Tuesday, June 03, 2008

I want a Netflix for books

File this under inventions I'd like to see: Netflix for books. If Netflix can do instant, on-demand viewing, why, oh why, can't university presses get together and create a service like this?

Like a lot of people, I'll be traveling this summer, and like a lot of academics, I need to take books with me. In the past, this wasn't as much of a problem. I'd pack a suitcase with clothes and a suitcase with books, and away I'd go.

But now, with the airlines waging unceasing war on passengers (my theory: Amtrak is pulling the puppet strings so the airlines will wither and die) and charging for extra bags and extra weight, that's not feasible. I would kill--well, pay, anyway--for access to books that I didn't have to lug in a suitcase.

The databases for journals have made this easy, but there's still no comprehensive option for books. What are the alternatives?

  • University of California Press has made some of its scholarly books available for free, bless its heart, but not all of them.
  • Google books has full-text versions of some useful books, but for most of them you just get the maddening striptease that they call "limited preview."
  • Questia has quite a few books, but many are older.
  • Netlibrary has a ratio (for my field, anyway) of about two scholarly books to about 25 repackaged public domain books that I can get anywhere.
  • Kindle looks promising at first, but its offerings are a lot heavier on the Eat, Pray, Love and Tom Clancy kind of thing than on the Arcades Project, if you know what I mean. In other words, stuff that I can buy in an airport bookstore I can also get through Kindle. Stuff that I can't get there, I can't get through Kindle, either.

    What would a Netflix for books look like?

  • It would have to have affordable subscriptions or purchase prices, not the gazillion dollars that Project Muse and Ebsco extort from libraries so that individuals can never afford it.
  • It wouldn't have a proprietary device attached. Maybe it would come in .pdf versions that you could mark up.
  • It would be easy to access and have a good search feature. Maybe it could even emulate Amazon's "people who bought this book also bought X" feature.
  • It would allow you to get a "twofer"--an e-copy with every paper copy purchased. You could also just buy or rent the e-copy, for less money.
  • It would be centralized so you didn't have to go on a scavenger hunt to find the book you wanted.

    I know, I know: digital rights, copyright laws, royalties, blah blah blah. But the movie companies aren't exactly holding hands and singing on a mountaintop when it comes to digital rights management, and Apple and Netflix have managed to make a go of things.

    So I ask again: Netflix did it. Why can't academic booksellers?

    Professor Zero said...

    I really wish they'd do that. And have international divisions, too. I am packing for Peru and it is horrible because of the book situation. I need to go to where it is winter because it is too hot to work here and I can't afford to be elsewhere where it is cooler (e.g. a cooler part of the U.S.). This means the southern hemisphere ... it'll be cool enough to work without heatstroke ... but the books, the books! Netflix for books is such a good idea.

    Anonymous said...

    Well just so you know, a "netflix for books" exists, although not for scholarly books, but for popular fiction/nonfiction. It's called BookSwim -- http://www.bookswim.com. These are not ebooks, but physical books that get mailed with no due dates or late fees, free shipping both ways, and unlimited books.

    Scholarly books would be interesting but in my opinion those types of reference books easily get outdated and could be too costly perhaps?

    Anonymous said...


    undine said...

    Peru must be even hotter than the southern states, Professor Z. I don't envy your having to lug books there.

    George Burke, thanks for letting me know about BookSwim. It's a great idea, but I think you're right: the cost of academic books would be too high. Some of them cost $110 for a slim little volume, which is way too much.

    Bittersweet girl, wouldn't it be genius if they'd actually DO this?

    Anonymous said...

    I'm glad to know about BookSwim. Maybe it could be done for academic books, just make the service more expensive??? I'd take it off my taxes.

    Peru is "freezing" because it is winter. The problem with winter on the coast in poor countries is that the sun doesn't come out and the artificial light is kept very, very dim to save.

    Therefore I have discovered the true virtue of a Kindle: it glows, right? Here I want to read online as opposed to in books because the computer glows, and it really helps.

    undine said...

    I hadn't even thought of the light thing with a Kindle, cero. Did it save you a lot of luggage space? Did you end up using it a lot?