Amazon Prime a good start, but needs some work

by on May.13, 2012, under copyright law, Publishing, resale

It’s important to consider what media sellers and rights-holders are doing correctly, and not solely deride them for their perpetual myopia in terms of business models.

To wit: what’s the deal with Amazon Prime? This three-tiered service costs $80 a year for unlimited streaming, access to their ebook library, and free two-day shipping on some items.

Streaming is certainly a step in the right direction. The more that larger companies continue to license streaming content, the cheaper and broader the selection will become. Compare this with rip-offs like some ISP’s “on-demand” movies that cost $6 apiece. Sure, those films are newer, but for the majority of consumers that are at least partially price sensitive, charging $6 for one streaming session is the same as offering nothing at all (especially for those of us without cable to begin with – a sub-group to which I happily belong).

Prime doesn’t have as many titles as Netflix, but they’re also the new kid on the block. In time, they should build a comparable library. If you’re super-picky, let’s face it: you’re probably reluctant to abandon your cable anyway. But if you’re flexible, you can get much more media for much cheaper with either streaming service.

Skipping to the free shipping: like most services, this is advantageous when used often. If you buy the hell out of media, then it could be a perk of Prime, but that’s not what I’m interested in here.

The most important feature is “access” to the lending library of ebooks. When I read this pitch over quickly, I was immediately impressed. Finally, someone gets it – way to go Amazon! But then the fine print (it wasn’t fine, I have to admit, but it wasn’t exactly bulleted as a feature either). It seems you can only get one ebook loaned per month. This stopped me entirely. What do the huge numbers of available titles really mean when you’ve so completely bottlenecked access?

I understand: few people even finish one title a month; this should be enough, and compared with ebook prices (and considering that ebook sales skirt first-sale doctrine’s right to resale), this is a great deal.

But it’s still fundamentally an approach of exclusion and artificial scarcity. And while they understandably don’t want to give access to unlimited downloads of unlimited titles to everyone on the Net, the Prime model still assumes that the way to do business is to limit what your customers can do. Pick one book out of 100,000? The idea is silly.

What indeed would customers do if allowed unfettered access to the entire collection? Would they suddenly “borrow” hundreds of titles per month and then refuse to buy any? Of course not. And even if they did: what is Amazon selling here? Prime or ebooks? The two needn’t be mutually exclusive, of course, and they wouldn’t be, but perhaps they shouldn’t need to be mutually inclusive either.

But what’s wrong with a more pragmatic model that’s much closer to the way a physical library operates? I love the idea of having unlimited numbers of copies (a bottlenecked which currently affects library ebook loans, alongside horrid DRM schemes), but why have the loan last forever? If someone is a Kindle owning Amazon customer, they likely value their immediate selections rather than their long-term library, especially if it means having higher availability.

Would you rather have any number of books available to you for a limited amount of time, or one book a month for as long as you want it? Most would choose the former, and – importantly – that doesn’t imply that they would stop buying ebooks. I use my local library like crazy, and I can check out a book over and over if I want, but eventually, if it’s a book that I want to read multiple times or one that I need always to have on-hand (or one that I eventually want to give away, though we’re not there yet with legal ebooks services) then I end up buying it.

If they had to restrict access, perhaps the barrier could be connectivity instead of the number of media. Say, Prime allows unfettered access so long as the user is connected, but to have a book available “off-line”, the person might have to buy it. This might sound restrictive, but this is essentially how the successful Steam platform operates. The price of easy shopping, demos, deals, updates, and stability is that you have to be connected. The benny for them is obvious: that they can better know who you are (and thus that you’re supposed to have access).

That said, it would not take long to conjure many more scenarios that beat the pants off of one book per month. It’s still certainly a step in the right direction, but because it employs artificial scarcity, I have to remain critical.

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