One of the themes that came across most strongly at TOC 2009 was that we publishers all need to think a lot, lot harder about what Readers - with a Capital 'R' - want. And we need to get to know them, like, really, really fast. I used Michael Cader's simple but brilliant words from an interview in the FT last year in my TOC keynote: "[Publishing] is still a book business… and it needs to become a reader business.” It's when I read about new businesses like Spotify that this hits home hardest. Today's dotcoms start with what consumers might actually really like / want and then work back; they don't start with how to sustain an ancient and creaking business model and then try to continue to foist this upon unwilling and suspicious consumers. Then we, the ancient and creaking old world businesses, have to scramble to work out how to react.
So, what is Spotify? Well, it might just be the service that creates the tipping point at which consumers of music decide that online streaming is the best way to access the tunes they want to listen to. Forget downloads, forget which format / device to adopt, forget DRM... most importantly, forget paying for it. It's just a huge online database of tunes (for which Spotify have cleared the rights through licensing deals with the labels) into which consumers can plug and play (via online streaming) any tune they want, any time, any place, via their computer or mobile phone. For free. It looks and feels a bit like iTunes, with the ability to create playlists and share tastes with friends. But - did I mention? - it's free. And legal. It's amazing.
How does Spotify's business model work? It's advertising funded. This is the only catch from a consumer perspective, but Spotify has an answer to that, too. if you don't like the sound of advertising interrupting your listening every 20 minutes or so, you can pay a low monthly subscription (£9.99) to access the service advertising-free.
The central question it poses and which publishers need to be considering now before the same business model is applied to books, is, how much does ownership matter when it comes to content? And what will the commercial shape of the deal between a Spotify-for-books and publishers need to be to sustain such a model? For the music labels, I can imagine there is a sense that artists need to be represented in Spotify, just as they need to be represented on the radio; if the revenue from the Spotify deal doesn't cover the lost revenue on downloads this is something they must live with to ensure their artists get 'airtime', that their music gets promoted and shared, that the buzz gets generated and that hopefully, just hopefully, some people will still want to download and 'own' the single or the album, and, if not, that the artist might still be able to make a living from touring or merchandise.
But how would this translate to books? I don't know that we have the answer to that right now, but we better start thinking about it, pronto.