Publishing Forecast–Part 2

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

In my most recent blog post, I explored the double-digit growth of digital audiobooks and what that could mean for publishing’s future. Today I want to make another publishing forecast: the use of the subscription model.

For years, when I’ve had the chance to sit down with publishing marketing and sales execs, I’ve queried them on what’s keeping publishers from creating subscription services. They generally each respond the same way: Take a deep breath. Sigh. Explain the reasons subscriptions are challenging for publishers and why they can’t make the concept work. After each meeting, I’d leave thinking, I still say it can work.

Recently I read an article that sparked that thought all over again. Oh, I still think it’s too early in the game for subscriptions to work for publishers. But we’re much closer than we were even five years ago. I’ll explain why I believe that’s true, but first let’s gain some perspective by taking a look at the past.

Publishing’s subscriptions past

The most successful subscriptions publisher that I’m aware of in the recent past is Guideposts. They have offered subscriptions to their mystery series for decades.

I recall when I first met the Guideposts publisher, I was sitting at a table at a Guideposts-sponsored dinner at a book convention. If memory serves, the date would have been the early 2000s. We had assigned seats, and somehow I ended up as the only agent–and the only woman–at a table otherwise filled with publishers or publishing house presidents. That wasn’t an unusual situation for me at the time because few agents existed in the Christian book industry, let alone women agents.

If only…

As conversations swirled around the table, I turned to the Guideposts exec and said, “Tell me about how subscription publishing works.” Apparently no one at the table had posed that question to him before, because all conversation stopped.  As they listened to his answer, everyone’s jaw dropped.

A subscription-centered publisher, we were informed, knows exactly how many copies of a book will sell before it ever goes to press. “And we know exactly what our readers want to read and how many books should be in a series.”

“If only we could publish with information like that,” one of the publishers finally said quietly. The others nodded their heads. Because these men knew, only too well, what a guessing game traditional publishing is.

When a book is acquired, no one knows:

  • Precisely who the reader is
  • Whether the anticipated reader will like what this author is offering
  • If the book is part of a series, how many books should be contracted for
  • How many copies of the title to print. If the publisher aims too low, demand will outpace supply, and sales will be lost. If the publisher aims too high, then the warehouse will be swimming in inventory and returns will add to the financial tsunami. An anticipated big book that turns out to be a dud can take down a small publisher.

Subscription success

But that kind of blissful surety about what books will succeed is counterbalanced with the reality that Guideposts book subscriptions have been on a downward trend for several years. Its subscribers tend to be older and are not being replaced by younger readers. Unfortunately, the company hasn’t figured out how to adapt their subscription system to the younger reader.

But that doesn’t mean more youthful subscribers don’t exist. They actually are eager to subscribe and do so frequently. Just not to books. Yet.

Subscription boxes

Enter subscription boxes. These boxes are mailed to your house every quarter, monthly, etc., depending on how frequently you request a box. You never know what exactly will be in your box, but it will be a specific type of product–beauty, a toy and treats for your pet, or food, such as Blue Apron, which supplies you with the makings of dinner. And part of the delight of the box is that you don’t know exactly what you’ll receive–it’s like a regular birthday gift.

In an article entitled “Marketers Use Subscription Boxes Strategically,” the writer reports: “An analysis by Hitwise, an audience insights solution, found visits to subscription company websites grew 800% between 2014 and 2017. Its calculations suggest about 5.7 million people in the U.S. are box subscribers.”

And who is subscribing? The article goes on to say: “Though there’s probably a box that would appeal to nearly anyone, subscribers are most often millennials or members of Gen X, with the sweet spot being those between 30 and 40 years old. Subscription box customers are more likely to be college-educated, liberal-leaning women. Their household income averages more than $100,000, and they tend to have children between the ages of 3 and 5. Plus, they’re willing to give up their data for a personalized home delivery.”

Gathering the data

That’s right. Part of making sure your box is best suited to you rather than, say, a monthly gift box of jams, rests in your willingness to tell the company everything you enjoy. The more specific you are, the better the box.

Guideposts can know that an idea will work because it tests it almost to death. Through mailings of increasing detail, Guideposts asks specific questions that all boil down to: Would you buy a book if it looked like this. The questions might start out with a more precise definition of what kind of mystery you want to read: cozy, thriller, horror. Same characters or different characters in each book? Setting possibilities. Themes.

After decades of keeping subscribers satisfied, Guideposts knows its readers want cozy mysteries. But what settings receive the most votes? Do readers favor bakeshops over tea shops? Is Savannah a better setting than a Maine village?

How it  could work

Now, back to that article that jumpstarted my thinking about book subscriptions. It’s based on an interview with one of the authors of the book, Subscribed. The authors, Tien Tzuo (the founder and c.e.o. of Zuora, the leading Silicon Valley subscription management platform) and Gabe Weisert (its managing editor), claim that “companies like Netflix, Spotify and Salesforce are just the tip of the iceberg for the subscription model. The real transformation–and the real opportunity–is just beginning.”

Weisert, who was interviewed for the article, points out that books are a natural for subscriptions. I so agree.

Books aren’t all alike (how many sample mascaras does one woman want once she’s found the brand she likes?), and they are consumed on a regular basis. Plus readers are always looking for their next great reading experience–they are on a quest to find that book. They ask their friends; they have acquaintances they view as book curators. What about a subscription service that knew what kind of book you found satisfying? And there’s no reason your eclectic reading interests couldn’t be served by a subscription. After all, publishers produce a broad range of types of books.

If music can do it, books can do it?

During the interview, Weisert was asked if any other industry might be a strong corollary to book publishing. This was his response:

“Look at how the music industry has bounced back from the long crash that followed the CD sales boom of the ’80s and ’90s. Thanks to streaming services like Spotify, music retail sales are up 11% this year after 15 years of 4% decline. The music industry is actually growing again! Streaming has triggered all sorts of positive ancillary effects– there’s more discovery, so concert attendance is growing. Artists are getting paid directly. And vinyl has made a huge comeback. I think book subscription services could work the same way–more readers would discover more great writers, with all sorts of positive downstream effects.”

The author also mentions

Personally I enjoy reading both digital and physical formats. I don’t think anyone’s made a successful effort at trying to reach readers like myself. [sic]

Would a book subscription service interest you? Why or why not? What would have to be true of it for you to consider signing up?


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Should publishers explore offering book subscriptions? Click to tweet.