Swim for it

March 6, 2007


Bookswim is being touted as Netflix for books (or LoveFilm if you live in the UK, like I do) – an online book loan service, membership of which provides you with a number of books for an unlimited time, and covers postage both ways. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that the site looks a bit crappy (and doesn’t actually work for me, right now), I think there are two major problems with this.

Firstly, Amazon will eat you. This is a business mantra that should be kept in mind by an increasing number of online businesses – Lulu being a case in point – and even offline ones (booksellers and- I believe – publishers too). Amazon already offers DVD rentals, which, while I have no figures to back this up, must have swallowed a chunk of Netflix and LoveFilm’s business. And they did this at no cost to themselves – they simply made a new content deal, and switched over a host of their existing stock to loan instead of sell. They could do this with books overnight.

Secondly, it’s a dead-end business, just as DVD rental is. Streaming is coming. I was lucky enough to get an invite to play with Joost, the new IPTV package from the makers of Kazaa and Skype (recent Wired aticle on Joost). At the moment the content is pretty thin, and the image quality is not quite there, but the potential is obvious: any TV show, any time you want to watch it – just like music now. And soon the same for movies, and after movies, ebooks. These are all just technical challenges. The postal system is not the way to move this stuff about.

One thought: Bookswim can’t compete with Amazon on warehouse stock – at this point in time, no one can – but it could compete if it opened up the system to all the users. Joost’s strength is that it is based on a Peer 2 Peer system – that is, any viewer is potentially a broadcaster too. Bookswim could adopt this model – much in theway that Amazon exploits ts Marketplace sellers – to provide a BookCrossing-type swap shop for readers, who pay each other per book with a little off the top to the service provider. Just a thought…

The main concern of many of those commenting on Bookswim (e.g. Teleread) is that it will kill traditional libraries. Unfortunately, what is killing traditional libraries is not new technology but chronic underfunding and out-of-touch management (Book Bars, anyone?). New Technology could save libraries, something under discussion at the Emerging Libraries conference in the US, as reported over at if:book.

But all these arguments point to a need to break these dichotomies of ‘new’ and ‘old’ booksellers; online lenders and bricks-and-mortar libraries; and pool these technologies to achieve the common goals: raise literacy, increase readership, and produce more great lit. Anything that does this has to be considered a good thing.


  1. Amazon hasn’t taken any of Netflix’s subscibers: it still hasn’t launched DVD rental in the US. It would be interesting to know how much of Lovefilm’s market Amazon has grabbed. They insist on a pricing scheme with a fixed number of rentals per month, which seems to me wholly missing, or at least arrogantly disregarding, the whole point.

    As for Amazon setting up at no cost to themselves — of course that’s not true. The costs were basically the same as anyone else would face (rental stock, admin staff, software), although presumably lower due to economies of scale, extant platform, incumbent brand and so on. But the DVDs and warehouse space didn’t cost them nothing — they’d already paid for them, and they were assets lost to their existing businesses. By the same logic you could say it would cost Amazon ‘nothing’ to give me all their books. (Anyway, are you sure they were the same stock? Rental DVDs are usually physically different, and differently priced; hence the warning on many retail DVDs that they’re not for hire).

    Finally: streaming has been coming for years, and I think it’ll take several more to do so much damage DVDs. Getting online content onto a television is still a geek thing: nobody uses Windows Media Center, and Apple TV may be a good move (Apple is the obvious long-term threat here at the moment, to Amazon as well as others), but it’s a first one. (And it’s not streaming.)

    But yes, Bookswim seems unlikely to get anywhere (and with a website design like that deserves no better). For a start, any idea what pricing will look like? It takes 2 hours to watch a DVD, which is why Netflix’s subscription is attractive; you can at least in theory get through loads in a month, so it sounds like good value. It takes most people (with jobs/lives) much more time to read a book. And the physical experience of watching a DVD several other people have used is the same, as long as it’s not damaged. Not true for books.

    Comment by Max — March 6, 2007 @ 11:40 pm

  2. Are you agreeing with me?

    Comment by James Bridle — March 7, 2007 @ 2:07 pm

  3. Which bit is unclear?

    Comment by Max — March 7, 2007 @ 11:08 pm

  4. Here’s why Amazon hasn’t launched a postal DVD rental biz in the States: Amazon Unbox. They know the US is technologically way ahead of us, so they can do stuff like stream straight to TiVO. Why would you sit at home waiting 3 days for anything that you have to return as soon as you’ve consumed it, when you can have it on-demand?

    Comment by James Bridle — March 8, 2007 @ 1:21 pm

  5. 1. Broadband penetration in the UK is now higher than in the States on a per-capita basis, and let’s not even talk about mobile phones. They’re not technologically ahead of us, they just get the media licensing deals first.

    2. Amazon Unbox is a retail service, not a subscription service. It’s more likely to cannibalise Amazon’s own DVD sales than compete with Netflix. You can rent some titles on Unbox, but you pay per title, like at Blockbuster. For the price of buying one movie on Unbox, you can get a month’s rental on Netflix — up to 60 DVDs if you’re really energetic.

    3. Amazon Unbox has about 4,000 titles. Netflix has 75,000. (Amazon Still Boxed has quite a few, too).

    4. Netflix did about $1 billion of sales in 2006, nearly 50% up on the year before, which is growth way ahead of the internet retailer average. For a dying model, that’s not bad. How long do you think it will take Amazon Unboxed to get to that? (Hint: iTunes is nowhere near $1b/year yet.)

    Comment by Max — March 8, 2007 @ 6:28 pm

  6. I’m not sure per-capita is very helpful, as the US has 50m Broadband users, projected to rise 10m this year, compared to the UK’s 10m altogether [Source] – so you’re always going to be able to build a better net-based business there. Plus, that doesn’t explain the use to which people put the broadband – compare the take-up of Web 2.0 type services in the US compared to here.

    And I don’t see how a company’s current revenue means it can’t be killed dead in a few years time by technological advances – I’m not saying it will but without changing it might well be.

    Ooh – I just did the calcs for the stats above, with Wikipedia-sourced population sizes, and it looks like the UK and the US have about the same per-capita penetration – about 16%.

    Interestingly, but probably not entirely relatedly, that’s almost exactly Amazon’s share of the UK book market.

    But anyway, since we both agree on the original point – Bookswim looks awful and will probably die, let’s move on…

    Comment by James Bridle — March 9, 2007 @ 3:04 pm

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