Amazon announced the launch of a new Netflix-like subscription service that would allow customers to read an unlimited number of books per month. Called Kindle Unlimited, the service provides access to a catalog of 600,000 digital books and more than 2,000 audio books to read on Amazon’s e-reader device, the Kindle, or on phones, tablets and computers through the Kindle app. For $9.99 per month, subscribers can rent 10 digital books at a time with no due dates for “returning” a book or limits on how many books they read. With the announcement, Amazon is poised to capitalize on the recent growth in American e-readership. According to a January survey from the Pew Research Center, nearly three in ten U.S. adults had read an e-book in the previous year, a gain of 5 percent from the end of 2012. For adults under 30, the number jumps to nearly five in ten. But nowhere is the trend towards digital books more apparent than in sales figures for e-readers like the Amazon Kindle: In the five-month span between September 2013 and the publication of the Pew poll after the holiday season, the proportion of US adults who owned e-book reading devices jumped from 24 percent to 32 percent.
The new service adds an interesting wrinkle to Amazon’s ongoing conflict with book publishers over the pricing of digital books, with some publishers asserting that the online retailer’s price points are dangerously low for the industry. What effect Kindle Unlimited will have on Amazon’s contentious relationship with publishers remains to be seen, but it’s important to note that the 600,000 e-books accessible to subscribers represent a slim cross-section of Amazon’s inventory of millions of digital books available for one-time purchase — perhaps an indication that publishers were hesitant to offer up their titles for the service. Another entity potentially affected: American public libraries, some of which offer e-books and audiobooks as part of their catalogs and have their own conflicts with publishers. The parallels between Kindle Unlimited and the classic library rental system seemed striking to some, with Dino Grandoni of The Huffington Post branding the program “a glorified library card.” Let’s just hope Amazon’s “Netflix for books” won’t send libraries the way of Blockbuster.