By its technical definition, at least, according to urbandictionary.com, “binge-reading” is reading at least one whole book in a day. Of course, the familiar concept is binge-watching and what you’re speeding through is a season. What with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and whatever else, binge-watching quickly became a new cash crop for big companies to sink their teeth into. Makes sense that something so very profitable would spawn a few fairly lucrative copycats, like taking the same idea and applying it to books. So why are companies having such difficulty making a binge-reading program that actually swims rather than sinks?
It can’t be that these systems aren’t releasing newly published books. Netflix doesn’t release a season until it’s all wrapped on television for several months. Could it be that television is simply more popular than reading nowadays and I now have to spend several paragraphs lamenting the loss of true thinkers and the bleak-looking future for the brain-dead youth of America? I certainly hope not.
Honestly, the reason that these programs like Oyster and Scribd are failing isn’t because the masses have suddenly turned their eye to their screens rather than the page. It’s just that books are a harder product to sell en masse than TV shows and movies.
Timing is Everything
Think about how many hours it takes you to read a book. If the book is good, not too long, and you’re a speedy reader, you can get through the book pretty quickly. I recently read a book that I got through in a straight six-hour block, only pausing to make a sandwich, though I then forget about said sandwich as the plot thickened. Now, I could have stretched that reading period out or maybe I could have even shortened it. The point is, a book basically takes whatever time you’re willing to offer it. But movies and television shows are not the same way. If you turn over your movie case, at the bottom, you’re going to see the runtime in very specific numbers. A movie that is an hour and forty five minutes long is always going to take you an hour and forty five minutes to watch.
Netflix knows it can offer you the shows and movies it does because there is no possible way for you to get through them all. Even if you had 24/7 to watch Netflix, which most of us don’t (and, even if we did, most of us like to eat something or go outside once in awhile), you couldn’t possibly get through all of what they offer. It would take more than three and a half years to get through everything and that’s if you don’t stop watching ever. And by the time you’re part of the way into your three-and-a half-year binge-a-thon, Netflix will be adding new shows and taking old ones away. And no, you can’t speed up the process, it will always take you three and a half years to complete their catalog.
So now you’re offered the same chance to do what Netflix does-but with books. But here’s the problem: the readers who take that chance with enthusiasm are the readers interested in a system where they can read hundreds, if not thousands of books for so much cheaper—and faster—than they would spend in stores. These are the same readers that binge-read and therefore drain their wallets each week at the bookstore (i.e. readers who read super super fast and might actually use this system for its intended purpose.). Yikes. The programs don’t actually want you to do that! You can’t use the program for its intended purpose, silly.
Those readers who are working through the digital library on these programs are zipping through each book and there’s no way to control how fast they’re reading. You can’t set up their pace by only showing one word at your designated speed. You can’t offer only a chapter a day so that they’re forced to elongate the period they spend reading one book. (Well, you could, but you’d lose customers by the bushel.)
But hey, don’t blame it all on us speed-readers over here. There’s other reasons why these programs aren’t working that well.
And Along Came Amazon
Their business tanked when a company with a larger customer base came along with their own program: Kindle Unlimited by Amazon.
Oyster and Scribd were actually doing pretty well before Amazon came along. Not phenomenally well, but as mentioned, there were a few glitches in the system. Unfortunately, Amazon just had more people, people who were already using their services, so it wasn’t hard for them to present a new service and generate profit much more than an independent program could. Now, Kindle Unlimited is a pretty popular program with lots of subscribers. It’s helped lots of self-published authors get more notice than they would have on their own. The price to pay for that is KU has exclusivity when it comes to the book, but for many, that’s not a bad deal. So Amazon had the tools and the client base to do what the other “Netflixes of Books” weren’t able to do. So, is there any hope for other subscription programs like them? Are they always doomed to fail because someone else can make it bigger and better? Are there any companies at all that can go toe to toe with the bigger competitors and still profit?
Well, there’s Marvel Unlimited.
I know what you’re thinking. Marvel has so much money they could actually make a working Iron Man suit and still have enough money left over to build his Malibu mansion. And you’d be right, if you were only counting the movies. The comics, not so much.
Marvel Comics does have more start-up money than Oyster or Scribd had, and like Amazon, a larger client base to begin with. So obviously, the comics do make money. Marvel wouldn’t be in business if they didn’t. But their business isn’t one that can support a profitless sinkhole and fill in the gaps somewhere else. They can’t just throw money at a project that isn’t doing so hot. They’re not making that much money. So, their program does have to be profitable. And surprisingly, it is. Revenue has actually increased since Marvel Unlimited was first released.
So, is it possible for a true Netflix of Books to come along and blow Kindle Unlimited away? It’s not looking like it. Of course, maybe one day they’ll perfect it, work out the bugs in the system and do it better than Amazon ever could. But that doesn’t guarantee that people will flock to it, or heck, even hear about it until it goes under. It looks like for now, you can choose between Kindle Unlimited or getting your books the old-fashioned way.
Hannah Hohman is associate editor at Foreword Reviews. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.