If I had a dollar for every time I had seen a pitch for a subscription-based e-book platform, I would by now have launched my own. Once ubiquitously referred to as “Spotify for e-books” and now “Netflix for e-books”, its moment has come and, in retrospect, we should not be surprised. That trade publishers did not stop for subscription never meant subscription wouldn’t stop for them.
There is much to unpack here. What initially put off many trade publishers has largely been surmounted by the kind of deals struck with the two American players Scribd and Oyster, and now (perhaps unwittingly) by Amazon. In treating each read as a sale, subscription service providers have been able to assure publishers that this new sales channel will not dilute their possible earnings for each backlist title included. The manoeuvre is also deft in another way: the deal means publishers can invoice each “read” as a sale, rather than a rental, keeping payouts to authors at standard royalty rates for digital sales, not the higher figure triggered by a sub-licence.
As our story shows, this tactic does not convince everyone. Both the Society of Authors and the Association of Authors’ Agents express reservations, though it is important to note that they have called for a conversation around contractual terms, rather than a boycott of such models. This is vital. It does not seem to me to be the moment to not try things out. As HarperCollins UK c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne implied, we need more channels, not fewer. The wider context is almost so tough for publishers that any possible alternative ought to be grasped.
Amazon’s decision to launch its own subscriber platform—Kindle Unlimited—suggests that it believes one of the newer players has at least a small chance of succeeding—and that too should focus minds. It is the first time I can remember Amazon launching a more expensive, worse service purely as a defensive measure. In co-opting self-published titles into its offer, it also runs the risk of alienating its fiercest supporters, the indie writers who, unlike publishers, must share a pool funded by Amazon, based on a reading threshold Amazon reserves the right to alter.
This pooled model is not unique to Amazon. As I noted last week, the US-based subscriber platform Safari pays publishers based on the amount each book is read, from the pot of revenue accrued. It offers less upfront to participating publishers, yet becomes more attractive when heavy readers use it. Scribd’s Achilles’ heel is that the more its customers read, the less it will make.
The subscription model has landed: one small step for Scribd perhaps; one giant leap for publishing.