Why 'Netflix for Books' Will Never Work
The problems are just too big to solve.
Publishing is filled with pretty smart people.
Admittedly, I'm biased about this, because some of them publish my books. But I'd say that even if they didn't. When it comes to producing books in a fickle, strange industry, the business is filled with people who know how to get it done.
If you disagree, walk into any bookshop, and take a long hard look at the shelves. Humour me. Stand there, blocking the way and making a nuisance of yourself. Ignore the stares and muttered, surly Excuse Mes. I'm trying to make a point here, OK?
Guesstimate how many books are available to buy in that store. Now, consider that every one of those books represent a Herculean effort from dozens of people. All these books are labours of love, worth huge amounts to the right reader. And of course, the store you're in can only offer a fraction of the books available to buy right now and...
Yeah. You do not bring this many high-quality books to market if your company is filled with dumb-dumbs. Whatever you may think of the publishing, however much you bemoan the fact that a tiny fraction of authors populate the bestseller lists, can we at least acknowledge that the sheer effort and brainpower it takes to fill bookstores?
There is, however, one part of the book buying world that no-one has cracked yet. We still don't have a good online recommendation system for books.
By this I mean: we do not have an online equivalent of a helpful, passionate bookstore employee who will help you discover new books and authors. You can look as high and low as you like; you simply won't find it.
And people have tried. They really have, Book discovery, using a Netflix-style recommendation algorithm (or something similar) is the goal for the publishing industry. God, can you imagine? The sheer amount of money to be made here for the company who gets it right is just staggering. To give you an idea, Publishers Weekly reckons 827m print books sold in 2021; imagine if the interactions that fueled those purchases could translate to an online space.
I can list several apps and websites off the top of my head that purport to help you discover new books. Bookfinity. Booqsi. Litsy. Open Road. Goodreads. All of them strive to be the Netflix of publishing—to not only act as a central hub for book buying, but also to create robust discovery engines for new books and authors. It hasn't worked. At best, these services are niche, and they never quite get it right. Believe me, I've tried them all.
(For the record: Litsy is the most irritating, Goodreads the most finicky, and Bookfinity made me want to put my head through a wall)
Newer services like Copper Books (annoyingly, only available on iOS) and Tertulia (still in the works, although it's already been the subject of a fawning New York Times profile) say they'll get it right, but look: I have my doubts. I think there are multiple reasons why 'Netflix for Books' is going to be one hell of a tough nut to crack.
Reason 1: Attention
A Netflix series episode will take around one hour of your time—frequently less. A movie? Two hours. As a consequence, deciding to dive into one of these is a relatively easy choice. You're not investing a lot of time here.
But a book...now, a book takes a long time to read. I realise I'm generalising here, but even the shortest novels usually require a little more time investment than an episode of Ozark.
When choosing a book represents such a huge time investment, audiences are bound to be pickier. They're not going to necessarily trust a recommendation from a source they don't know and can't see. How does the hand-picked 'expert' know what they like? How can they tell if the algorithm is making the right choices?
There's no digital bookstore employee to personally argue for why someone should invest so much time into a book. And without that, you're never going to convince a reader to let go of that many hours.
Reason 2: Existing Networks
The biggest problem that the putative Netflix for Books is going to face...is that there is already a Netflix for Books.
Or rather, there are multiple recommendation engines already in place— engines that exist in spaces that have nothing to do with books.
Word of mouth on social media is the key driver here. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, TikTok, Instagram...anyone interested in books will quickly discover accounts who a) they enjoy following and b) who they trust. These accounts have similar tastes to theirs, they can get a sense of the person behind them, and they feel they can trust them.
Creating a central book recommendation engine is incredibly difficult when there are already dozens of decentralised versions available which readers already know, love, and trust.
Reason 3: Amazon
Amazon is the ten billion pound gorilla here. Anyone hoping to make money off recommending books is going to have to accept that they will need to fight the gorilla, which means they will probably lose.
Most book recommendations online, I would venture, occur within Amazon itself. Not just through the Explore Similar Books option, but through things like Kindle Unlimited. Whatever your opinion of this is—and mine is that Amazon sucks at book recommendations—it's still the way most people receive digital recs.
Competing with this is next to impossible. Just ask Oyster, a service which tried very hard to beat Amazon at its own game and went kaput in 2012.
Reason 4: eBooks Themselves
When ebooks first came out, it felt like an earthquake in the publishing world. Bookshops, insiders predicted, were doomed.
Didn't happen. eBooks have never, not once, come close to matching physical books. In 2021, print books in the US sold just over $7bn, while ebooks clocked in at $1.1bn.
Both of those figures are solid! $1.1bn is nothing to sniff at. But look: that's a big red flag that for books, readers overwhelmingly prefer holding them in their hands. Against that backdrop, just how much appetite is there for an ebook discovery service?
The companies with the revenue and R&D departments to make a really good one are already making bank off print books. Why spend money on what amounts to a side project? That means that the bulk of the work is done by smaller startups - Copper, Tertulia, Litsy, whatever—who may not have the skills or capital necessary to make it work.
Look: none of this is insurmountable. Nobody will be more delighted than me if a company brings out something truly brilliant in this space. But right now, I'm just not seeing it...and I don't think there'll be answers to this problem for a while.
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