JamesPoniewozikAgain and again I’ve warned that books must compete against other forms of entertainment. It is folly to jack up e-book prices and abuse booklovers with DRM.

Price is one factor, given how many hours of entertainment a Netflix subscription can buy vs. the cost of an overpriced e-book from one of the Big Five. But might not time and some similarity of experience—we’re talking about character and story, regardless of the medium, McLuhan be damned—count even more in the end?

The New York Times’s James Poniewozik (photo), without even trying, has provided me with some wonderful ammunition in an essay headlined Streaming TV Isn’t Just a New Way to Watch. It’s a New Genre.

Poniewozik writes that book can draw you in by offering you the whole to consume on your own schedule. Good! But the video competition is stronger than ever. Poniewozik says binge-watching of Netflix and brethren can be similarly “immersive. It’s user directed. It creates a dynamic that I call ‘The Suck’: that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours. ‘Play next episode’ is the default, and it’s so easy. It can be competitive, even. Your friends are posting their progress, hour by hour, on social media. (‘OMG #JessicaJones episode 10!! Woke up at 3 a.m. to watch!’) Each episode becomes a level to unlock.

“With those new mechanics comes a new relationship with the audience. Traditional television—what the jargonmeisters now call ‘linear TV’—assumes that your time is scarce and it has you for a few precious hours before bed. The streaming services assume they own your free time, whenever it comes—travel, holidays, weekends—to fill with five- and 10-hour entertainments.”

TeleRead editor Chris Meadows has also written of the attractions of streaming media and binge-watching shows like Jessica Jones.

I myself am not the biggest fan of most series-style books for my own reading, but strictly in business terms, they might be one of the best ways for publishers of all sizes to counter streaming media as entertainment. You don’t automatically go on to the next book in a series. But at least with e-books, you can scare up your next read almost instantly. No need to wait until a bookstore opens and then drive there—or worse, for you to wait for a book to arrive by mail. Chris has written about an e-publishing start-up, Serial Box, that is attempting to take advantage of this by adapting some of television’s techniques to e-books.

That said, I can think of an even better way for publishers to protect and even expand their miserably small share of the U.S. household expenditures (only about $32 for recreational books compared to thousands of dollars spent on other forms of entertainment).  And that is for them to care more about pleasure reading and about family literacy. The creation of a national digital library endowment could help. Consider a U.K. study showing all the literacy-related possibilities of e-books.

No need even to worry about the social benefits here (even though that would be nice). Trying harder to hook young people on books—digital and paper alike—would be just good business in the era of The Suck.


  1. I’m not sure I would agree that books must compete with other forms of entertainment – at least not for me. For me (and maybe a few other readers) the book is the thing above all others.

    Where is the non-book competition for Pynchon? Carlo’s LBJ biographies? And IMHO, the science fiction of Iain M. Banks is better than anything Hollywood can dish out.

  2. @Greg: “At least not for me.” Those are the operative words, alas. The average American household spends [$32] a year on recreational reading [books]. Now, with competition from Netflix and the like, things may actually gets worse. The last thing the publishers need to do is raise prices and continue use of onerous DRM. Happy holidays. David

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail newteleread@gmail.com.