The Pay-as-You-Read Predicament

E-ReaderYou had to know it was coming: a company is letting customers pay as they read, rather than buying books outright.

The company in question is Total Boox, a business based in Israel and founded by Yoav Lorch, an entrepreneur with an economics degree who spent a past life writing for TV, theater, and print media. The idea is pretty self-explanatory: You select a book from Total Boox’s library, and then pay for how much you read — if the book was boring and you only read 15%, you pay 15% of the cover price; if you loved the book and you read the whole thing, you pay for the whole thing.

If you’re like me, this causes a knee-jerk reaction in the negative. Books are sacred, aren’t they? They’ve been read the same way for hundreds of years. Even now that they’re on electronic displays, we’re still reading from one side of the prose to the other, starting at the first page and ending at the last. You don’t screw with that.

Of course, there are advantages to this new approach. Students might not need to buy an entire textbook for a class that would only use a few chapters. If you lose interest in a book because it talks down to you, like I did with The Half-life of Facts, or get bored despite your egocentric desire to at least say you’ve read the thing, like I did with Infinite Jest*, you can put the book down, no questions asked, and at least get a portion back from what you spent on it.

And there’s the data side to things, too. The publishers and writers who sign on to Lorch’s scheme can find out where most readers stop reading, which might allow them to adjust their approach next time to better engage their audience. Don’t spend most of the first chapter defining the term “half-life,” perhaps, or maybe string together your plot a little better so it’s more like a story and less like a series of essays.* On the other side of the coin is the customer: if you stop reading in the middle of a book, the service won’t recommend you books like it next time. This is a lot like what video streaming services like Netflix do already — figure out users’ tendencies, and then adjust as necessary. Hell, we got the American version of House of Cards out of that plan. This one might not be such a bad idea, considering.

There’s a lot not to like, as well. Putting aside business issues, like the fact that textbook publishers have no incentive to charge students $10 when they could charge them $200 and the fact that the service’s prices are already much higher than Amazon’s in an attempt for publishers to get their money’s worth, there’s the issue of enjoyment. I’m not sure I’d want to be thinking about how much money I’m spending every time I hit a particularly dry passage. Those dry passages often lead to something much more engaging, and if I let my wallet make me give up prematurely, I could miss out on something great. I’m also not sure I want publishers telling authors what to write any more than they already do — attempting to make art palatable for the whole world leads to things like smooth jazz and hotel paintings.

And the biggest problem of all is the fact that electronic books are not all that expensive to begin with. Most cost the same amount as my lunch did today. Saving 20% of $10 or $20 is not saving much.

But if there’s one thing that makes me want to try the service, it’s this: I’m morbidly curious to see whether my staunch, ego-driven desire to finish this book, dammit would outrank my desire not to spend unnecessary money. Most of the books I read I end up enjoying, but there are a precious few that left bad tastes in my mouth. Am I happy I finished them anyway? Would I have rather had an incentive to quit earlier? I’m not sure.

What do you think? Is a pay-as-you-read system a good idea, or is it fixing a problem that doesn’t exist?

* Everything I say in vain about Infinite Jest, I do with a heavy heart. I really wanted to like that book.

Featured image by flickr user Jens Schott Knudsen

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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  1. I can’t imagine this service being successful, pretty much for the reasons that you point out. Plus it’s sure to be pooh-poohed by exactly the kind of snobs that still read lots of books.

    One place where it might work well is as an alternative to the current practice of giving away the first couple of chapters for free. If it costs next to nothing to start the book, you could easily see how some books could sort of slowly pull people in one page at a time.

    If the service does take off, though, I expect it will be mostly with non-fiction books — how-to manuals and the like, which don’t have as strong a connecting thread running through the whole.

  2. It’s worth remembering that this is not the first service where you’re not “buying books outright.” With Amazon, you buy a right-to-use, not the book itself. If the right-to-use is revoked, you no longer have a book. This happens if Amazon decides you’ve violate the terms and shuts down your account; when they do, they revoke your right-to-use for all the books bought under your account.

  3. Seems like a decent plan in theory… I’ve bought loads of ebooks that I don’t get more than a couple chapters through. But I only buy ebooks that have no DRM. Cuts down on corporate shenanigans.

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