require endless wandering in search of the index that contains the location of all the books in the library. Makes me want to dig up the old machinima model I made of the hexagonal layout described in Borges' story using the Quake engine.


Matt MillerMay 04, 2011 at 1:02PM

If I got out of academia, I would leap at this--even if it had serious problems like those Matthew Battles wants fixed. Public libraries are great but seriously insufficient for the type of learning I want to do. With my current free access to a research library, though, I'm unlikely to pay for anything beyond books I absolutely need in my personal library.

So in other words: infinite-but-expensive > limited-but-free, but huge-but-free trumps them both for now.

MikeTMay 04, 2011 at 1:09PM

I have something like that for print books, via interlibrary loan. It's not super-convenient, but it works. Based on my taxes, I think I'm paying about $200 a year for it, although some of that is lumped in with my mortgage payment through an escrow account, so it's fairly invisible to me.

Louis-Jean TeitelbaumMay 04, 2011 at 1:11PM

I would gladly pay $100 for a portable, universal library. This is obviously worth so much more.
My daily commutes, my visits to the library, the furniture in my house, the time I spend at work, the size of my backpack when I travel, all of this is deeply influenced by the availability of books around me.
I would need to relearn, though, what it means to end a book. With so much available, I fear that at first I would spend more time prettifying my reading list than actually reading. A universal library begs for a new kind of notebooks, of note-taking behaviors, of tracking and remembering what you have read.

Jesse MMay 04, 2011 at 1:22PM

For instant access to all electronic e-books realistically available: $15.00 / month. This would be great for my reading-for-pleasure self.

For instant access to all books ever published: $75 / month. However, I'd only pay this if I was in a fairly stable, well-employed situation. The reason it's even this valuable is for scholarly reasons... I'd love to be able to hunt down, scrutinize, and cite the obscure studies on HP Lovecraft, original texts on alchemy and the humours, the catalogs and curiousa of the 19th century Paris salons, etc. It would be rather magical.

For instant access to all books, movies, and music ever published and/or recorded: $150 / month, or $1500 / year. It would effectively stand in for my netflix, iTunes, cable, reading, and library consumption, with a little extra value thrown in there for immensity. However, eventually you run into the bottleneck of time constraints -- after a certain point, sheer volume loses its cumulative value, because I wouldn't have time to consume everything I wanted to anyway. It might become kind of frustrating, having it all available and only so many hours a day to devote to consumption.

Lena SmithMay 04, 2011 at 1:23PM

I'm from Denmark, and since books are a lot more expensive here I think $100/month is an absolute STEAL! If I could have access to any book ever written - no exceptions - I would be willing to pay $150/month. However I think the option of buying access to only SOME sections of this library would be a better idea, since I know there are a lot of subjects I'd never want to read about anyway.

Bert VanderveenMay 04, 2011 at 1:29PM

Why not broaden this idea and make everything free (food, housing, transport, clothes, books, etc.) in exchange for everything you do not earn (the whole concept of income would be moot ? no need for money)?

Anyway, on topic: On average I have spent 200 tot 250 euros a month on reading material, apart from the monthly bill at my caf? where I read a lot of newspapers and magazines for free, paying for 4 cappucino?s a day?
So 100 USD (by accident at its lowest exchange rate to euro in 40 years) a month would be a steal. For me.

NathanMay 04, 2011 at 1:31PM

As a grad student, my knee-jerk reaction is 'This would be awesome,' the same line of reasoning that led to my Kindle purchase. But the reality of the Kindle's 'academic' reading experience (note-taking, grabbing sections, etc.) is really sub-par and I end up back with paper books.

This type of infinite access would require a huge revamp of the e-reader market, UI design, portability, and so on. But I may be a niche audience.

For casual reading, yes, a subscription service seems great.

AnneMay 04, 2011 at 1:39PM

Yeah, I think I'd pay $100, although I'd be happer with $60. But that would be for household access, for both me and my husband. Along the lines of the iphone bill. I read an awful lot though, making it worthwhile for me (much like my purchase of an out-of-district library card, for $95 a year).

Andrew McClayMay 04, 2011 at 2:37PM offers a 2-book a month deal for $19 a month. They don't offer deals with any higher consumption of books than that (i.e. there is no unlimited-access Netflix plan) for the simple reason that books are not movies. There is a distinct and low upper-limit on the number of books you can consume per month, regardless of how many are available to you.

It's easy to confuse the acquisition of information with the consumption of information. Just spend a few weeks using instapaper to see what this means. The same is true for users of the library. You can easily check out 20 books every two weeks, but few people do this consistently. Access does not equal consumption. Even in our current world, you can quickly get access to enough interesting reading material to last a few lifetimes. But just because you've got them doesn't mean that you can read them any faster.

Just because we can get books faster and easily doesn't mean that we can read them any faster or more easily. Regardless of how easy a good interface makes it to access a book (neat bookmarks, highlights), these are cheap tricks to pretend that you can consume the book faster.

This has been a default way of dealing with the flood of new information that we find ourselves awash in. In an effort to handle this new flood, we've been seduced by the idea of compression and aggregation. "Just give me the one-sentence summary" we say. This may work for the most banal get-rich-quick business books; it works slightly less-so for King Lear.

Billy FisherMay 04, 2011 at 2:57PM

I would have to move out of the splendid isolation of my country home, probably, to get the kind of accessibility I'd need (with the current state of the technology available where I live). But that said, I'd still not pay more than $50/month.

Kyle DenlingerMay 04, 2011 at 3:37PM

As a library and information science grad student, I have to put in my two cents. One serious consequence of moving to such a model (pay per month for unlimited digital access to all the world's print content) is that the entire world of publishing would be opened up to a situation similar to the current net neutrality debate (tiered access plans, channels with "more content" for corporations and academic institutions, etc.).

I'm a bit biased, but I think the most equitable method--the method least likely to favor corporations, oppress low-income users, and widen the intellectual/digital divide--is to make public libraries the hub of such a system, and have it be supported by property taxes or something similar. If you have a public library card, you have free access to all the world's content, and everyone is sharing the financial load. But what a benefit!

AndyMay 04, 2011 at 3:41PM

This is why free public libraries are awesome. The access you speculate about already exists.

I honestly think this post, and this whole question, is painfully naive about books, reading, and information. There is no "every book" database and likely there never will be. A "every NEW book" database might be a reasonable proposition, but "every book"? No way. The time may come but it will be a good while. Subscribers in your scenario would be better off than, say, those of us with Netflix subscriptions but there would still be a lot missing, and that's significant.

This is coming from someone who loves cloud based subscription services, and uses Netflix, HuluPlus, and Rdio for music (which I love, and they have been adding recordings at a decent clip).

One further suggestion (maybe because I have yet to come to really enjoy reading anything of great length on "devices") would be that subscriptions be linked to an on-demand publisher like and that a certain number of free "hard copy" requests be included with the price.

Anyhow, interesting idea.

Kyle DenlingerMay 04, 2011 at 3:43PM

That said, though, I think unlimited digital access to a universal digital library a-la Netflix is somewhat inevitable. The way we try to wrangle such a variety of content providers, content formats, and content readers is unsustainable.

Nathan SwartzendruberMay 04, 2011 at 3:47PM

Metadata seems like a really important aspect of such a service. Delicious is a good example of metadata in play. It's not enough to have bookmarks saved or have someone add a few tags. I need my own tags, in my own nomenclature, so that I can use the links in my own way. Vanilla access isn't enough. I don't need to own a book to take notes on it, but I do need connected metadata to get the most use out of what I read.

JPMay 04, 2011 at 3:49PM

I think that in order for a totally cloud-based media system to work, the first thing that needs to get addressed is the data network infrastructure that supports it. There are numerous places in San Francisco alone (which is a tech hub) in which I don't get enough signal to even look up something on Wikipedia, let alone access an entire book or music album (yes, I'm on AT&T, which is notoriously terrible, but, as it's the second largest data network in the US, it's worth taking into consideration). And what if I'm staying in a cabin in some remote area with no reception? How can I access the cloud then?

I think that until global data network infrastructure is expanded enough to cover everything, a totally cloud system simply won't work.

BenMay 04, 2011 at 4:35PM

I agree with Kyle, anyway, and I think it would be phenomenal if we could access any ebook through public libraries, though I think this would require a generally different model of authorship than we have now.

But talking about Tim's plan... I think a tiered system would work best, with lower prices for access to a few books a month, and the prices going up until you hit universal access at $100-$200 per month. I would like to be able to go back and revisit any books I've read, so if I sign up for the 10 books a month plan at $35/month, or whatever it is, I could still have access to books I've previously read within my quota. Maybe that costs an extra $5 or $10 per month. $50 for 10-15 books a month plus free backsies? Sign me up, and plenty of other folks too. I just don't think enough people would go for the everything plan (especially without poppy seeds).

The logistics and tech are far off, but here is a practical way towards it. Create a system where public libraries have access to all books, and anyone who is a member of the library can read any of the books while they are in the library. There you have a beginning. The next step would be for universities to work out bulk licenses where students could have unlimited access while enrolled, and soon after that there could be paying options for the public.

I think that once the tech is there, once e-readers have improved a bit more, we will move closer to some system like this. And ebooks will have to come down in price, as the publishers start to die off... I mean, $10 or $12? Really? It's absurd... Sorry,

LauraMay 04, 2011 at 4:38PM

I think the user base for something like this might be highly targeted (both economically and in terms of interest). It's sad, but true that most people don't want to rearrange their budgets to buy books. They want vacations (on which, ironically, a lot of people say they'll "finally have a chance to get some reading done"), new cars, dinner out more often, and these days even a Netflix subscription is seeming more and more like a necessity to a lot of people. But, I have a feeling (though can't prove it, of course) that the majority of people with a Netflix or subscription don't feel like sitting down and reading a book (even on their iPAD, Kindle, etc.) is something they can't live without month-to-month. Even someone like me, who reads mostly on their smart phone these days, and reads about 4 books a month, probably wouldn't get the right amount of usage out of it. At any rate, I'd probably have to rearrange the way I currently think about reading to do so.

Anyway, I was inspired and I'm wordy, so I did a blog post about this today:

Michael FoodyMay 04, 2011 at 5:03PM

I would like this as a model 10 bucks a month to join a large club with many members who like to read. Authors would submit their books to the service and these books would be available to a limited number of readers using the service (availability would be randomly assigned to limit the ability to game the system) this subset of users would then have the ability to read, rate, highly rated books would be subject to editing services paid for out of the pools of user fees. These edited books would then be available for a second round of rating these users would award prizes from $10,000 to $300,000 if these prizes were accepted the book would be available to club exclusively and released to the public domain after 10 years. Club members would have a certain amount of points to allocate a month. These points allow them rate books these points would be used for bonuses for editors, authors, and even raters, as well as to determine which raters best reflect the interests of the commons.

This proposal would benefit enormously from economies of scale with 1 million users this could allow axis to a library of 400 titles at the $300,000 prize level a year cumulatively, at 10 million users it would be able to offer thousands of $300,000 prize winners and tens of thousands of smaller prizes. Not to mention access to many random manuscripts from prospective authors if you are into that kind of thing.

Kevin ZurawelMay 04, 2011 at 5:16PM

I'm certainly intrigued, but I do have to wonder about the economics involved. The majority of American adults, if statistics are to be believed, never read a single book after "finishing" their education, whether that be high school or college. The market for books is therefore far smaller than the market for audio / video content.

That said, something closer to Netflix pricing territory may well spur public interest in reading. I would be willing to pay $20 / month for access to any book ever published, with some form of limitation (say, no more than 3-5 book "checkouts" per month). Truly unlimited access could easily sell for $100 / month, but I don't think most people are going to need (or even be interested in) that level of access.

Alex HernMay 04, 2011 at 5:50PM

Kyle brings up, obliquely, the more pressing point for me (I'm a freak about thinking too far ahead); without the choice to spend your money on specific titles, the whole concept of a 'niche' or 'cult' audience goes out the window. After a decade or so hyping the concept of a long tail of media available, we would instead hit a situation where the 'publisher' (the Netflix analogue) chooses the catalogue available to you on an all-or-nothing basis. Doubtless, there'd be some people who spend a significant enough proportion of their income on niche books that they wouldn't see what is generally a good deal as one for them (incidentally, this would probably be me if comics weren't included in the deal), but for a whole host of other people (most people, to be realistic), who spend maybe 95% of their cash on 'mainstream' (or at least, mainstream enough to be on the service) and 5% on smaller stuff, they'd take a look at the offer and decide to give up the 5% for cheaper, better access to the 95%.
We'd be destroying a whole field of literature. Not big enough to warrant an institutional licence? Well, you don't exist then.
I'd imagine to a certain extent people would get around this by offering their work for free just to be on the system, but that's hardly better.
And what happens to self-publishing in this model? If I think I have a product which is good enough and no one recognises my genius, I can put it on Amazon and potentially make a bomb (Amanda Hockling style). We've only just reached the stage where this is possible, and we destroy it? So soon?

Adam RothsteinMay 04, 2011 at 6:04PM

1) If I had $100 a month to spend on books, I'd be able to read every book I have time/desire to read, and select from EVERY book available for purchase, which is not EVERY book, but all the same, is EVERY book, because:

2) As others have noted, there is no such thing as EVERY book. I've thought long and hard about a cloud music service, after different conversion, storage, and software problems have gunked my well-curated digital music file system. But, I haven't gone for it, simply because I would still have to have my own files. The other week I found an obscure blog with a download of a Thai band from the 80s influenced by surf-rock. I can't search for the name of it, and can't pronounce the name, because it is written in characters I can't read. And yet, it's awesome enough to keep. I would still be tracking stuff like this down and saving it locally. I could do both local and cloud I suppose, but then, clearly neither on its own is EVERY book/song. (Book analog is the crappy 70s SF paperbacks I buy for a quarter a piece, which I'm sure have never been digitized.) And while there is something to be said for the convenience of a good library:

3) Good libraries already exist. A good library is not every book, but it is a lot of books. Sure, I would like the occasional title to be easier to track down. Instantly would be a good standard to work towards. But I think this is a problem to be worked out in the context of libraries, not something that will instantly be solved by a cloud service. There are some people who only use a library card, and this is their "cloud service" for books. But most people who are lucky enough to be a member of a good library have already worked out the way they get their book needs solved between their own shelves, hard drives, and the card. Amazon made buying books easier. When I moved to Multnomah County (Portland, OR) I was amazed at how excellent the library is here. Web interface for accounts and reserves, excellent selection, inter-library loans, and even some digitalized downloads. I think this pre-existing infrastructure should be pushed in the direction of the library of Babel, rather than think that some sort of cloud service will magically make this happen overnight. I don't have a $100/month to give to the library, but if I did, I would put my money there.

Eva WoodsMay 04, 2011 at 6:26PM

I buy books for all three members of my house, a mix of new and used, and it comes to about $60/month. I would easily pay $100 for unlimited selection, not only because I want hard to find books, but because I would read more if I could afford it.

My only problem is lending and gifting books. I have one small bookcase in my house for me and my boyfriend, another for my daughter. I LOVE giving books away. So I think without that ability, no price would be cheap enough.

DrewMay 04, 2011 at 7:44PM

It won't be long (in Moore's Law timeframe) before Kevin Kelley's scenerio is extended. How long before you can buy the entire Library of Congress collection or every Amazon book on a disk? What about the all the music on iTunes? Every movie or television program ever made in any language all the time. In a relatively short period of time, these will all fit on a single memory stick/device. And that device will eventually cost just a few dollars. And once someone buys all of these media is only a short time before they are available on the internet (pirated). It's like that Qwest commercial. What will it be like to have instant access everywhere to everything for free?

BryceMay 04, 2011 at 9:33PM

I agree with the spirit of Andrew McClay comment - I love the idea of a digital repository of every written work, but I feel that there are ways to monetize that idea which I like a lot more than simply "$X to access all of it." For starters, $100 seems to high for me, even though from a publisher's standpoint I imagine it would be an exceeding low number for the value that I'd be getting. In reality, more than $20 per month and I'd still be more inclined to just selectively buy a few titles.

I'd be more drawn to something like a tiered plan based on number of books accessed per month, or even a plan similar to satellite TV or radio where you could subscribe to different channels based on genre, topic, authors, etc. It would be a preferential experience for me, filtering down the entire universe of written works into something more targeted. As this would be (for me) 99% of the benefit of total unlimited access, I don't mind buying it at the same price point, which I'm inclined to believe would make it more desirable from the publisher's standpoint.

Tim CarmodyMay 04, 2011 at 9:58PM

I really appreciate everyone's thoughtful comments. I especially like some of them that try to think critically about how such a system would even be possible (even if not all of these folks were especially charitable to me).

For instance, you would have to figure out an appropriate way to compensate authors and publishers, whether that's based on negotiated fees or rate of access, or whatever. This is an incredibly hard problem to solve.

You'd have to figure out if you're going to offer such subscriptions on the open market, or via institutions like universities, public libraries, etc. You would probably tailor the book selection based on the mode of subscription.

Now if you suppose that this is nationalized, let's say through the Library of Congress, then it's a slightly different question. You could imagine a situation where it was public/private -- the basic infrastructure might be supported by federal budget appropriations, then individual subscriptions (however tiered and indexed and throttled) might be supported by a fee on top of that.

And you've have to figure out how digital subscription systems would coexist with other models. Movies are a good example of this: we have first-run theater shows, DVD and Blu-Ray sales, digital downloads, various streaming services, television syndication, cable on-demand, digital piracy (whether black-market DVDs or file-sharing). It's a very different world from just a few decades ago, when movies were shown in theaters and maybe, occasionally, on broadcast TV.

Ditto with books, you could imagine various subscription models coexisting with traditional print sales, sale/rental of individual e-books, and maybe other things we haven't imagined yet. There's no reason to assume that any one model would necessarily wipe out any other.

The trouble is that the clarity of the proposition -- $100/month for every book, on any device! -- glides past all of these messy realities. These are the kinds of problems that turn things like the Google Books settlement and the New York Times paywall into messy beasts that seem prima facie to be more complicated than they need to be -- but which are trying to take every one of these considerations seriously.

But that doesn't mean it isn't useful as a thought-experiment. It makes me think about my spending priorities, and it makes me say, "okay, if X doesn't work -- how would you fix it? If Y doesn't make me happy, would anything at all?"

Travis ButlerMay 04, 2011 at 11:40PM

I have a couple of problems with the proposal:

First, as someone whose personal library is in the thousands of books, I have a pretty clear idea of just how much I can consume - and it's nowhere reasonably close to being worth $100/month. I'm far more likely to spend a lot less on targeted purchases, even if the unlimited subscription would let me follow up on any particular interest at the drop of a hat. On the flip side, I'm not particularly enthusiastic about any metered access, because in my experience metering has the psychological effect of encouraging me to decrease my usage.

Second, I have a pretty strong desire for "ownership" on most media, and get fairly wary about moves that could be interpreted as heading towards 1) a pay-to-play system where I'm charged a fee for repeated access to a piece of media, either on a per-play basis or an ongoing subscription; and 2) any system that involves a gatekeeper for ongoing access to media - if I buy a copy and download it to my machine, it can't be cut off by the whims of the provider, or by lack of network access.

Shelley NobleMay 04, 2011 at 11:54PM

Just wanted to chime in with kudos on your recent spate of excellent posts.

Rock on.

CodsMay 05, 2011 at 12:28AM

You had me at "every book".

$100 / month?
No worries. Done.

The fine print?
- That's for my household, of course (family of four).
- That's it.

If I want to own a particular piece of work, I'll buy it in a physical form, and have no compunction about paying for the physical version over and above the subscription cost.

Imagine the print-on-demand business(es) that would complement the $100 subscription...

David GilliesMay 05, 2011 at 1:45AM

Value of a perpetuity costing $100/month is $25K at a 5% discount rate. Bargain. I'd pay that in a heartbeat. It's the price of a mid-range car.

But because it's EVERY book, it makes the marginal price of any given book essentially zero. It's great if you want your own personal British Library/Library of Congress/Library of Alexandria. Where does new content come from? The only way I see is via existing copyright, where the original author gets to capture the revenue for x years and then the work goes in the cloud. So, to use an iTunes analogy, you get all the music, ever, pre-copyright for $??? per month, and for works in copyright pay 99p (or better yet a sum discounted to the margin over the copyright period to avoid discontinuities and other such anomalies). But how long is the period? This scenario really is just the on-demand version of the existing copyright system, which has fallen so badly to regulatory capture. Every time it looks like Mickey Mouse is going public domain, Disney and the MPAA strong-arm congress into a copyright extension. They never want the marginal value of their work to fall to zero. This is insupportable, both ethically and economically. Plus there's the non-rivalrous aspect of digital copies, which is a whole new can of worms.

Paul MerrillMay 05, 2011 at 12:22PM

I think that the lust for what we don't have is very basic to humankind. It drives us forward in good ways but can also be destructive.

Anthony WorksMay 05, 2011 at 12:23PM

It occurs to me that what I'm willing to pay for isn't necessarily the content itself, but the quality of access to content. I can get the content of almost every book through the inter-library loan system at my local library. It just might be a month before I can get my hands on it.

By "quality of access" I'm talking about many different issues. Time and location are mostly covered in this digital age. Time also includes, though, my time to find what I'm looking for if I don't have a specific Author/Title/ISBN. While it is still a pleasure to sit and consume an entire novel suggested by a friend, that is not the way I consume most of my written media, and I would suggest that the world is trending away from that. I also will admit that a large part of that experience is the romanticism (even nostalgia?!) of the act of sitting down with a physical book, but I don't know how long that effect will persist through the next few generations.

Mostly, I consume handfuls of snippets or pages at a time. Some of it is browsing, but a majority would be, in essence, "Googling"--wanting a specific piece of information, and when the actual Google (Google Search, Google Books, Google Scholar) fails to yield what I want, trying to find the book that covers that information with authority.

The amount I would pay for this service, therefore, would be based on the quality of the catalog's browsing and search U.I. I would easily pay $150/month for a system with an almost intuitive U.I. that would let me find whatever I was looking for (whether I knew it, or not) very quickly and where browsing was fluid and inspiring.

Of course, the quality of the visual experience is part of this, as well. How are photographs and illustrations handled? What's their visual quality? Will I want to browse fine art books or photography books for hours?

This reminds me of what has happened over the last couple decades in my field. Twenty years ago, legal research was done in a law library, and finding the right case law often separates legal malpractice from a successful outcome. When Lexis-Nexis gave us searchable digital access to "every legal resource in the world", they found law firms would spend out the nose for the service, not because they now had access to materials not available in their own (or even local) law libraries, but because the quality was higher. Legal research could be done much faster with keyword searching, and with much more comprehensive results. With the cost of malpractice insurance, and $300/hr billable rates, the value for the digitization was high.

I sense many people might significantly increase their "reading budget" if provided the right service, and not so much because of the "every book" product.

Kyle DenlingerMay 05, 2011 at 4:07PM

Hello again and a very merry Viagra to everyone,

Anthony, I think you nailed it there. We already do have access (and free access, to an extent) to "every" book. My main concern, as a librarian-in-training, is what happens when today's inter-library loan gets "Lexis-Nexis'ed" and monetized, as Mr. Carmody suggests. Don't get me wrong--if the entirety of the world's published content were full-text searchable, intuitive, and a pleasure to use, I would probably be willing to pay quite a bit of money to access it (not quite $100/month; I'm a grad student, so even $50 is quite a bit of money). But if such a system came to fruition and was locked behind any kind of paywall, I think we would see more equitable "free" services like ILL and even public libraries become prohibitively expensive to operate (simply due to supply and demand). Then what happens to those individuals that can't shill out the dough for the universal digital library, or to those that don't have high-speed connections? Would they be sentenced to forever mine the relative information wasteland that is the free web?

PamMay 05, 2011 at 5:16PM

Instead of thinking of monthly payments, why aren't we thinking about micropayments? What if I only read 10 pages?

PierattMay 05, 2011 at 6:35PM

This comment from Metafilter has stuck with me for a while now:

"All of the computers on Ebay are mine. In fact, everything on Ebay is already mine. All of those things are just in long term storage that I pay nothing for. Storage is free.

When I want to take something out of storage, I just pay the for the storage costs for that particular thing up to that point, plus a nominal shipping fee, and my things are delivered to me so I can use them. When I am done with them, I return them to storage via Craigslist or Ebay, and I am given a fee as compensation for freeing up the storage facilities resources.

This is also the case with all of my stuff that Amazon and Walmart are holding for me. I have antiques, priceless art, cars, estates, and jewels beyond the dreams of avarice.

The world is my museum, displaying my collections on loan. The James Savages of the world are merely curators."

As I am the curator of their things, and thus together we all share the world.

JoshMay 05, 2011 at 10:17PM

I don't have a particular opinion on this discussion as it pertains to books, but I love seeing that this discussion is taking place.

I work at Napster, and this is exactly the attitude many of us have there. Why own music at all? Why not pay a measly $10 a month and be able to listen to anything you want? It's tantamount to having instant access to an enormous library, which is exactly what Carmody proposes.

Granted, there are a few logistical reasons that might give one pause: a low enough intake of music/books not to warrant a subscription, lack of access to broadband, free alternatives. The first objection is moot; why are you reading this, then? I think the second objection will go away at some point, as broadband access grows and becomes faster and cheaper. The third will always be an issue, but a better product will draw customers.

The benefits of a subscription/streaming model are pretty staggering, in my opinion: access to an exponentially larger library than what you have at home and a local storage requirement of zero.

Hope I don't come off as a shill for Napster or anything, I just really believe in the product I work on, and that this mode of thinking is one we'll all adopt in the not-too-distant future. Netflix has already made some amazing progress in this area.

Ray CharbonneauMay 06, 2011 at 7:15AM

The system in the thought experiment (unlimited access to all books) will never happen, so there's no practical sense in even discussing it. But don't let that stop anyone :-) In fact, dream BIG. Why should the library be limited to books? Why not add in music, movies, and other digitizable media? I'd pay $100/month for that!

WIth this system, still dreaming, it would be trivial to set up the system to pay authors (rights owners) per download. Publishers might still exist, but they would essentially become agents for authors, taking their cut for marketing and production services from the author's payments.

In the realm of the possible, where some more limited selection of books is made available on a subscription basis, the amount I'd pay depends on the content available. But there's a threshold the service has to hit. I don't bother with ebooks from my local public library because the available content is too limited, given the hoops required by the licensing and DRM. For some ideal service where I could get the new books I wanted, I'd pay $20/month happily, maybe up to $50 if it had just about EVERYTHING I wanted. $20 is on average about $15/month more than I pay for new books now (thank you libraries/bittorrent).

More thoughts on how I've priced my own ebook:

CGFMay 06, 2011 at 2:11PM

A lot! $1K - $2K a year. I would even go for the Rhapsody model, where the copies stop working if you stop paying (perhaps extra per item for print on demand or some other permanent right). It's not just access for consumption, however. Would need to have it be fully searchable, lots of strong semantic features to help explore and remix texts.

milivellaMay 06, 2011 at 9:53PM

For sure someone asked the same questions even earlier than me, but I beat 2009 by two years! ;) As a matter of fact in 2007 I posted the following question in the Blogoscoped forum:
"Let's assume Google has scanned and indexed *every* book ever published. How much would you pay to search and read them all (i.e. without limitations)?"

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.