The Blockbuster SuperLibrary 2.0

Last week Shawn talked about publishers selling their own books, via his post Last Year’s Model. I want to see publishers doing more of their own selling—and I want digital libraries, too.


Meg Ryan in "You've Got Mail"

Part I: Pay Attention

1998 was the year of You’ve Got Mail. Meg Ryan played the owner of the independent book store being forced out of business by the big chain store going up around the corner.

Booksellers embraced the film for being on target with what was going on in the book world.

Looking back, right on target would have been a film about online sharing and innovative content selling killing the chain stores. Within a year, Napster was rocking the music industry, Apple was developing its first-generation iPod, and Netflix was launching into the video world.

As the music industry desperately chased online sharing, instead of creating it themselves, it left warning signs in its wake. The closing of landmark Virgin Megastores was one clue. A second clue came from video: Blockbuster anyone?

Part II: The Blockbuster SuperLibrary

Back in 1998 I had an obsession with the library. I was convinced that all would be good if the chain stores, Blockbuster and the libraries joined forces.

My 1998 mind frame:

  • Libraries are broke. They don’t have the resources to acquire all of the amazing books out there. At the same time, what they do provide access to is a valuable resource. Students have access to books for research, young kids can pop in with Mom or Dad for “story time,” and those who can’t afford to buy everything they’d like to read, can take books out on loan. Outside the lack of money – and the “no eating” rule – libraries had a good thing going.
  • Chain stores have money for books. Like libraries, they let people hang out all day and read their books. Unlike libraries, the people hanging in books stores can munch on a scone from the coffee shop in the center of the store, while sitting on a comfy couch—and if you wanted to bring the book with your scone crumbs in the spine home, you have to  buy it.
  • Blockbuster and the library both loan books. Blockbuster is profitable because it charges fees. The library will never collect on all the overdue book fees owed to it.

When you mash them together, the libraries will provide the community center, but with the comfy couches and coffee bar from the bookstores. With the bookstore dollars, students will have access to more books—and with the library lending, anyone with a student ID can take books out on loan for free. Other readers will benefit from the larger numbers of books, too. If they want to take them home, they have the option to buy them or take them out on loan. For the latter, there would be a small fee for first run books and special collections.

Don’t ask me if I ever ran any numbers on this mash-up—or if I figured out how to keep little kids in the coffee shop from mangling the rare book collection. I didn’t work any of that out.

Part III: Back to the Future

I’m a long-time fan of O’Reilly Media. I’m not a programmer, which leaves me out of many of their actual book offerings, but that’s ok. It’s everything else they offer that has my interest.

Around the time I was focused on libraries, O’Reilly was, too—but in a way that made a hell of a lot more sense.

In Tim O’Reilly’s own words, from his 2009 article “Safari Books Online 6.0: A Cloud Library as an alternate model for ebooks”:

There has been a lot of attention paid to ebooks lately, and for good reason. Electronic books are portable, searchable, and more affordable than print books. The web has accustomed readers to having the latest information at their fingertips; we all ask why books should be any less available “on demand.”

Amazon’s Kindle has received the most mainstream attention (with new entries like Barnes & Noble’s Nook making dedicated ebook readers into the latest competitive horse-race), but ebooks are taking off even faster on the iPhone and other smart phones. Ebooks are one of the most popular classes of iPhone application. Recent releases of O’Reilly ebooks as iPhone applications have even outsold the same books in print. Direct sales of the ebook bundles we offer from (PDF, epub, or mobi files) also exceed our direct sales of print books from the site.

Yet our most popular ebook offering by far is often not even thought of as an ebook. Safari Books Online is an online book and video subscription service, launched in partnership with the Pearson Technology Group in 2001. It contains more than 10,000 technical and business books and videos from more than 40 publishers. It has more than 15 million users (including the number of concurrent seats available through libraries and universities); it is now the second largest reseller of O’Reilly books, exceeded only by, and its revenue dwarfs our sales of downloadable ebooks. It’s also the most affordable of our ebook offerings for those who are regular consumers of technical content. The average Safari Books Online subscriber uses at least seven books a month, and many use dozens (or even more), yet the monthly price (depending on the subscription plan) ranges from little more than the price of a single downloadable ebook to no greater than that of two or three.

Here’s the rub: most people thinking about ebooks are focused on creating an electronic recreation of print books, complete with downloadable files and devices that look and feel like books. This is a bit like pointing a camera at a stage play and concluding that was the essence of filmmaking!

At O’Reilly, we’ve tried to focus not on the form of the book but on the job that it does for our customers. It teaches, it informs, it entertains. How might electronic publishing help us to advance those aims? How might we create a more effective tool that would help our customers get their job done?

It was by asking ourselves those questions that we realized the advantages of an online library available by subscription. One of the best things about online technical books is the ability to search the full text of a book. How much better would it be to be able to search across thousands of books? Safari Books Online was our answer.

So in those early Napster and Netflix days, when execs in books, movies, and videos were focusing on the chains and how to get on top of sharing, O’Reilly figured it out.

And in the decade since they figured it out, I’ve not seen another publisher do it on the same scale—and at such an affordable price. Yes, there are other digital libraries, based on subscription models, which are sold to universities and the like, at thousands a pop, but to the individual readers? There’s a void.

Part IV: Let’s Get It Together

In last week’s “What It Takes” post, Shawn mentioned a suggestion he gave to a friend about ten years ago, when the friend was consulting some of the big publishers.

What if the big six came together and “saved” Borders? They don’t ‘take over’ Borders, they “bail it out” with a major capital investment that gives them preferred voting shares and allows them to bring in their own management? That’s a good story, right…”how the big publishers joined forced, saved jobs and kept books vital!”? And they could brand the stores with sections devoted to each of their offerings…can’t you hear your wife saying to you… I’m going over to the Simon and Schuster boutique, meet me at the Macmillan store after you’re done at Penguin.”

“That’s never going to happen. Too many cooks, too much risk. That scenario is a non-starter.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. Too much money at stake. Too many moving parts…I guess you’ll have to recommend that they do the obvious thing.”

“Yeah, that’s the first thing I came up with.” My friend looked at his noted, “here it is…number one…Take a page from upstart and start selling your books directly to consumers, build your own marketing database and connect buyers with your authors.”

I agree with what Shawn was thinking ten years back. My add-on, with the knowledge I have now, would be the library.

Booksellers come and go–as do publishers… But libraries . . . Those have been a constant throughout world history. They never go away.

Safari Online has tapped into that truth. I hope other publishers do, too.

Part V: Closing Notes Via Tim O’Reilly

The following is from one of Tim O’Reilly’s articles from late last fall:

… the more we realized that important as O’Reilly books were to our customers, we didn’t cover every topic, and the service would be even more powerful if we brought in other publishers. That’s when we approached Pearson Technology Group, one of our biggest competitors, to join us in a joint venture, and invited other publishers to participate as well.

Safari Books Online now contains more than 17,000 books and videos from dozens of publishers, and is the richest source for professionally curated technical and business content on the web. And we’re somewhat amused by the disbelief that the “paywall” erected by sites like the New York Times appears to be working, since we (as well as a host of scientific and professional journal publishers) have been serving our customers with subscription-funded sites for the past decade or more. As I predicted back in 1994, the web has room for every business model imaginable, and smart publishers will learn to exploit all of them.

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  1. Wiz on February 24, 2012 at 7:47 am

    Good stuff. I just saw your other writing at Command Posts. Busy woman.

    • Callie Oettinger on March 1, 2012 at 6:56 pm

      Thanks, Wiz!

  2. Sherilyn on February 24, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    I have been waiting for a subscription fiction e-library for quite a while. Here’s hoping the publishers come to their senses soon!

  3. Basilis on February 26, 2012 at 1:50 am

    Libraries never go away…
    This appears to be the best idea for the Book itself
    and publishing world.

  4. Tina on February 26, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Libraries are also a good place to check out movies. Every library is different in what they have, but I have found a better selection and it is free!

    • Callie Oettinger on March 1, 2012 at 6:39 pm

      I went to college in Boston and used to spend hours at the Boston Public Library, just chilling, loving being surrounded by all of the books. A digital library won’t provide that same feeling, but ease of use… I used to hate lugging all the books around, and finding an empty table to go through them. Scanning from the comfort of my own home would be great – though I’d still miss being surrounded by all those shelves at the BPL.

      • Tina on March 5, 2012 at 6:38 am


        Love being surround by books too! Libraries are also a nice place to take refuge for a little serenity. For research, the electronic world as been a wonder! Still there is nothing better than holding a book in your hands in a relaxed place to read. And when you are invited to someone’s house, it always informative to see what kind of books they have on their selves! Plus books on shelve gives a room character:-)

  5. julie on February 27, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Very forward thinking in this post. A great example of this with what O’Reilly has done, especially because they have such great books.

    • Callie Oettinger on March 1, 2012 at 6:55 pm

      O’Reilly has an amazing line – led by a VERY forward-thinking team. If you haven’t read the O’Reilly Radar, check it out. I like this line from Tim O’Reilly’s most recent post:

      “It’s amazing to me how books I first published more than 20 years ago are still creating value for readers.”

  6. jim on March 2, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    I wonder if the “libraries will never go away” theory is really true. Most of the public libraries are funded by taxes; if tax revenue goes down, the library gets less money.

    In Nashville, the public Library downtown is closed altogether on Mondays and has very limited hours during the week, as do many of the other branches. I think if a city is small and is in financial crisis, it is not too much of a stretch to say the library could close.

  7. Karina on March 5, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    “I just wanna chill but not at a Starbucks.”

    Nothing against Starbucks but the statement rings so true. More and more often areas to chill and convene with likeminded people are disappearing. What you mentioned earlier about Blockbuster and the library joining forces, my brother and I had a discussion if libraries were more like Starbucks years ago would it make people want to visit more.

    How many public areas are there left? Like really? I personally haven’t seen a park in ages.

    Maybe what libraries really need to do is rebrand themselves because patrons’ habits are changing. Digital is mainstream, yes, but there will be always be a need for the librarian even if it’s not in their present form (I’m thinking of the self proclaimed online curators). There will always need be a need for that physical space to do work and to read somewhere other than in the home. And I personally love comfy + book/ereader + coffee and I’m sure that many others would to.

    Maybe what we need more is this:

  8. Giovani on May 20, 2022 at 12:53 am

    Thank you for the article.

  9. Anthony Cole on May 25, 2022 at 7:08 am

    This is an interesting article to read. I used to get a stable high monthly income, but even I could not avoid various short-term financial difficulties. It is not advisable to take a loan from a bank. A great alternative is to use which specializes in loans. From my own experience, I can say that the probability that you will be given a loan here is very high.

  10. emma james on August 9, 2022 at 12:12 am

    It’s interesting to read this article. Even though I used to have a reliable high monthly salary, I occasionally had various short-term financial challenges. A bank loan is not something you should do. Use, a website that specialises in loans, as a perfect substitute. I can tell you from personal experience that there is a very high likelihood that you will receive a loan here.

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