Ebook Subscription Services are Doomed

subscribeOn that cheery note, I’ll just go shoot one of my characters. That always peps me up…

Now that we’ve got the ugliness out of the way, it’s time for my state of the digital publishing industry address. Last January, I spouted off about how indie authors would soon be running around like Chicken Little screaming “The Amazon is falling, the Amazon is falling!”

It took a little longer to happen than I thought, but sure enough the scales tipped with Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. I have to be honest, I was by no means the only one who saw the day drawing near. Plenty of other observant indie authors had the prescience to realize that making Amazon a career strategy is not a solid long-term move.

Smart people have been saying for a while that authors need to own their audience (ie. we need direct access to our peeps). When readers find your stuff on Amazon, they are loyal to Amazon, not to you. That is a problem when it comes to selling them on your next story.

But that is all last year’s news now. I’ve been working for the past 16 months to build a software platform that will allow me to write for my true fans for the rest of my days (no perpetual-money-maker shaking required). For those of you who have been following along, you know about Epifiction. That platform is now moving into beta with it’s “For Schools” product. (Who knew that starting an ed tech company would take so long!?)

What’s coming down the pipe in 2015?

This doesn’t seem to be a popular sentiment at the moment, but I believe 2015 will bring with it the demise of the broad-based subscription model for ebooks. Scribd, Oyster, and now Amazon’s Unlimited–I’m looking directly at you guys.

It does seem like a weird time to forecast doom and gloom, seeing how major publishers have been giving in to these subscription programs left and right over the last few months. But I simply don’t understand how they can possibly work long term.

Converting the most avid electronic format readers to your platform is all about storytelling. What sort of narrative can Scribd and Unlimited tell? Oyster? All these platforms are telling the same narrative. It goes something like this:

There is only one golden reader amongst every hundred flabby losers. You are that golden reader! Come sign up for our “all you can read smorgasbord.” Sure, our service wouldn’t make any money if only golden readers signed up. But “wink, wink” we both know all those flabby losers think they are golden readers too. But just between us, we know who the real Golden Boy is. (Stay golden, Pony Boy!)

Seriously. That’s the narrative. And I’m supposed to believe that’s the business model for future success? Let’s base our book sales on the hope that 90% of our paying customers only pretend they like to read.

That’s a Sad Narrative

That’s the first problem. Broad-based subscription services only work when most of the users pay and forget. This is what we call the Health Club Phenomena. (“But Jeesh, I really want to be a reader! Maybe if I pay for this Unlimited thing, I’ll start reading for real.”) This is a long-term plan for promoting illiteracy. I’m out.

The second flaw for these large broad-based subscription services is that they cannibalize 90% of indie authors for the sake of the more established publishers and elite authors. Amazon has built their dominance partly by boosting the lowly indie author. Now they are willing to demonstrate that the indie needs them a bizzilion times more than they need the indie author.

But when you lump a bizzilion indie authors together, they represent a significant chunk of the available ebook titles. Amazon does need those bizzilion indies. So does Scribd and Oyster if their subscription models are to work. Here is why those models won’t work.

I Need Money Too

The last month has unveiled a shiz storm of discontent from indies who have seen their profits crumble (partly due to Kindle Unlimited). Amazon may soon regret their jump into the subscription model, if they are unable to patch up their relationship with indie authors who are bleeding out while searching for UPS jobs.

Here is the course of events for 2015 as I see them:

  1. thousands of indie authors stop publishing content into Kindle Unlimited when they realize it doesn’t make them money.
  2. the most alert of these indies search out niche and genre models of establishing loyal readers.
  3. many indies find other work while they retool their platforms and expand their tactics.
  4. many indies stop writing.
  5. available titles for subscription models shrink, even while they add titles from large publishers.
  6. subscription models lose profitability as the average base cost of their titles increases due to losing indies and gaining industry.
  7. Avid readers begin to shift away from services like Scribd, Oyster and Unlimited in preference for genre specific and niche-based subscription services that provide them genuine curation and undiscovered talent.
  8. broad-based subscription services become the digital version of airport bookstores.

Not All Subscription Models are Equal

Having declared the imminent death of  the subscription model, let me be clear. I am a true believer in niche and genre-based subscription. I think that targeted subscription models may indeed be the future of digital publishing.

The romance genre has already successfully demonstrated the potential. Mystery has a few successful examples as well. I’ve engaged a few of my writer friends in the early stages of a science-fiction/fantasy platform that could end up thriving as a subscription model.

If a smaller platform is able to directly foster the reader/writer relationship, then subscription becomes a valid possibility. How many of you avid readers out there would pay $4 a month for insider access to your favorite science fiction world? Weekly stories, blog content, author skype conversations, and the occasional opportunity to name a character or contribute to a story line?

A small, dedicated group of authors could easily create such a steady flow of narrative content for an expansive world. Fifty stories a year for three years–immersive storytelling that dabbles with direct collaboration between reader and writer. That’s something worth subscribing to.

(As usual, I welcome your thoughts and comments! Tell me I’m an idiot if you think so. I can handle it.)

3 thoughts on “Ebook Subscription Services are Doomed”

  1. Why would subscriptions for ebooks require that there be a large percentage of flabby losers and why is that different than (and less successful than) for subscriptions to music or movies?

    • Hey Justin,

      Thanks for the comment and the great questions. The “all you can read” type subscription model is predicated on the idea that enough people will pay the monthly fee without actually reading that much. For every book that they read past a certain page, Amazon is required to pay the author. If every subscriber reads 10 books a month, then Amazon is going to end up paying out more than they are taking in. This is exaggerated even more if those 10 books are high dollar, big name titles. The big publishers will still get money. The Indies, not so much. And Amazon will lose money from the Kindle Unlimited program. But, if 9 out of 10 subscribers only read 5 books a year, then Amazon can use that “wasted money” to subsidize the subscribers that are reading tons.

      As for the differences from music and movie/TV models… that’s a bit more involved. I think it has to do with the media itself. Music and Visual media are consumed differently than books/ebooks. Music is listened to over and over. I might listen all day while working. And TV has mastered the appeal of serial, episodic content. (Which I think written content should imitate.) I’m more likely to pay for Netflix, or Hulu or Amazon Prime in order to watch my shows now, rather than wait to get them on DVD much later (or from the library, etc.). And more people are more likely to consume hours of TV a day than they are likely to read for hours a day.

      To top it all off, television and movie selections are still extremely limited in comparison to books/ebooks. It is much more expensive and involved to produce a television series than a book series. To take millions of book titles and propose paying the authors pennies on the dollar isn’t going to work out well for anyone except the avid reader. (Those few people who actually read 10+ books a month.) Those are just my two bits!


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