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The Digital Revolution: Subscribing to Change

– photo by charlesdyer –

Please welcome Erika Liodice [2], 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 [2], and Vice President of the MidAtlantic Book Publishers Association [3], 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 [4] 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 [5]. 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 [6] 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 [7], 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 [8] (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?


About Erika Liodice [9]

Erika Liodice is an indie author and founder of Dreamspire Press, where she is dedicated to teaching curious minds about unknown worlds through story. She is the author of Empty Arms: A Novel [10] and the children’s chapter book series High Flyers [11]. She is also a contributor to Author In Progress [12], the Writer Unboxed team’s first anthology. To learn more about Erika and her work, visit erikaliodice.com [13].