Subscription services – adjusting our thinking

The rise of subscription services like Netflix and ComicsFix changes our relationship with the culture we consume. As I mentioned way back in the distant past of Monday, I think that this brings great benefits, but also some psychological challenges.

And by ‘psychological challenges’ I don’t just mean cutting through the hype to remember that Amazon aren’t offering the only, or necessarily even the best, subscription service for books (thanks again to Felipe for another useful link).

I don't care if the world of reading has been transformed, I'm still keeping my GGKs.
I don’t care if the world of reading has been transformed, I’m still keeping my GGKs.



Part of the appeal of owning our own copies of books is that we know that we can keep them, that we can access them whenever we want. We know that they won’t just disappear, and we’re the ones who control that.

With subscription services we have to trust someone else to keep those books available for us. That involves letting go of some control, which can be difficult and daunting.

Letting go

This isn’t just about letting go of control, it’s about letting go of the need for a sense of ownership. At the risk of revealing what a ridiculous hippy I am, I really do think that there’s value in letting go of a need to own things in favour of focusing on doing things. It’s about seeing life as a matter of experience rather than accumulation, and it runs counter to a lot of the habits we build up from very early on in life.

This isn’t a clear-cut issue. Accumulating and ownership can lead to some great experiences, and up until now they were the best way to ensure access to an experience like instant access to your favourite books. Disentangling the two is difficult, and I think that’s why the shift to using more subscriptions might become a generational one, as people grow up with different habits.

We’ll see.

Not being a dickhead about it

In the same way that some people are very attached to old patterns of collection and ownership, others are becoming very attached to the potential of our electronic future. I’ve seen a lot of this in debates over the merits of e-books, and particularly the on-going Amazon/Hachette squabble. Those in favour of new models start to attack those who cling to old ways of working, because they feel frustrated at the pace of change.

But attacking someone else’s choices just because they don’t match yours isn’t being right. It’s being a dickhead.

I love my growing collection of e-books. The writer of this article likes Scribd’s subscription service. My dad loves his shelves and shelves of cheap Penguin paperbacks. My friend Ben loves his collection of classic August Derlath printed editions, some of which are probably worth more as individual volumes than my whole Kindle collection.

All these different relationships with books are perfectly valid. I think that letting go of owning them, of disentangling reading from collecting, will be good for a lot of people, me included. But that doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone, or that people who still want publishers to create nice hardbacks are in the wrong.

We can all benefit from making some adjustments to this new age. And the hardest adjustment may be not trying to make everyone think the same way we do.

Subscription services – a bold new future?

Amazon have recently launched a subscription service allowing what they refer to as ‘unlimited access to over 600,000 titles’ for $9.99 per month. Given other recent fusses around Amazon this has inevitably led to both praise and attacks from writers and publishers. But what interests me is how this sort of services affects us as readers and consumers of culture. Is this really a bold step forward?

(Spoiler alert: librarians can relax, I’m going to remember you this time)

Look, it’s the Netflix of potatoes!

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited isn’t the first subscription service to crop up in the past few years. The extraordinary success of TV streaming service Netflix means that these usually get dubbed ‘the Netflix of x’, whether x is books, maps, comics, llamas, potatoes, whatever.

I recently did a little freelance work for subscription comics service ComicsFix, and it highlighted the obvious advantage of these services for customers. This is a company charging $9.95 per month for access to products that normally cost more than that each, and that take less than two hours to read. Sure, they don’t have the big popular titles, but for voracious comics readers that might not matter next to the cost saving.

Wait, are you comparing comics with drugs? Short buzz, high cost, obsessive habits - alright, that's fair.
Short buzz, high cost, obsessive habits – comparing comics with drugs seems entirely fair.

So this isn’t exactly a high risk move for Amazon, and it’s one that we as customers have already proved that we like.

If it’s not bold is it at least fairly new?

Exhibit A: libraries

Stockport Central Library, how I love you
Stockport Central Library, how I love you

Libraries have been providing unlimited access to books for many times longer than Amazon has existed. And they don’t charge us (directly) for the privilege. And these days many of them provide access to e-books – in fact this one in Texas is all about the digital (thanks to Felipe for the link).

So no, not new, but headline grabbing.

So what’s in it for us?

For all that I’ve poked holes in the innovation side, I do think that subscription services have huge advantages for us as readers, viewers, listeners, and general cultural audiences.

They give us huge choice and variety.

They let us instantly access that variety without it taking up space around our houses.

By doing this, they may free us from an attachment to possessing things as a key part of the cultural process. This moves our focus more towards enjoying the experience of those things. I think that this is, by and large, a liberating change.

By removing cost-per-unit for the consumer this could also encourage us to try new things, supporting independent and obscure creators. I’d be wary of laying down a tenner to buy something like Tony Keaton and Andrew Herbst’s Wolves of Summer, an indie comic about werewolves and the Hitler Youth. But if there’s no extra cost we’re far more likely to dip in, try something new and find out if we like it – and having tried it on ComicsFix I loved Wolves of Summer.

Yes, but…

Of course it’s not all roses and sunshine. So later in the week I’ll be looking at the adjustments, the psychological shifts, and to an extent the limitations of this move towards paying for access rather than ownership.

In the meantime let me know what you think. Do you use any of these services? Have they affected your reading/viewing/listening habits? Would your attitude be different for books?