Ask a Reader: subscription services

 

We’ve reviewed the questions submitted during our Ask A Reader campaign and realized that some of the answers could be found in recent research we’ve already conducted. Huzzah! So we’ve taken to the blog to share some of that data.

Q: What subscription model for book-related apps or ebooks is most popular with consumers?

 Just seeing that subscribe button gets us jazzed!

Just seeing that subscribe button gets us jazzed!

In the last two years, ebook subscription services have taken off. Book subscriptions have effectively attracted voracious and cost-conscious readers with a marketing mantra that promises “unlimited access” (Amazon) and the “freedom” to read anywhere, anytime (Scribd). These services are basically large digital libraries that you can visit at home for a small fee each month, but unlike a traditional library, there are no due dates, so you can hang on to a book for as long as you wish.

Book subscription services are easy, affordable, and provide readers with an expansive selection of books. So they must be really popular, right? Not quite. Even leading book membership services have yet to get the same traction as other music or movie subscription services. In our State of Digital Publishing 2014 study, only 2% of publishers reported that subscription services are their most profitable sales channel for ebooks, whereas 65% credited ebook retailers. And in a consumer poll from this year, we learned that only 1.4% of our 1,675 respondents had taken out a book subscription in the last month.

How are Canadians buying and using their books?

  Which of the following have you done in the last 12 months? (Select all that apply) (N=1,675)

Which of the following have you done in the last 12 months? (Select all that apply) (N=1,675)

These statistics, as well as the recent closing down of Oyster Unlimited in the United States, may seem to imply that the ebook subscription industry is struggling, but industry experts say that this is not the case. Macmillan expanded its subscription contributions over the summer for Oyster and Scribd, and at last year's Frankfurt Book Fair, HarperCollins’s CEO Brian Murray said "subscription has turned out to be very successful in really merchandising and mining the backlist." The announcement of Oyster’s shutdown came just after Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy praised ebook subscription services during her keynote address at the BISG annual meeting in New York, telling attendees that "Scribd and Oyster haven’t cannibalized S&S’s print sales, and were driving both revenue and discovery." 

While Oyster's closing may seem like a step backward for the ebook subscription industry, it's possible that the numbers are more representative of the fact that they're currently in a period of initial growth, similar to the struggle undertaken by the music industry in the early 2000s, when new ways of consuming music were being introduced. In fact, some ebook subscription services are doing quite well. Scribd, one of the leading services, has grown to 80 million international monthly readers since its inception in 2013, with “hundreds of thousands” of paying subscribers in the United States. Statistics like this coming from younger ebook subscription services are promising, given that Netflix and Spotify have been around for years.

There are many opportunities in the world of subscription services, and while ebooks are being explored, so are audiobooks. BookNet Canada's study on Audiobook Use in Canada showed that for those who listened to an audiobook in the prior month, almost 15% did so through a subscription service. 

So what are the most popular ebook subscription services in Canada? Our recent consumer poll revealed that Amazon Prime, or Kindle Unlimited, is a popular choice for many readers. Of those who use subscription services, 31% use Amazon, while only a few subscribe to Scribd (4%). This is surprising because Kindle Unlimited only became available in Canada last February, whereas Scribd has been around since 2013 and is highly touted online among the bookish. Direct-from-publisher book subscriptions are the second most popular option (19%) while others use Safari Online (15%), Harlequin (12%), or “other” subscription services for books (15%). It is important to note that the sample size for this survey is quite small, with only 26 participants, and is not a complete representation of Canadian readers.

Amazon subscriptions lead the way

  What subscription service did you use? (N=26)

What subscription service did you use? (N=26)

As of yet, ebook subscription models are not compelling for many Canadian readers, perhaps because the reading experience is limited by the fact that a significant portion of the titles offered are backlisted and many books from the top-selling publishers are not included in the offer, depending on what contracts the subscription service has with publishers. But while ebook subscription services are a small portion of the ebook market in Canada today, they will certainly continue to evolve and, as industry experts believe, one day even thrive.