Once upon a time, 12 years ago to be precise, David Bowie said something very perceptive.
"Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity," he told a New York Times reporter. "So it's like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left. It's terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn't matter if you think it's exciting or not; it's what's going to happen."
I thought of Bowie and his perceptiveness last week, when – in a rare piece of corporate carelessness – Amazon inadvertently provided a fleeting glimpse of what it has in store for the publishing industry. A new page appeared on its website only to be very quickly withdrawn, but not before it had been cached by Google and spotted by a hacker website.
What was on this elusive page? Why, nothing more or less than an introduction to a new service called "Kindle Unlimited". Subscribers will be invited to "enjoy unlimited access to over 600,000 titles and thousands of audiobooks on any device for just $9.99 a month". One commentator described it as "Netflix for books". David Bowie would doubtless have said that it's the turn of books to become like running water or electricity.
Bowie was perceptive because he understood early the implications of ubiquitous connectivity. When Apple first cracked the problem of selling music tracks online, people collected the tracks in little electronic containers called iPods and carried them around, much as tourists in undeveloped countries carried personal supplies of clean water in bottles. But once safe piped water became readily available, the importance of having one's own bottle declined. The same thing happened with online music, which is why we now have services such as Spotify into which subscribers can tap whenever they please (and have a network connection).
Kindle Unlimited is based on exactly the same logic. Indeed, it's extraordinary how closely it adheres to the original Apple template: the Kindle e-reader is the equivalent of the iPod; and the Kindle store is the counterpart of the iTunes one. The difference is that Amazon is already working on the next move – making the transition from selling discrete units to streaming – with which Apple has struggled (and which explains why Apple bought Beats – not for its daft headphones but for its streaming music service).
Amazon's move will be as discombobulating for the book publishing industry as the advent of Spotify was for the music industry. Stand by, therefore, for howls of protest from publishers and authors on how streaming produces infinitesimal royalties compared with the old publishing paradigm. All true, and a reminder of Joseph Schumpeter's conception of the waves of "creative destruction" with which capitalism renews itself. Each wave has two dimensions: a creative one in which new possibilities, industries and business models emerge; and a destructive one in which old ways of doing things (including things that were genuinely valuable) are destroyed.
The analogy between the Kindle and the iPod is instructive in other ways too. Amazon's device came with networking built-in from the beginning, whereas the iPod relied initially on a physical connection to a laptop or desktop machine for its connection to the online store. And the connectivity of the Kindle has led to some interesting side-effects. Obviously, users can highlight and annotate passages as they read; but if they so choose they can also opt to see what passages other readers have highlighted, which means that one has the strange sensation of seeing what other people regard as interesting or important in the book one is reading.
That's not necessarily great news. Your networked Kindle tells Amazon where you've got to in each book. This is so that if you switch to, say, the Kindle app on your smartphone, you can pick up exactly where you left off. But this also means that Amazon knows not only what you're reading, but even where you've got to. So anonymous reading goes out of the window. And this has led to some ingenious attempts to spot the most unread bestsellers de nos jours [unitalics]. One commentator, for example, claims that Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century currently holds that title. But since his gleeful article appears in the Wall Street Journal, the Mandy Rice-Davies qualification applies. He would say that, wouldn't he?
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