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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28 Responses

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  1. MacKenzie Willman says:

    I am a member of the Love Inspired Suspense subscription service. I look forward to receiving the box every month.

  2. No dice for me. My reading is extremely focused, and time is short.

    • Re the danger of a book failure to a small house…William Kimber (London) was laid low in large part due to the publication, in 1988 of the WW2 memoir ‘Whirlwind Squadron’, which was later shown to be fiction. Calling back the printed copies weakened the company severely, and they were soon history. Pity, because their backlist was really splendid.
      * The author of the book in question, Eric Thomason, later published it privately, and achieved some notoriety in Oz as an eyewitness to rather a spectacular UFO. He claimed that ‘Whirlwind Squadron’ was intended to be an homage to men he had known in the war. Perhaps this is true, but it’s of cold comfort to Kimber’s staff.

    • And at the risk of being tiresome…had Thomason presented ‘Whirlwind Squadron’ as fiction, along the lines of V.M. Yeates’ ‘Winged Victory’ (a classic novel that is perhaps the best description of aerial combat in WW1, written by a participant), it might have gained some status, because it IS a good read.

  3. “They’re willing to give up their data for a personalized home delivery.” Trading confidentiality for convenience? I’m not sure where I’d draw the line, but this makes me uncomfortable. At what point does the data start to define me, instead of me defining the data?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Good point. And once you express what interests you, how do you switch interests? I mean, I’m not necessarily going to be a lifetime fan of Dancing with the Stars. (Actually, I’ve never been a fan of Dancing with the Stars.) My point (and yours) is that we can have an interest–even an avid interest–in some area, but that can wane, and we can even become disinterested. Guess we have to go to new channels and offer our new data.

  4. Janet, thanks for letting us in on this! I think it’s a great idea. You know I think about Thread Up for clothing. You answer questions about your style and they send you a box monthly with a entire outfit. You keep what you want and send back what you don’t on their dime. I’m not a subscriber…yet. But, I love the idea of a surprise from someone else based on my likes! Once a month is great. Years ago I belonged to the Writers Digest Book Club and loved it–was a great way to build up my library on the craft of writing and publishing. In fact, if I was one of those millennials or Gen Xers you wrote about I would love a box a months, especially if I had children. Not only that, if I were a grandparent, or aunt, or godparent what a wonderful gift to give to a child. What a wonderful gift for aging parents! Or really any book lover! Why not incorporate a new bookmark too! This is a real possibility, and one I see many people enjoying. As far as giving up data, I’m sure they already have plenty on all of us. I’ve done nothing wrong and don’t plan on it. I don’t care if others know I’m a Jesus lover and follower. If anything good or bad comes as a result, I already told my Beloved I am His, and He is mine–no turning back.

    Love the idea Janet!

  5. Sylvia Miller says:

    It would probably be appealing to the readers who love surprises and read everything they can get their hands on. I am very selective in which Christian Fiction titles (secular too) I read, with loyalty to particular authors. Out of all the Love Inspired and Heartsong Presents titles over the years, I would maybe read three authors from each line. I would try the works of some of the others, but wouldn’t end up reading anymore by them. Always, I would come back to the authors’ books I know I enjoyed every time. My neighbor subscribed to both of these lines and I would borrow them from her. I probably didn’t even read one out of each monthly shipments. More like one of those books every three months.

    • Sylvia Miller says:

      I do try new authors, though, and have added some of them to my must-read-authors list.

      • Sylvia Miller says:

        Here’s an example. I just looked at the four new releases that Bethany House Publishers has put out each month for the past few months to see how many of those I have read or plan to read. In almost every case I have read (plan to read) two of the four, with no interest in reading the remaining two. It wouldn’t be worth a subscription to me to pay for the four novels each month if I will only read two of them. Could a publisher sell partial subscriptions or say you get a shipment every two months with just the novels you want?

    • Janet Grant says:

      The sort of subscription that works for you is to select a set number of books from a list of possibilities. That way you could pick the authors or book concepts that intrigued you. But having a set selection wouldn’t be the type of subscription that would work for you.

  6. Great blog Janet! So much of the writing journey involves marketing and this really looks ahead to potential areas of growth for writers.

  7. Lisa Bogart says:

    I am intrigued. I think I might jump on board for books. And I’d love to be part of a box going out, how cool.
    I currently subscribe to a pencil box every quarter from CW Pencil Enterprise https://cwpencils.com/. I get pencils and a whole lot more. It’s grand. I do like the thrill of getting mail and treats. I did not have to give them a ton of info since it’s a very specific box to begin with. And least you think there are not many pencil nuts out there; I had to wait to get on the list and they send out 1,200 boxes a quarter!
    So, there seems to be a box for everything! I’m in for books.

  8. I’ve been thinking even more about this idea which has so much potential, really!!! I used to belong to a olive oil club and received three different olive oils every quarter. The olive oil was hand selected from sources all over the world by the business founder and owner. Each of the three was different in source and flavor, and a little history was given with each. It was exciting and I loved it. We could not consume all the oil, so I gave it as gifts too. The only reason we temporarily stopped was we couldn’t use it all, and had given many gifts that were still in use. We do have the option of rejoining. I would live even a quarterly book club that I would have selected my authors or type of book to give as gifts. I love to give books as gifts. I could even choose digital or paper. I could gift my church library, public library, someone in the hospital, a disabled vet, and on. I could read them myself and then give them to others who can’t afford books. I would make a bookmark since I’m artistic, and place it in the book just for the person receiving it.

    I love surprises. I love giving gifts. I love books.

  9. I’d never sign up for something like that. Most of the books I read are from the public library or written by authors I’ve met at conferences. Those I buy at bookstores or online are usually gifts for other people. And my house is overflowing with books I already own. I’m downsizing and have recently given away over 1000 books, but kept more than that. I don’t need anyone sending me more I haven’t even chosen.

  10. David Todd says:

    I don’t see myself ever signing up for a subscription service.

  11. Wanda Rosseland says:

    This was the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books format, right, Janet? My mother got them for a time and I loved them, mainly because there were four books in each book and if I didn’t like one or two, the others were good. But I probably would not do it from publisher’s today, simply because I like to read some of a book first to see if I want to read it. Amazon gives us that preview which makes a huge difference for me.

    Andrew, really sorry about the publisher going broke because of the author pawning off his book as nonfiction, when in fact it was a work of fiction. It made me think of the “Whirlwind” we are in today as a nation and governmental body and the absolutely critical requirement to tell the truth.
    We kids learned early that obeying, behaving and Telling the Truth beat the razor strap any day! As a writer, I have had people question things I’ve written–as to their being true–and have been able to tell them it was so. Because I knew, and if I didn’t, it wasn’t included in the book. Thank you for this information, Janet. Very interesting.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Wanda, I forgot about the Reader’s Digest Condensed books. That was such a perfect fit for the type of person who enjoyed Reader’s Digest.
      You know, there’s no reason a publisher couldn’t offer the first couple of pages of a book as a preview to help you in your selection.

      • Janet, though it wasn’t a subscription, Andrew Greeley’s books used to have the first chapter of his next book at the end, as a nice hook.
        * And thank you for the reminder of Reader’s Digest Condensed; they did introduce me to books and authors I might otherwise have bypassed. I would never have given much of a look to Thornton Wilder, but reading the condensed version of “The Bridge Of San Luis Rey” opened my mind.

  12. Carol Ashby says:

    Interesting. More than fifty years ago, my sister gave me a 1-year subscription to a book club that started with all Shakespeare ‘s works in 2 volumes free. The books varied from suspense and thrillers to poetry, and I vaguely remember having to select which book I wanted from a list of 5-10. I liked it then, but I didn’t keep it. I wouldn’t join one now.
    *This might work for publishers, but what will it do to bookstores when it keeps customers at home because the box seems like all they need? It would end all the impulse buys that occur whenever we go into a bookstore for one thing and come out with four?

    • Carol, I get what you’re saying, but I would still do both. I love going in to peruse the aisles of books, but I still could enjoy this, and I believe others would too. From reading all the comments, I feel like I’m in the midst of a group of teachers or starving artists…not trying to be hurtful or judgemental. But, I do believe both the subscription and brick and mortar can survive. After all, if someone likes a book sent that person could spread the news to her or his friends, and they might all meet at the bookstore to pick up that book, or others by that author, and perhaps…even start a book club that begins with the surprise book in the box. Hmmm, sounds like an interesting title itself, The Book in the Box. Okay, that’s something, an idea that is mine that came from just this post.

      Think of the possibilities. Also, it does not have to be monthly. It could be quarterly determined by the individual. Some people have the extra money or are willing to budget in something like this. And if I have enough books, there are always others who don’t. As always in anything, there are those who would like it and those who wouldn’t based on a variety of things in their lives, personalities, goals, I come, etc.

      • Just making things clear, not insulting teachers, but just that they have to watch their budget for the classroom so excruciatingly. I do to for life and living in general, but I so believe in the power of the written word and its ability to change lives. I always set aside money for books–if not for me then for others.

  13. I love my subscription services. As my job has become more demanding, they have made my life easier: Stitch Fix for clothing, Bullymake Box for my dog who chews everything, even dinner box subscriptions–though those don’t usually last because they are expensive. My husband is a member of the Stephen King Library and gets each new release. There are certain authors I might pay to subscribe to, but the challenge is I already have so many books, where would I put them?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, the challenge of storing books is part of the reason I love digital books. I have years worth of my past reads stored on my little device. I subscription service could let the user choose: digital or print.