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Buying Books Online: Subscription Vs. Per-unit Pricing

The expansion of digital content subscription services has prompted both insider and consumer-facing coverage of the more recent developments. A fair amount of the coverage focuses on the somewhat heavily funded Oyster and the more established Scribd, whose origins are sometimes tied to piracy.

I find the relatively narrow focus on newer entrants to be more than a little frustrating, particularly when it is perpetuated by the trade press. Safari Books Online has been selling subscription access for more than a decade, and Spain-based 24symbols has been working to secure publisher commitments for the better part of four years. Both will be part of the BookExpo panel, “Demystifying subscription models”, that I described in a post earlier this week.

Coverage of various services can also be hamstrung by a myopia about the markets they are organized to serve. One example comes from a Lifehacker column by Thorin Klosowski that ran in January:

In the end, it really depends on what type of reader you are. If you don’t mind not always getting the exact book you want, a subscription will suit you well. If you’re a little more particular, you might find that the selection just isn’t big enough.

The operating logic here is the same one that book publishers employ to limit the number and type of books they provide to subscription services: people use online access to substitute single-price digital access for multiple-title acquisitions (to the extent that any digital version of a book can actually be “acquired”).

As the members of the BookExpo panel are likely to say, subscription models can grow the overall paid demand for content. A reader unlikely to buy every book on Javascript may still want to sample several titles to understand a core concept. Safari Books not only makes that possible; it gives publishers revenue when it happens.

Readers in developing countries where book prices are hopelessly out of reach can still be served by subscription models that provide access but not necessarily the file. Measured on a per-unit basis, revenues are small, but the alternative is either “no sale” or the possibility of encouraging the development of a market served by pirates.

To be sure, publishers want to be mindful in striking deals for titles whose traditional sales could be affected by subscription access. I’d just like to see more publishers look for ways that these and other business models might tap into new revenues. In this, I see subscriptions as a variation on how I have seen libraries: a first defense against otherwise unpaid access.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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