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Mike Shatzkin

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Why eBook Subscriptions Would Never Work

Posted: 07/18/2012 5:59 pm

First published on The Shatzkin Files

Another fledgling ebook retailing venture came through our office this month touting a subscription proposition. I told the entrepeneur "I'm skeptical of the subscription model for ebooks," and he said, "I know".

We had a great chat, but I'm still skeptical. When I say that, I mean I'm skeptical that a general offering subscription model can work.

There certainly is a logic to subscriptions, particularly for those who think the book business should learn from other content businesses. Cable TV really started with subscription and then only later moved to pay-per-view, which is more like the ebook sales model (but not exactly). We have Netflix for movies and TV, Audible for audiobooks, and a host of services for music, the most successful of which seems to be Spotify.

I have a Spotify subscription, even though I don't use it much. Perhaps foolishly, I'm comfortable spending $119.88 a year (which is what $9.99 a month comes out to) to have access to just about any song I might ever want to hear instantly when the urge (or suggestion) to hear it arises. (Spotify very seldom disappoints me by not having the song.) And that's even though most of my listening needs are satisfied with the 6,000 or so songs I have in my iTunes repository of which the best 1,000 are on my phone.

Spotify was cited by the entrepreneur I met as a motivation for him to start his ebook subscription business. As he correctly pointed out, "sharing a playlist" with a fellow Spotify subscriber enables them to immediately -- with no additional cost or friction -- "consume" that music. Sharing an iTunes playlist with somebody just leads them to having to make purchases which, quite aside from the money, put time and (a considerable) effort between receiving the playlist and enjoying it.

So, it is posited, this logic should apply to books. With a host of very explainable exceptions, I'm not sure it does, at least not anytime soon.

I'm fresh off a speech in Washington about what the DoJ doesn't understand about publishing. The answer, if boiled down to a single word, would be "granularity".

According to the MPAA, North American movie releases for 2007, 2008 and 2009, were 609, 633 and 558 respectively. There are foreign films and perhaps some below-the-radar indie films that must be added to that number to reckon what's being made available, but it gives you an order of magnitude.

The Big Six publishers average more than 3,500 titles a year each. And there is far more production of titles beyond the Big Six in publishing than there is production of movies beyond the Hollywood studios. It would be very conservative to estimate that there are 100,000 new professionally-produced book titles a year intended for consumers. (Many more are published for professionals or as school or college texts and were you to add in self-published ebooks, which sometimes reach big audiences, they would multiply that number.)

Commercial releases of music would fall in between movies and books in number, but much closer to movies.

That's the short answer as to why most people share music and movie experiences with far more friends and acquaintances than book experiences. It is also the short answer to why people outside the book business just can't grasp it; each one of those books is a separate creative and commercial endeavor, down to having its own contract, its own development path and schedule, and its own marketing requirements.

(It also helps explain why many people who use libraries for some of their reading don't use it for all. No library will have all the books a voracious patron would want to read.)

In the days before Amazon.com and digital books, there were two kinds of subscription services that worked for consumer books.

Book clubs offered price deals and curation (help with selection) but it was the price deals that really attracted members. Before ubiquitous bookstores (which arrived in the 1980s), Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild got the highest-profile books distributed to consumers who would have had a hard time getting to them (as well as those near bookstores who just wanted the convenience of mail delivery.) As bookstores spread, the Clubs found that "niche clubs" (around mysteries, science fiction, or subjects like gardening) were apparently more profitable than the big general interest clubs. ("Apparently" is a highly operative word, but the explanation of that will wait for another day.)

The other subscription concept that worked was the "continuity series". The market leader there was Time-Life Books. These books were about a particular subject (World War II, say) and they were "packaged" specifically for the series and not available in stores. Continuity relied on the combination of intense subject interest and the "collection" mentality: somebody who started collecting the series didn't want to have holes in their collection.

Both models were pretty much blown out of the water by online book purchasing which suddenly made every book available for home delivery to everybody everywhere.

In specific niches, subscription models can work very well. The granddaddy of them on the digital side is Safari Books Online, originally conceived and built by O'Reilly in partnership with Pearson. Safari serves a community of programmers and has a huge collection of instructional and reference books which they can use on the job. Most users of these books dip in and out of them, rather than reading them straight through. And they frequently like the idea of checking out what several books might say about a problem they're tackling.

Safari pioneered the model of dividing the publishers' share of the subscription fees by metering usage. The more your book is viewed, the more money you get from the pot. And since users of Safari will almost always find the answers they need within the service, leaving your book out means it won't be found and used. Since at least some of the time Safari usage could lead to a sale of the book itself (even if not very often for most books), that discovery element is lost along with any Safari-generated revenue if the book isn't included in the database. A publisher should feel pretty confident that they aren't losing many sales being inside Safari.

(The model that looks like "all you want for a price" to the purchaser and like "pay per use" to the content owner in even purer form than Safari does it is the deal offered by Recorded Books for its digital downloading service for audiobooks to libraries. There are other subscription models in the library space; it is a distraction to the point of this post to get into them which is why they're not covered here.)

O'Reilly saw at the beginning that their books alone wouldn't be the strongest subscription offer so they were open to participation by others from the very beginning. Safari is exceptional in at least three ways: they are bigger than one publisher; they are built on a professional user base; and they deliver value primarily through chunks, not end-to-end reads.

But if a publisher is strong in a niche, a subscription service can work for them too: Baen Books (science fiction) and Harlequin (romance) are two niche publishers who have sold subscriptions successfully. (In fact, Harlequin recognizes sub-niches, further segmenting their audience for better subscription targeting.) The Osprey-owned sci-fi house, Angry Robot, offers subscriptions. eBooks by subscription are also part of the model for Dzanc, which does more literary books (fiction and non-fiction; they're really less niche-y, except for "quality") and it will be interesting if they can make the "quality" paradigm work the way "romance" and "science fiction" do.

Sourcebooks is a general trade publisher, but they have a robust romance list. They're trying to establish a club and community called "Discover a New Love" which operates more like the old BOMC: subscribers can choose one of four featured titles each month in addition to getting other benefits from discounts on other books to early looks at some titles.

Subscriptions are offered in the children's ebook area as well. Disney Digital Books has a monthly subscription service, as does Sesame Street eBooks. In both cases, the model is browser-based delivery rather than downloads.

F+W Media is a publisher that works across many verticals (niches). They had two big head starts. One is simply being vertical. They have audiences that are defined by their interest, which has been the key to making a subscription offer work in the book business. The other is that they were once publishers of magazines and operators of book clubs, so they have experience with direct customer contact and managing those relationships. They also had a lot of names. And F+W is managing subscription offerings for many things other than ebooks.

Most of F+W's communities have been non-fiction (subject-specific) and they offer subscriptions for content in art, writing, and design. But they are also venturing into the romance market now and their Crimson Romance offer is an "all you can read" model. Baen introduces the wrinkle of releasing a novel in stages to subscribers, like a serial.

And we note in the recent reminder that the TED conferences started doing ebooks (sort of: only within an iOS app) that a subscription model is part of their thinking too. Once again: in a niche. The app that enables them to manage subscriptions is powered by The Atavist, which is another attempt to build a following for a publisher distinguishing itself by its content choices, like TED or Dzanc, rather than around already-established consumer clustering (romance, sci-fi, or a topic like writing or design.)

It is worth noting that there are "all you can eat" subscription offers and ones that are limited but which offer discounts on further purchases. That variation exists in other media too. Spotify is one price for everything; Audible and Netflix meter your use and you can pay more if you consume more.

There's a pretty strong pattern here to the subscription offers we see.

They're usually done by publishers. (Safari isn't a publisher anymore, but it was started by publishers.) That means they're working with the publishers' margins (bigger than an aggregator's margins). Controlling the product flow means they can make good use of intereaction with their audience, learning through data and conversation what they should be doing next. And, most important of all: from a product offer point-of-view, they're focused.

They're precisely the opposite of Spotify or Netflix or Audible who all want every single song, movie or TV show, or audiobook they can lay their hands on.

So, what about a more general model for ebooks?

It hasn't happened yet and I don't think it will anytime soon, despite the ambitions of my recent visitor. The challenges of putting together the title base for one are daunting and, as I hope this post makes clear, so is providing and demonstrating persuasive value.

First posted on The Shatzkin Files

 
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