To Be or Not To Be: Subscriptions & The Publishing Industry

By Aarthi Rayapura April 24, 2015

As the when, where and how of reading books changes, all sorts of possibilities are opening up for an increasingly digital-based publishing industry.

Will book publishers go the Netflix way, with exclusive, serialized offerings to lure subscribers? We may come back full circle to the Victorian era of The Pickwick Papers, with a chapter delivered every day to be read on your morning commute — just long enough for the time you have, and interesting enough to keep you wanting more.

Will established writers launch their own subscription-based platforms?  Imagine if we could have simply signed up for J K Rowling’s subscription service, instead of waiting in those long lines outside bookstores!

Could the regular income from a subscription-based book publishing model support a new class of creative professionals? Could a “Netflix for Books” include access to audiobooks, dramatic adaptations, authorized fan fiction, digitally enhanced special editions? What constitutes a book these days, anyway?

Penguin Random House (PRH) recently announced a deal to distribute its audiobooks on Scribd. The subscription company offers an all-you-can-read service with over a million audiobook, ebook, and digital comics. Launched in 2007, it has more than 80M monthly readers worldwide.

Over nine thousand PRH audio books will now be available on Scribd, expanding its audiobook subscription library to more than 45,000 titles. The deal includes bestselling fiction such as Fifty Shades of Grey, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Gone Girl; as well as nonfiction titles such as Bill Clinton’s My Life and Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father.

Scribd says that a key goal for the audiobook category is to drive “crossover usage,”  i.e encourage ebook readers to sample audio titles and vice versa. The company claims reading time on the platform has doubled since it introduced audiobooks last November.

What makes the deal intriguing is that PRH had earlier dismissed the subscription model, saying it wasn’t convinced that readers want it and that it didn’t understand the business model. So, is the publishing giant just testing waters with audiobooks? And if the pilot succeeds, will we find their ebooks on subscription services?

A week before the Scribd announcement, Oyster announced the launch of an e-bookstore. The store offers a la carte titles from all the big five publishers (PRH, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster) and includes new releases and pre-orders. Launched in 2012, Oyster’s subscription service offers customers unlimited access to over 1 million titles.

Many see the move as a direct competition to Amazon. The big five coming on board is seen as proof of the need for an alternative. No doubt last year’s Amazon-Hachette dispute helped level the playing field a tad bit for new entrants such as Oyster. With agency pricing coming back, the big guys won’t always win with low prices. And publishers regain some of their lost control.

“It’s our belief that a world where retailers can’t compete just on price, readers will chose where they want to read based on things like user experience and discovery, and those are things we’ve focused on for a long time” said Oyster CEO Eric Stromberg.

Customer experience is indeed the key to success, particularly in the Subscription Economy. So, what does Oyster’s move mean to its subscription business? It could be what it appears – an expansion to further monetize its subscribers and attract new customers (the ebookstore is open to non-subscribers).

It could also be a way to ensure current customer retention. Were subscribers turning away when titles were not available? Who amongst us hasn’t switched channels/apps on not finding a program of choice? By offering books not available on its subscription service as an easy buy, Oyster might simply be trying to reduce churn.

It’s undeniably an interesting time for the industry. Tracking the business is proving to be as gripping as some of their bestsellers!