Bookshelves beware! After the success of streaming music services like Spotify and Last.fm the next logical step is a service which offers you unlimited e-books on the net for a modest monthly fee. So we welcome 24symbols into the digital arena. 24symbols is a social reading service, at present only in a beta version with a limited selection of titles but will no doubt grow in the next few months.
The business model is very familiar. The free version allows you to read books online but you are faced with regular adverts. If you want to lose the ads you have to pay a monthly subscription, starting at $9.99 for the basic option. Just like Spotify you don't download anything, you simply view your books on the web from any device you wish. You can access the book you're reading from any device anywhere and when you've read it you simply move on to another. You have no book collection, simply a list of titles you have borrowed.
It's an attractive deal and the publishing business is in for a very bumpy ride now. Unlimited net-based books would seem to me to be most attractive in two areas of publishing. Firstly the paperback market could well migrate to the cloud very quickly. As more people carry tablets and iPads with them on train or bus journeys those last minute detective novels you buy at the station will become downloads. Few people really want to keep their impulse-bought paperbacks anyway so a digital version can be read and discarded easily. If you don't like the book you just go back to the digital library and choose another.
The other attractive market for "streamed" books is course literature. Many books you buy for a course are of limited interest after the examination and just spend years untouched on the bookshelf. In addition, many course books have a very short sell-by date, especially technology books, and simply having access to these books for the duration of the course will be appreciated by most students.
This type of service could bring many benefits. Old and "out of print" titles could remain in circulation since there is no logic in withdrawing them. In this way a vast number of interesting books could be revived. New books could be published much more cheaply and we could see a flood of new literature and an arena for young authors. On the other hand we heard similar arguments when they introduced commercial radio and TV. The flip side is that we simply get a "greatest hits" selection and the new talent hasn't a chance of getting in.
However I don't see printed books disappearing anytime soon. Here the publishing business differs from music. Music has changed format regularly over the years and we are more willing to accept the changes. Books have been around in their present form for a few hundred years and this is the first change of format since the printing press appeared. The book is more culturally entrenched than the LP or cassette and will take a lot longer to replace. This change won't happen overnight but it's already under way.