Books via Subscription: A Growing Trend?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

I recently received a letter sent to all agents with clients at Simon & Schuster from Carolyn Reidy, S&S’s president, announcing the publisher’s decision to offer backlist titles through ebook subscriptions services. S&S is the second of the large publishing houses to avail itself of these services, with HarperCollins being the first.

I’m letting you read portions of Reidy’s letter because I think she articulated well the benefits for publisher and author in offering backlist books through such services.

Dear Agent,

I am writing to follow up on today’s announcement that Simon & Schuster is now offering its backlist titles through the ebook subscription services Dog reading sign-up posterOyster and Scribd.  We think this is exciting news: a great opportunity to encourage discovery for our authors’ books, and to experiment with new ways for readers to find and purchase books.  However, because subscription services are still relatively new to the book business, I wanted to clarify what our participation means for Simon & Schuster’s authors.

Like you, we have watched with interest and learned much from the growth of subscription services in other media such as film, television and music. In taking this step, our first and foremost consideration has been to protect the interests of our authors and to safeguard the value of our content. Our entry into this new arena has been carefully planned to meet both of those requirements.

  •          Although these subscription services offer unlimited reading to the customer, an author will be credited with a sale every time one of his or her books is read, just as if the ebook had been sold through one of our ebook retailers.
  •           We have placed limits on the amount of browsing allowed in individual titles. Once a certain threshold of reading has been surpassed for a given title, a purchase will be triggered and credited to the author…
  •        As part of our agreements, Oyster and Scribd have committed to sharing with authors information on subscribers’ reading and purchasing activity of their titles.

We believe that working with these two services will help us encourage readers to try new books and authors, and allow us to experiment with a new model for offering books to consumers….

Carolyn Reidy

Late in May, Target announced it will pair with start-up Librify to offer some form of ebook club-subscription service, though an “official launch is still several months off,” USA Today reports. “The service will be targeted at women, especially  young professionals and moms of the coveted Millennial generation,” Target spokeswoman Erica Julkowski says.

Librify founder Joanna Stone Herman “says there will be promotions and discounts for Target shoppers who arrive at through Target’s website, and in-store displays will promote the partnership.” Currently in beta, Librify positions itself as “the book club for book lovers.” They currently offer a free ebook of your choosing with a trial membership. Then the subscriber receives member discounts and one ebook for $8.99 per month, and a 10 to 20 percent discount on their catalog of approximately 500,000 ebooks. Librify also has a social platform around the ebooks, to provide a virtual book club experience.

Publishers Marketplace reported some of the terms of the deals publishers are making with subscription services: For S&S the distribution fee being paid to each service is less than the 30% being paid to the other ebook sales agents, so the actual royalty amount earned will be greater than the amount earned on a standard ebook sale. And Harper obtained “better terms from Scribd than we have from traditional ebook retailers.” Scribd ceo Trip Adler stated, “In our model, every publisher has the potential to make as much money or more when their books are being read on Scribd vs. purchased through traditional retailers.”Brian Murray, president and CEO of HarperCollins, stated, “We have negotiated very hard, to the point where if the whole business went this way, we and our authors would be very pleased, because the economics are more favorable.” He pointed out that it’s “the exact opposite of the music industry’s subscriptions models. The revenues that go to our authors is up, somewhat significantly.”

In his blog, Michael Shatzkin wonders if this model can work for both the subscription service and the publisher (and thereby the authors) when he says, “The viability of a subscription model depends on what is called ‘breakage’ or ‘health club economics’ to succeed. They count on the expectation that relatively few subscribers will read and trigger payments on two, three, four books a month compared to many who will read one or less than one, or who will choose from among books (like public domain titles) that cost the services less or nothing.” He also wonders if Amazon won’t up the ante by increasing the titles available to Prime members through the lending library. And he mentions that the largest publisher, Penguin Random House, might well start a subscription service of its own and possibly solicit the involvement of other publishers in that subscription service.

Regardless what the future holds, it’s clear that finding a way to make subscription e-book purchasing work is being approached from many angles.

As a reader, does obtaining books via subscription  sound appealing to you?

As a writer, does such a service sound appealing?


Is buying books by subscription a growing trend? Click to tweet.

Publishers experiment with backlist sold via subscription. Click to tweet.

38 Responses

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  1. Anne Love says:

    This is exciting to learn how the publishing industry is finding new and innovative ways to keep people reading, and the flow of revenue online healthy back to the publishers and authors. My daughter just told me about Spickety this weekend when she won a subscription at WriteToPublish conference. I’ll have to check out if it’s similar.

    I have to say, being a post millennial, I still love holding a paperback and browsing the book covers for something that catches my eye. But I’m not opposed to making “the jump” to e-subscriptions if that’s what it takes to continue reading in the future!

  2. It’s potentially a great idea, but I hope it’s tailored around the differences between the reading experience, and that found in movies and music.

    Reading demands a level of involvement far beyond the aural or visual; we can sit through an OK movie, or a ‘meh’ album, but few people I know will bother to finish a book that doesn’t engage them. Enough literary ‘mehs’ and the subscription won’t be renewed.

    One model from the past, Readers’ Digest Condensed Books, sidestepped this by using talented editors to speed up slow stories and make them easily digestible; they also traded on the RD reputation.

    That leads to an individuality of choice that has to be addressed, perhaps through the virtual book club in social media. It’ll need skilled moderators in the beginning, to get a critical mass of participants without drowning out the individual’s sense of being heard in a conversation.

    As a reader, I’ll never join in, mainly because I don’t have an e-reader and have no desire to own one.

    As a writer, I’m cautiously optimistic. As long as this doesn’t become an overt or under-the-table Napster experience, it could indeed be a great way to get books noticed.

    Ever think you’d read about Readers’ Digest Condensed Books and Napster in the same comment?

    (Credit for the use of ‘meh’ goes to Jennifer Major, the copyright holder for that expression.)

    • Ohhh, good play old boy, give me full credit and skip the user fee?? Niiiiice.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, the subscriber to these services picks his or her own books to try out. Both services have about 500,000 backlist titles to choose from. So it’s up to the reader to pick. My sense if that publishers are making most backlist books available. I know several of my clients who publish with HarperCollins have received royalties for their books being bought through a subscription service.

      • With a ‘complete’ backlist, the complexion does change, and moves away from the ‘Columbia House’ model (on which Jennifer commented, and which prompted a further comment of my own below).

        The depth of the resource is really decisive. Many subscription ‘book clubs’in the past had few quality titles, and filled out their catalog with ‘bargain bin’ titles for which they wanted close to retail.

        If the current model avoids this, that’s a big step forward.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Andrew, that two major publishers have signed contracts with these services means name authors’ titles will be among the offerings. From a subscribers POV, if you’re an avid book buyer, I think this is beginning to make sense.

  3. I like this development. It seems to be a market-driven answer to Amazon’s domination.

    My question is whether or not this has been anticipated in author contracts. So these backlist titles go into a publisher-driven distribution system (Scribd, etc.) in which the publisher still takes the lion’s share of revenue. Why wouldn’t an author simply get his/her rights back and insert the book into the same system, capturing all of the revenues? Do most contracts allow for the publisher to do this?

    I’m excited about all of it… in the end, I think it will be good for both readers and authors.

    Thanks for staying (and for helping us stay) on the cutting edge.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Bill, at the moment Scribd and Oyster are concentrating on getting publishers to sign on to the services on behalf of the publisher’s titles. The publisher decides which books to offer. It’s imperative that subscription services offer to readers the books readers desire. Having the titles curated by publishers keeps the reader from having to decide which books are dreck and which are wonderful. If an individual author could work with a subscription service, the reader would have to do a lot more heavy lifting in making selections–and then a subscription doesn’t seem as valuable.Amazon’s Prime offers a lot of benefits; the lending library is just one of them. A subscription service offers only books for sale; so the selection needs to be as quality as possible. If a book’s rights have been returned, that book might have been great, or it might not have been so great. But the publisher released those rights; so we know for sure that the publisher didn’t do well in selling the book, or the book’s life is pretty much over.

  4. My girls enjoy their Kindles. I wonder if this new program through Target will allow them to continue using their Kindles. Or will it require a different “reader”?

    The cost, $18 a month, for both my girls, sounds a little pricey. I would need to sit down and figure out how much we spend on books for them. They usually receive gift cards for birthdays, holidays, and that money usually goes onto their kindle accounts.

    They are big fans of Half Price Books, too … the ONLY book store we have near us. They still love and seem to prefer a hardback.

  5. My first thought upon reading this was the old Columbia House Records program. Remember the kick of picking one free one and then spending the next 2 years trying to finish up buying the others?

    And then your mom found out? Busted!! Talk about mowing the lawn for EVER!

    If I wasn’t so cynical (I know, I just stunned you all) I’d leap on this. But economics dictate that I’ll be watching to see how this plays out.

    Yeah, I’m kinda meh about it.

  6. Elissa says:

    I can’t help thinking I already have a subscription for books in hard-copy. It’s called a library card. 😉

    Of course, this e-book model should generate more revenue for writers and publishers, while piquing readers’ interest in trying new-to-them authors and titles. One hopes.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Elissa, it makes sense that the subscription model should help with discoverability. But, yeah, it’s hard to beat that ol’ library card. Unless you’re all about owning books you read, which is a category I fit in.

  7. One thing that concerns me – if the economic model depends on breakage, or the underutilization of services…isn’t what’s being pitched dishonest?

    Is it right to hype a service that (based on projections) you know, a priori, that few will actually utilize to their own cost-effective benefit?

    Am I missing something, and moralizing where I should stand down?

    • Janet Grant says:

      If you think health clubs are a cheat because they offer membership based on few individuals fully utilizing the club, then you should feel free to take offense at any subscription model that requires the subscriber to take the initiative to use the subscription. (Unlike newspapers and magazines, which show up at your door whether you read them or just toss them.)

      • You’re right.

        In my head I was comparing it to the technique of hooking a car buyer on a vehicle loaded with un-needed options, but that’s an incorrect comparison.

        It is, like any subscription, what one makes of it, and my comment was both inaccurate and unfair.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Andrew, but I appreciate that you raised the question so we could all think about that together.

  8. Enough publishers are jumping onboard that I’m willing to start browsing through Scribd and Oyster to see if there’s enough there to make a subscription worth it.

    I especially like the fact authors are getting better royalties from it. For that reason alone it’s a model I’m comfortable looking at to see if it’ll meet my needs as a reader.

  9. . . . oh but what happens if my subscription expires and I am one/third of the way through a trilogy?

    Oh well. I will cross that literary bridge when I come to it.

    (Lets just hope the bridge doesn’t get washed out by some big monster from the Amazon jungle.)

    • Janet Grant says:

      donnie, once you reach a certain point in a book (most pundits believe it’s 20% read), you own the book. And I believe you can stock up your ereader on titles; so you don’t actually have to even start a book. But I’m not an authority on how these subscription services work.

  10. Carrie Padgett says:

    As a writer, even one without a backlist, I love the idea of having more books available to readers.
    As a reader though, with a TBR stack numbering over 100, there is no way I can in good conscience fork over money every month for a service I will undoubtedly under-use. Now, if I get that TBR mountain down to a molehill, I’ll consider it!

  11. Martin Burne says:

    As a reader, I would have to answer no to subscription. Frankly, my experience of subscription in the past (online gaming and TV) has been lacklustre – lots to see or do, but not always something that you want.

    As a writer, I sure would love some exposure, but I disagree with the idea of people having to pay a subscription to read, for example, books that are already offered free elsewhere. Unless they don’t count towards some monthly limit or whatever.

    I still don’t see how this is any better than being lost in the sea of other titles. There’s so much out there now that it takes some serious search skills just to find something your sort of speed and genre.

    So I’m not going to jump on this particular boat. I’m going to wait for something new and truly innovative.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Martin, I don’t know how the subscription services will organize the books. Yes, we’ll all still have to hunt and peck to find what we want, but if the service feels more like a bookstore with “shelves” we can peruse, then the possibility of an author’s writing being discovered is greater than it is, for example, on Amazon. I’m pretty much at the mercy of Amazon’s algorithms in finding a book that interests me.