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Killing the “Pay First, Read Later” E-bookselling Model

The system is logical — if you read 10% then you pay for 10%, if you read 100% you pay for 100%.

By Daniel Kalder

Sometimes you encounter an idea that seems so obvious it’s amazing that nobody has thought of it before. That’s how Yoav Lorch feels about Total Boox, his intriguing new reading platform that is about to be unveiled this March. The idea is simple: instead of paying up front for a book you may never even look at, you download it for free and then only pay according to how much of the book you read.

Yoav Lorch

“The idea came to me gradually. I was thinking about the potential of ebooks, and how to make books more interactive, the different types of books you could produce, but then the idea that you could pay as you read — well, that was far more interesting than everything else. So I did away with interactive books and all that. This seemed genuinely different.”

Lorch initially trained as an economist, but after a few years working in that field switched to become a successful children’s book author in Israel. Along the way he also wrote for TV, the theater and produced translations. In the 1990s, he became interested in new technology and founded two successful startups, PressPoint and Zlango. He is a man interested in ideas, and how to make them work:

“If I download it and discover that this book is not the best for me, I haven’t lost anything.”

“When it comes to ebooks, people talk about the technology a lot but they don’t spend much time looking at business models. And so the old business model of pay first read later — which makes sense when applied to physical books — has been smart and sneaky enough to creep into the world of ebooks. But it doesn’t belong there. It’s a business model which may seem to be part of the essence of books — but it isn’t.” 

Advantages of “Pay as You Read”

Lorch is convinced that the Total Boox model has many advantages over the old one. “One of the big advantages is the fantastic discoverability. Total Boox connects the point of discovery to the point of conversion. If you hear about something and find it interesting it’s very easy to reach out and grab it since there’s no up-front financial risk involved. Even if it’s a huge book, or an entire series of books, you can download them all. This freedom element I think is very important. It will improve the ability of publishers and authors to discover readers. If I download it and discover that this book is not the best for me, I haven’t lost anything; and there are lots of others out there.”

Total Boox also enables users to send books to friends. “If you love it, you can share it and your friend will only pay if he reads it. This feature is not yet active, but in the future I hope to add a gift option, so that when you send a book to a friend, if he reads it, the gift givers account will be charged.” Indeed, ease of distribution is a major plank of the platform: “Every person, blog, website, social media page becomes an active distribution point. With one click, the book is downloaded, with no need to enter credit card details or pay money.”

Publishers will benefit from another innovative tool featured on Total Boox. “We have developed major new analytics. Today it’s all based on what people are buying. But you don’t know if people are reading all those books, or if they’re reading all of them. With us, it’s based on what people are actually reading. We use this to understand what people like. So for example, if you download Rushdie’s new memoir but only make it to page five, then we will not offer you books that we think you would have a similar reaction to. This will allow publishers to understand what’s engaging for readers, and how the books are consumed. At the moment, analytics tell us about the sale only; our system tells us about the actual usage.”

Total Boox also enables users to create “shelves” showing off their reading habits to friends. “Every user is a creator, and they can create on our network. People like to show their shelves, they are proud of their shelves. So a dog trainer for instance can create a shelf featuring all the books that he or she likes on the topic. If other people see it and like it, they can download all those books at once. It’s like a community of creators maintaining a playlist in real time. It has many applications of course. In the future for instance, pop stars could hire somebody to create shelves for them, and their fans might want to download everything. After that if you read it, it’s your problem — you pay for it.”

Eliminating the Uncertainty of Purchases

Total Boox is currently set up for tablets using both the Ios and Android operating systems. Users will supply credit card information and their accounts will be charged according to how much of each book they read on or offline. The system is logical —if you read 10% then you pay for 10%, if you read 100% you pay for 100%. Publishers are free to set their own prices, and Lorch thinks that this system may enable them to ultimately charge higher prices. “I think that part of the downward trend on Amazon, of giving deep discounts is because of the uncertainty involved. Buyers want to minimize risk; but that risk is eliminated on Total Boox. And if people only pay for what they read, then ultimately they may be willing to pay more.”

In spite of this radical challenge to a centuries old business model, Lorch still says that the response from publishers has been “very good.” The debut list will contain the catalogues of the following publishers in the US and the UK: F+W Media, Berrett-Koehler, Sourcebooks, Other Press, Gibbs-Smith, Red Wheel-Weiser and Constable-Robinson. According to Lorch many others are very interested and he is in the final stages of concluding an agreement with two “big names.”

“The publishing community is frightened,” says Lorch. “There’s a lot of fear. But there’s more fear regarding what’s going to happen if they don’t change. Amazon will kill them. They understand this, and they know that the eBook will not remain similar to what it is now. Everybody knows this.” Libraries could also benefit, he adds: “This could help close the painful gap between publishers and libraries. If the publisher is going to be fully paid for every person reading the book, then they have nothing to lose.”

And so, with the launch looming is Lorch nervous or confident?

“I’m confident in that I feel I have the right product for the right market in the right place at the right time. But I cannot be totally confident. It’s a complex platform so I know there will be hardships, but we will work them out.”

DISCUSS: Will Pay-as-You-Read Allow Publishers to Charge More for Ebooks?

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13 Comments

  1. Posted February 19, 2013 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    The idea is brilliant! To me, it makes a lot of sense. So far, as a reader, I’ve learned to defend myself by downloading a sample, I do this systematically. But I will admit that it has happened that I have liked the sample, I have downloaded the book happy in the conviction that I was headed for a good read only to discover that by the time I was 30% into the ebook, I didn’t like it anymore. And I’d force myself to read on simply because I paid the full price!

    Indeed, it happens only too often that the beginning of a book is fully curated and the rest is simply not as good. So a beneficial fallout of this model, in addition to all those mentioned above, would certainly be to force writers (and editors and publishers) to pay more attention to their whole work, from first page to last.

    And I completely agree with the observation that Amazon’s rankings, being based solely on sales, are totally misleading and reveal very little about readers real habits and consuming patters. But Amazon seems to be reviewing its policies these days (they’ve deleted certain functions like tags and “likes”; they’ve operated a cleaning out of sock puppet reviews). And Amazon, I believe, has the ability to “see” how far people actually read books, in any case I remember seeing this function of “highlighting” a text which (at times) shows how many times the said text has been highlighted by others. I’m not quite sure how all this works, but it points to technical abilities to follow how far something is read and when it is read. If that is the case, then Amazon would have the ability to take on board the business model proposed here through Total Boox. I imagine there’s a patent…But can Total Boox thrive on its own, separately from Amazon?

  2. Jakob Larsen
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    I agree that the concept is brilliant and I believe UK based Valobox should have credit for launching the same concept more than 12 months ago. http://www.valobox.com/

  3. Posted February 19, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    As a reader, I dislike this model because it forces me to make a financial decision every time I pick up a book. I read to escape and to relax, and having to figure out “How much will reading for the next hour cost me?” eliminates a lot of that benefit. Would I then have to pay for each time I read a book I’ve purchased? I’ll keep paying up front for my books, and know that they are mine to read as much or as little, as often or as rarely as I feel like.

  4. David Kearns
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    One more way to fuck over the writer. That’s how it will be used.

  5. Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I see a good deal of enthusiasm for what a good idea this is, but I see some major holes in it.

    Let’s see. The book price is $5. The downloader reads 10% and quits. That means he or she owed the publisher or author 50 cents. So, the self-published author gets 50 cents, and the traditionally published author gets ten cents, assuming an ebook royalty rate of 20% of cover.

    How long will that book remain in the downloader’s library? If they read that 10% and stop, is the book removed after X amount of time? But no, you say, you can’t do that because they may want to come back and read more later. So, haven’t they, in fact, acquired a copy of that book without paying for it? And if it’s DRM-free, what’s to prevent them from making a copy and keeping it?

    How will the system keep track of how much the customer reads so they can charge the card? Clearly, there would have to be a permanent connection between the ebookstore and the devices on which the customer will be reading the book. And what happens if the card the customer used expires and they don’t bother to update it? Will the unfinished books purchased on that card be removed from their library?

    What keeps getting overlooked by all the people who are so determined to pretend ebooks are somehow special snowflakes is that ebooks are merchandise. They are the source of revenue that allows publishers to remain in business. I really don’t understand how any publisher can think this is a good idea financially unless they’re so desperate for revenue they’ll grab every penny they can.

    Honestly? This suggests to me that many self-published writers who gave books away or sold them for less than $3 have discovered what those of us who’ve been in this business a long time knew along. Just because someone downloads the book doesn’t meant they read it. And if they didn’t read it, that was revenue lost to no good purpose.

    Thanks, but no thanks. My authors work hard for what they earn, and my job is to see they get it. There are plenty of opportunities to sample a book before you buy it—we routinely post samples on Scribd in addition to Amazon’s Look Inside. I also wouldn’t ask readers to submit to having their reading habits monitored by a third party this way, and have it tied to their credit card to boot.

  6. Posted February 19, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    As a writer and publisher of e-books, a couple of things concern me. First, is how do you compell the reader to pay. If it is on the honor system, that won’t work. We tried that model on our website and people downloaded thousands of books and never paid. Also, what happens if someone wants to show the book to their friend? One of our biggest sales pitches is having kids (LearningIsland does children’s books) read a portion of a book to their friends. Will they be charged every time they open the book and read part of it to their friends? If so, we have lost one of our greatest marketing tools.

    Also, since we do children’s books, they are often quite short, especially the books in our 15-minute series. These books take kids about 15-minutes to read, based on the idea that schools want them to read for 15-minutes every night. If you do a pay for every 10% of the book, they will be paying for each page, including the title page and copyright page! For short books, is the title page and copyright page not included in the payment schedule? Is it possible to set the payment options wider apart (say every 20% of the book, not every 10%).

    If these problems were fixed, it could be a great model, and a great way to get new people to try our books.

    Caitlind Alexander
    LearningIsland.com

  7. Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    I would be curious to see how this flies. Since we are offering our two cents worth of what I hope is constructive criticism–what if I want to re-read pages or passages or re-read the book. Do I pay over and over for the same content? If one flips ahead to check something out then back to where they left off, are they charged the back and forth review? Someone would make a fortune on me before I hunkered down to read the pages in sequence. Or is there a limit to how much we pay for one title?

    For cookbooks or craft books someone may just want to read the one or few projects of interest so may not need it all. The idea of tracking reading is at once creepy and in this day commonplace and usual–but does that make it less creepy or more so–I don’t know.

  8. Audra
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    As a buyer, if I take home a box of cereal and decide after eating 30% of it that I don’t like it that much, I still had to pay for the box and I either eat it anyway or toss it. Same with anything else at the store. I can’t use 30% or more of package of hamburger and then decide it’s has more fat in then I want and not have to pay for the remaining amount. Even if I fill up my gas tank and then get into a wreck and can no longer drive that car, I still can’t go to the gas station and get my money back for the percentage of gas I didn’t use. If you walk out of a movie at the 50 – 60% point because it is boring you, you don’t get your money back. Why should books be any different.

    E-books are still books! They are still merchandise. They are still someone’s hard work. They don’t just magically come into being. If you buy a book you don’t like, well I doubt it cost much more (and likely much less) than the box of cereal you decided you didn’t like.

  9. Posted February 19, 2013 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Unlike Tricia Ballad, I think the idea is a great one. If the cost is the same for the book at 100%, I could end up saving money because I wouldn’t feel obligated to finish a book that just wasn’t doing it for me. (And if I can “go back later” and finish it again [possibly with rereading the part I did pay for to get back into the story], I’d be happy with that too.)

    The only question I have here is… one reading through does “buy” the book, yes? Which means, as long as I continue to use my device for it, I can go back and reread books several times over without paying more…. Because if I have to pay per reading, that would suck, and I’ll just go back to the Gutenberg Prject.

  10. Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    One reading does “buy the book”- my understanding is that you don’t pay for re-reads.

  11. Posted February 21, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    This seems a crazy idea. It would be like taking a book back to a bookshop and telling them ‘I’ve only read half of this book so I want half my money back.’ Most of us think about and/or research a book before we buy it anyway. Thumbs down from an author’s viewpoint.

  12. Posted February 24, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Given you can get a 10% sample for free on amazon, you can try something firsst before committing. This seems to be attempting to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

  13. Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    This is ridiculous idea that is neither wanted nor needed.
    Look, people who buy e-books will always buy e-books, just as people who pirate e-books will always pirate e-books. So this idea does nothing to stop the pirates and the regular purchasers will end up paying in full anyway.
    There is no need, in my opinion, for a new selling model. All publisher need to do is stop making it difficult for readers to get what they want and stop putting stupid prices on the products.
    All I want as a reader is to pay a reasonable amount for an e-book. It’s doesn’t need to be 20p but it also couldn’t be £8 or £10 especially when the paperback is only £5.
    Sort out that mess before you start down the road of unnecessary devices like this. And scrap DRM, it does nothing but make life hard for genuine customers.

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