Why you should care

Because why pay for the whole book if you can’t get through the first chapter?

We’ve all been there. The novel’s cover seduces with splashy images and mentions of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author or praise like “bloody brilliant.” But the first few pages go nowhere. The entire first chapter is clunky. Booooring. There goes $15.95 down the drain and with it, perhaps, the motivation to buy another book.

It’s a frustrating situation that Tel Aviv-based startup Total Boox is trying to prevent with an innovative new service: Instead of being charged for an entire e-book, you’re charged only for the pages you read. If you consume 20 percent of a Bruce Springsteen biography, you pay 20 percent of the book’s price tag. Students can take in only the needed sections of a calculus textbook. Someone iffy on The Drunken Botanist can dive in with less risk. The payment model works almost like Skype. In the app, users create a balance using a credit card or PayPal. As they read, the value of each page is deducted from that balance. Downloaded books remain in their personal digital shelves forever.

More than 120 publishers have signed on, including O’Reilly Media, the world’s most prominent publisher of computer books. With 35,000-plus titles, the range of fiction and nonfiction covers everything from sous vide cooking guides to The Power of Now, from erotica to Lonely Planet guidebooks.

So far, there are 400 libraries on board across the U.S.

Founder and author Yoav Lorch says he wants the app to “bring readers and books closer than they’ve ever been” and to make digital distribution far more palatable. It’s hard to say if Total Boox’s 30,000 subscribers are reading more now than before the service started in 2014, but Lorch notes that their access to digital material has increased, as well as opportunities to discover books well outside their wheelhouse.

Total Boox’s next move? Libraries. Lorch says that so far, there are 400 on board across the U.S. With libraries, the patrons read for free and the library foots the bill for what they read — which actually ends up costing the library less overall (it doesn’t have to buy books up front). The service arrives at a time when libraries are desperate to prove their worth and try out new business models, says Carrie Russell, program director for the American Library Association’s Office for Information Technology Policy.

There are challenges, though, including raising awareness that libraries have e-books and convincing residents to check them out. Elizabeth Moje, an associate dean in the University of Michigan’s School of Education whose research is centered on youth reading engagement, sees the service as a fantastic way to get kids into libraries and reading, but perhaps a harder sell for adults who read fiction. That genre has die-hard readers who need less coaxing to download a title, but have that “‘I can’t not finish a book’ thing,” Moje says. They’ll read to the end anyway, but with a pay-by-the-page model, they might feel as though it was somehow costing them more.

Growing pains aside, if the service gets people reading — even if only as far into a book as they’re willing to delve — that can’t be a bad thing, right?

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