Lockdown subscriptions surge here to stay, say publishers and stores

Lockdown subscriptions surge here to stay, say publishers and stores

Booksellers and publishers say they have seen dramatic increases in the numbers of people signing up to digital and physical subscription models, with many predicting them remaining just as popular now lockdown restrictions are easing.

Alongside indies, larger publishing houses are also getting in on the act, with Hachette’s Feminist Book Box (FBB) said to be performing strongly since its launch in March this year. Its focus on curated packages, offering readers books they may not have encountered before, is seen to be key to the long-term success of the subscription-based model beyond the pandemic.

Zool Verjee, head of marketing and publicity at Blackwell’s, said the tailor-made element of his company's service, which sees the bookseller find out a reader's tastes and interests, "feels like a very bespoke gift for somebody or for yourself".

He said the Blackwell's subscription service “really took off “ last year, particularly in the lead up to Christmas, with the rate of demand increasing tenfold. “We’ve got literally hundreds of subscriptions now across the UK,” he said.

He also believes these services are here to stay, saying: “It’s a really attractive and appealing way of receiving books and I can only see it getting bigger.”

A focus on curation has been hailed as a success for Hachette’s first foray into subscriptions. Its Feminist Book Box (pictured, below) offers readers two paperback titles a month, as well as a specially commissioned piece of art in a postcard format.

Bethan Ferguson, marketing director for Quercus and FBB project leader, told The Bookseller the launch was “much more successful” than anticipated. “I think we hit our first month target in the first two and a half days” she said.

She said staff members at Hachette were really passionate about getting involved, which helped the scheme, and its business case, to get off the ground. But, like other big publishers asked by The Bookseller, Ferguson said she couldn’t provide any statistics yet on the numbers of people involved because the scheme is still at such an early stage.

“Something like this has to run for I would say at least a year for us to be able to work out how it works. But we believe that we can make this work well for us financially.”

Ferguson added: “One of the reasons that people are cagey about it is because it’s a new business model for us, I mean this is not something that is in publishers’ DNA, so there’s learning to be done. But from my experience of running it so far, the numbers make it worthwhile. Also understanding more about our consumers and the feedback you get from being part of a subscription service is entirely different to sending books into a bookshop or to Tesco or whatever. You get that kind of feedback on what they liked and what they didn’t like. So it feels worth it on lots of levels.”

She hopes the subscription model will continue after the pandemic, adding: “I think the long-term aim would be to do other boxes. I think there are people looking at what else might work. You need a clear proposition with these things. I think saying we’re going to send you some good books is not quite enough. It then needs to be a reason for it to exist and we need to be able to offer added value besides the books. So we’ll be thinking about those kinds of things, which will dictate what we do next.”

Dorset-based publisher and independent bookstore Little Toller launched a new subscription package during the pandemic, named “friends and family” to accompany its existing range. The idea behind the package was a gift service for either six to 12 months, and was partly inspired by similar models employed by other indie publishers.

“We knew it would be popular in lockdown, and it was. People really responded to the idea of connecting to loved ones through books when they couldn’t see them. It was really good for us, and for readers. We also saw a surge at Christmas, again as you might expect, and it’s something we’ll definitely continue with,” said marketing manager Jon Woolcott.

Katrina Gutierrez, from Lantana Publishing, said she has noticed a desire for more “curated and inclusive content".

“When Black Lives Matter really gained momentum we found that many customers started purchasing our bundles because they valued the way they have seen our books to show inclusivity and children from different backgrounds having adventures, exploring and just being kids and having fun,” she said.

Rosamund de La Hey, founder of Mainstreet Trading Company bookshop in St Bosworths on the Scottish borders, said the indie was experiencing “a huge increase” in subscriptions, particularly its diverse voices package, which was launched in June.

Sam Jordison, publisher and co-founder of Galley Beggar, has also seen an increase in uptake of subscription users during the pandemic—so much so that he had to impose a cap of 500 on the press’ limited editions “buddy” scheme, while opening up another standard editions scheme. He said this was one of the reasons the indie press was able to keep going and put out “a really strong roster” of titles.

Though optimistic, he is cautious about the press’ success with the model going forward. “I can't really predict how much the uptake will continue to grow as normality returns,” he said. “I really hope it does and that people continue to enjoy it.

“We've actually been talking about taking on someone to help with the post and even hiring a room where we can pack things up. It would be fantastic to get to the stage where that's economically viable. But at the moment, it's a case of wait and see. The worry is that people might start taking a financial hit as [the furlough scheme] disappears, but the hope is that there are more and more people who have seen how well these schemes can work. It offers a special kind of value and connection with small presses and writers.”