The Digital Revolution: Subscribing to Change

– photo by charlesdyer –

Please welcome Erika Liodice, who is no stranger to WU. In fact, Erika acted as the Writer Inboxed digital expert since our newsletter’s inception. She’s also the author of the novel Empty Arms, and Vice President of the MidAtlantic Book Publishers Association, and she’s here today to shake things up.

Would you like to learn more about the digital revolution? Read on.

The Digital Revolution: Subscribing to Change

The rate of change you’re experiencing today is the slowest you’ll see in your lifetime.

If you were following the Digital Book World Conference on Twitter, you probably saw this quote by Michael Cader Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins’ Children’s Books (thank you, Porter, for setting the record straight), pop up in your feed more than once. I don’t know about you, but it already feels like technology is changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up. How can it possibly change any faster? Every day it seems like there is a new way to write a book, publish it, and promote it, not to mention read it. Sometimes I worry that if I stop paying attention for even a moment, I’ll be left behind. While I’m still a relative newcomer to the publishing industry, having been at it for less than a decade, I’ve witnessed its rapid transformation in my own way—from the days when querying an agent meant putting a small dent in the forest to today, when the majority of my book sales don’t require a single sheet of paper. Back then, my author platform consisted of a well-balanced blog, Facebook page, and Twitter stream. Nowadays there are more social outposts than hours to keep up with them.

Of all the changes to shake up this industry, one of the most interesting, as of late, is the emergence of the subscription model. As recently as a few years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me that by 2014 not only would I no longer own CDs or DVDs but I wouldn’t even own my music or movie libraries, yet here we are in the age of streaming entertainment, the era of binge consumption, paying a few measly bucks a month for all the content we can digest. When it comes to the sensibility of subscription services, it all boils down to one question: will I spend more money buying new songs/movies/books each month than it would cost to pay for a subscription?

For the hard core among us, it’s easy to see why the shift is happening.

So will the subscription model be the way of the future for e-books? Investors seem to think so, considering that Oyster just secured a $14 million investment to expand its unlimited e-book subscription service beyond the iOS platform and has been diligently signing new publishers to its catalog, the most recent of which was Perseus Books Group. Oyster’s rival, Scribd, which has already received $25 million in capital and offers its unlimited e-book subscription service across multiple platforms, recently inked a deal with Smashwords to bring over 225,000 self-published titles to its catalog, which is similar to the deal that Oyster signed with Smashwords back in September.

What do we make of all this? Fellow Writer Unboxed contributor and industry thought leader Jane Friedman says, “Subscription models make a lot of sense when applied to niche communities, such as romance, SFF, mystery/thriller, or other enthusiast categories.” She points to O’Reilly’s Safari, which specializes in technology and business training as “one example of a successful subscription-model effort. It’s more difficult to see these services take off or be sustainable if they’re geared for a general-interest audience or casual readers.”

The topic was recently discussed on the Writer Unboxed Facebook page, where community members generally agreed that the subscription model has merit from a reading standpoint, though most were leery about how it will translate into fair compensation for authors. While Oyster and Scribd are trying to address this with a “percentage-read” compensation model, the other big player in the space, Amazon, is taking a different approach. Through its Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which is available only on Kindle devices to Prime members, Amazon allows its members to borrow one book per calendar month and pays authors based on the number of “borrows”. To participate, authors who publish their titles through Kindle Direct Publishing must grant exclusivity to Amazon through its KDP Select program.

The smallest player in the space, Entitle (formerly eReatah), offers a tiered pricing approach and is described by its founder, Bryan Batten, as “similar to Netflix in its DVD days than Netflix in its streaming days.” Entitle takes a different approach asking higher prices but offering readers permanent access to the e-books they’ve borrowed even after their subscription has ended. Also, Entitle is currently only working with traditionally published titles and keeps its author compensation model close to its chest.

As we sit back and watch these players duke it out to be the “Netflix of e-books,” it’s easy to forget about one key competitor: public libraries. In recent years, the public library system has been working with Overdrive and Axis360 to offer the general public the ability to borrow e-books for free. Simon & Shuster recently announced that it will partner with OverDrive to expand its e-book lending pilot (which began with Axis360 back in April), beyond the New York Public Library system into 15 select libraries. It will offer up its catalog of backlist and frontlist titles along with new titles, which will be available simultaneous with publication. This agreement with Simon & Shuster means that OverDrive now distributes titles from all of the major trade publishers as well as thousands of smaller publishers from around the world. But like the paid subscription services, this solution isn’t perfect either. While readers might be enticed by free access to digital titles, each library owns a limited number of licenses per title, which means that the disadvantage is the still same as if you actually went to the library in person: you might have to wait in line for the book to become available.

While the subscription model certainly seems poised to stick around for a while, the jury is still out on whether it will be the way of the future or just another option in this fast changing world of digital publishing.

What do you think? Does the subscription model have a place in your reading or writing future?

 

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About Erika Liodice

Erika Liodice is the author of Empty Arms: A Novel (Dreamspire Press). To read more about her publishing journey, you can visit her at erikaliodice.com.

Comments

  1. says

    Hi, Erika.

    Just a point of credit, as someone who live-tweeted the Digital Book World Conference & Expo (#DBW14) from New York. (And you can see the entire 14,000+ barrage of tweets at our DBW Epilogger here, pack a lunch: http://ow.ly/tc7ML ).

    The line about the current rate of change being the slowest we’ll see in our lives came not from Michael Cader (the very able publisher of Publishers Marketplace / Publishers Lunch — to which I encourage all writers to subscribe) but from Susan Katz, @SusanRKatz, who is president and publisher of HarperCollins’ Children’s Books.

    Many folks have trouble with proper attribution in tweets, especially in the heat of live events like a major conference, so I’m not surprised that the line was separated from its speaker.

    And in fact, it’s easy to know how it became attributed to Cader.

    The event in which Katz first said the line was a pre-conference on children’s publishing, “Launch Kids,” produced on January 13 by Cader and Mike Shatzkin’s “Publishers Launch” series of conferences. And as Cader, a host in the conference, followed up on Katz’s session, he quoted her…at which point many folks simply missed his attribution to Katz and transferred the comment to him.

    Just for the record (I know, my journalism is showing), this is the text of my own original tweet as Katz said it:

    #DBW14 #LaunchKids: @HarperCollins Children’s @SusanRKatz: Tech change today is the slowest it will ever be (as fast as it seems).

    So there you go. Accuracy established. :)

    Thanks for today’s post!

    -Porter
    (Still Determined To Be Sponsored by @Campari)

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  2. says

    I know I’m a bit of a laggard. I have embraced the storage capacity and portability of iTunes/iPod and Kindle. And I am a Prime member at Amazon. And yet I’ve never “borrowed” a single title. I pay for each one. And I still buy bound editions of my favorite books, even if I already have the eBook version. Also, I don’t like “free” music streaming services like Pandora or Spotify. I pay for each track of music in my library. It just feels right to me.

    I buy a lot of eBooks and downloaded music each week, but I’ll bet I spend less that some pay for big-brand coffee on the go (I grind and brew my own at home – I’m old-fashioned like that). One of my fondest hopes is that a few folks will feel moved to want to “own” my work. Maybe even enough to put a small dent in the forest in order to hold it in their hands, and place it on their shelf.

    Thanks, Erika, for keeping us on top of things, during the run of Writer Inboxed and here again today.

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  3. says

    I used to subscribe to magazines and greeted them with great enthusiasm when they arrived in the mail. I still treasure some of the old ones, but now most things I want to see and know are available online so I no longer subscribe.

    Books, however, I still like to hold in my hands and read without having to make a digital connection. They are piled up in my home and office like friends surrounding me everyday.

    Not sure books will ever go the way of magazines until those of us who grew up without a digital connection are gone, but it won’t be long in the big picture.

    The digital picture of course.

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  4. says

    Very nice article Erica. And yes, jury’s still out re how/if the subscription services will work out.

    But I’ve elected to place my books (via Smashwords) on both Scribd and Oyster for one over-riding reason :

    my wife’s and I’s decade long membership with Netflix.

    One of the things we’ve come to like best about Netflix, is the ability to sample work beyond the assurance that it was something we “really” wanted to see.

    Trying films with an actor or story or director we liked, esp those with less than stellar reviews or star ratings, was easy. And we quickly found that we really liked many of the choices.

    Trying films from other countries, titles we’d never heard of, with people in them we didn’t know, has been a fun discovery experience.

    We don’t worry if the film would rent/sell for $5, $15, or who knows what. We don’t like it, we return it (or choose another in the streaming model.) We like it, we search for more with that person or story type.

    In the very few weeks I’ve been trial subscribed to both Oyster and Scribd, I’ve quickly found the same ease and fun of discovery and reading as we had with movies.

    As a reader and a writer, this is extremely encouraging to me.

    Whether the compensation model will hold up to still worth while in the future, for all three participants : the company, the reader, and the writer, I don’t know.

    But so far, I’m happy with the possibilities.

    Do I think it will displace all sales channels? Not really. There are still people who like to own a movie, and there are many people who simply read too small an amount to be tempted by a subscription at this time.

    And as always, it would be silly of me to wish any channel ill. And thus, wish us all the best. ;-)

    Hope you do a follow-up Erica, thanks again. :-)

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    • says

      I couldn’t agree more, Felipe. I don’t see the subscription model displacing the other sales channels but rather being one more option in the mix. As an avid reader myself, I use all of the channels: I buy paper books and e-books and I rent some titles from Overdrive.

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      • says

        Couldn’t agree more! I’m even beginning to dabble in Audio and enjoying retrieving some of my (very) old theatre-days-memories of when I was in college, even took my son when he was a young boy, he still remembers those days and loves audio books now ;-)

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  5. says

    It’s an interesting model, and hopefully payments WILL trickle down to the author!

    My main concern about sites like Scribd is that they look to be contain large numbers of pirated books, alonside the files uploaded by their authors.

    Which might possibly be justified if it’s an out-of-print but not-out-of-copyright book that’s impossible to get any other way, but sits kinda uncomfortably on me for books that ARE in print.

    I don’t trust this site, because how can I tell which copy is the legitimate one put up by the publisher or author, and which has been pirated?

    I could be wrong about this, I hope I am, but it doesn’t sit comfortably to have a site that profits from piracy and doesn’t appear to do much to limit it being treated as a legitimate source of ebooks.

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    • says

      Autumn, that was a major concern for me also when I first heard about the chance to distribute into Scirbd and I opted out for awhile, then changed my mind as I got more info.

      Smashwords, under the question, “Smashwords distributes to Scribd, which in the past has been used by pirates to host and download pirated books. What does this mean for Smashwords authors?” – at https://www.smashwords.com/about/supportfaq – has a fairly nice answer, concerning somethng about a digital footprint etc.

      Obviously I don’t understand it technically ;-) but it still seems worth my taking a chance with it based on what I do understand.

      Actually, I’ve had more concerns with commercial derivitative use of my work than piracy (for reasons based in past experiences) and register my work with the Library of Congress.

      But I do think this is still something to be very much aware of, and keep up-todate with. There’ll be many of us participating via Smashwords that’ll be watching this carefully. Right now it seems there’s a true effort to address this.

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    • says

      This has been a point of contention for many people, Autumn. I have read some articles that indicate that Scribd has taken steps to remove pirated content from its site. Has it been eliminated completely? I couldn’t say.

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  6. says

    I see this from the side of the author as well as the reader, and I think it could work, but only if it is fair to authors.

    Historically, subscription services do not give a fair share to the artists. What’s a fair share? Wow, I’m not sure. I’d have to know more.

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  7. says

    There used to be a not-dissimilar model in the old days of the industry. It was called Book of the Month Club.

    Oh wait, it’s still around. I don’t understand it, but according to royalty statements I see authors earnings from BOMC and related clubs still dwarf anything from subscription services, which are not (yet, I suppose) even a blip on statements.

    Oh, but of course that’s all going to change. Real soon now. Yes, yes, I have no doubt.

    Okay, sarcasm aside, the traditional book clubs have been shrinking for some time but new subscription models face some mighty challenges, not least of which is winning consumers. Will it really cost out cheaper than buying individual titles? For some, no doubt. I guess we’ll see.

    One thing I’m sure of, that some investors are throwing millions at an idea doesn’t mean it’s going to work. The graveyard of publishing schemes is a pretty big place.

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  8. says

    It all sounds very interesting. However, I don’t like to adopt a new way of doing things until I see how it’s faring with the reading and/or viewing public. I always take a “wait and see” attitude with new inovations.

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  9. Marcy McKay says

    Really interesting, Erika. Digital Publishing is here to stay. I still prefer to hold a “real book” in my hand, but feel like as long as folks are reading, I don’t care how they do it. As they say, “They are many paths up the mountain….” Thanks for the great post.

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  10. Robin C says

    I am subscribed to Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, etc. I like getting movies and TV through them. Most of the time. But there are a couple of problems, and they both link back to one word: Availability.

    Netflix doesn’t get TV episodes as they air. And they don’t always get new releases into their streaming line up right away. Because of this, for TV at least, I’ve been going to VUDU and outright buying seasons. I’m not so familiar with these book services, but how many of them are getting new releases the day they come out?

    More importantly, how long are they likely to STAY available? Netflix doesn’t keep a title in the streaming service forever. Neither does Amazon. I found myself abandoning The Rundown this New Years Eve on Netflix in favor of watching Sabrina on Amazon instead. Both were due to drop from their respective services in a day or so. And Hulu only keeps a backlog of a few episodes, or a season or so.

    So would all that translate over into books? Such-and-such book is part of our subscription service, but only until May, get reading?

    I want to know that when I pay for a book, music, or movie (unless I am really unsure of it) that I’m going to be able to come back to it in a year and re-read/watch/listen.

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  11. says

    How do I handle change?
    Step one: Inhale–1, 2, 3
    Exhale–1, 2, 3
    Step two: Go for a long walk or do Tia Chi or stretch
    Step three: Journal my approach to the situation
    Step four: Act. Do something constructive.
    I adapt these steps to best serve the situation.

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  12. says

    I’ll admit that when I read the first few paragraphs I felt the same way about the overwhelming speed of changing technology but thinking about being self-published (I have only one self pubbed) and via an independent house, this might be good for authors like me in terms of exposing my work to a larger audience. I can foresee a possible stable, solidified industry springing up from this concept or perhaps merging or adapting the the current publishing industry. I’m no technological giant whatsoever, so anything that can help me get read more easily and broadly sounds good. But what the heck do I know?
    Patti

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