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Amazon e-book subscriptions: Don't hold your breath

Consumer Reports News: September 12, 2011 02:13 PM

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Amazon is trying to sell publishers on licensing their Kindle e-book titles on an all-you-can-read basis to members of Amazon Prime, the website’s premium service. The plan is no surprise: The notion of unlimited e-reading has great appeal, and Amazon already offers unlimited streaming video (albeit from a relatively small library) to Prime customers, who pay $79 a year for free two-day shipping and other perks.

But e-book rental doesn't have much chance of happening, at least soon.

Like a good deal of what Amazon conceives, all-you-can-read e-books may be an idea that’s come before its time—if that time even comes. The plan faces two significant hurdles:

• Publishers are leery. As the Wall Street Journal reported this morning, publishers worry that the plan, even if it is offered as part of a $79 sub, may diminish the perceived value of e-books among non-subscribers. They fret that bookworms may start to compare the $10 or so they’re paying for a hot new Kindle title favorably against the $15 or more that the print version might cost but weigh it unfavorably against its perceived cost for Amazon Prime customers—which might be seen as zero.

But the reasons run deeper than that. Amazon’s all-you-can-read proposals to publishers also include exclusivity clauses that prevent or at least limit the ability to make similar deals with other booksellers. There’s no evidence—surprisingly—that those other sellers, such as Barnes & Noble and Apple, are ready to pitch such plans. But signing an all-you-can-read deal with Amazon that shuts out the possibility of signing another one elsewhere would hardly help relations between publishers and Amazon’s competitors. And publishers still rely on Amazon's competitors not only to sell their e-books but, in the case of B&N, their physical books, too.

• Authors may object. The right of publishers to “rent” e-books is a contractual gray area, at least to authors. And in the still-evolving new world of e-books, authors are wont to assert their ownership rights in areas of legal ambiguity.

Amazon found that out a couple years ago, for example, when it promised that all Kindle titles would be available in a text-to-speech mode. Some authors balked, complaining that such use wasn’t explicitly covered in e-book rights and raising concerns that such audio versions (though read by a mechanized voice) might affect audiobook income. Amazon later had to modify the program and make text-to-voice available only when the book’s author had permitted it.

A similar tussle could easily ensue were Amazon to proceed with all-you-can-read deals without authors buying in, which is anything but assured at this point.

Bottom line: Don’t buy a Kindle or get an Amazon Prime account because you think you’ll be able to binge on e-books anytime soon. It’s quite unlikely that any Amazon all-you-can-read program will be in place by this holiday season, at least with any major publishers on board. But the power of unlimited reading programs for e-books—which, after all, lack the appeal of physical books as collectible items—isn’t likely to fade, and may well be offered one day, if not from Amazon then from one of its competitors.

Paul Reynolds

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