Whither the eBooks subscription model?

oysterThe news that Oyster is closing shop (or at least, abandoning their eBooks subscription business) suggests a re-evaluation of the subscription eBook business model is in order.

We’ve written before about the challenges of the subscription model for eBooks. The model has fundamental challenges:

  1. Limited catalog
  2. Poor discovery methods
  3. Proprietary Readers
  4. Competition from Amazon

Because the publishers live off their best-sellers and the subscription business is an all-you-can-eat model, the publishers have been reluctant to add their top titles to Oyster and Scribd. (For example, this article suggests 15% of books account for 80% of sales — if that 15% isn’t well represented in the subscription inventory, users are likely to abandon the service when they can’t find the books they want).

This leads to the second issue. If I can’t find the books I want, that the marketing world has told me I am “supposed” to read (The Girl on the Train, 50 Shades of Grey et. al.), then what am I going to read? I need tools to proactively discover great things to read, that are in the subscription catalog. And the recommendations need to come pro-actively, otherwise I am going to the catalog to read something the NY Times tells me I should read, and when I don’t find it, I get frustrated and leave. Oyster and Scribd aren’t very good at that.

Both Oyster and Scribd use proprietary readers. That’s not a fatal flaw, and the readers are actually quite nice (I particularly like Scribd’s iPad reader — clean, minimalist and easy to use). But it’s one more thing I have to learn, one more bit of friction in a world where I’m already reading on my Kindle, my computer, my phone, my Amazon Fire tablet, downloading eBooks from my library, not to mention physical books. Readers really don’t need another environment to read in. And with Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, the bar to jump over to get a user to subscribe on an ongoing basis to a subscription reading service is just too high.

And that is what Oyster found out, after $17M invested and major partnerships with most of the big publishers.

What might save the day?

Subscription services need to bring more value to readers than just “all you can eat” reading. Bring me things I can’t get anywhere else. Some ideas:

  1. Great books I can only get from you. (Negotiate a deal with 20 major indie authors to write books solely for your platform).
  2. Deliver great news and information about books. I might only read one book every few weeks, but The Martian is coming into theaters and I’d be very interested to read lots of news about that, since I loved the book. I’d love author interviews with my favorite authors, and a Medium-like news feed filled with booky goodness (especially if it was personalized). If Scribd were “organizing” the bookish part of the Internet and bringing me personalized book news every few days, I’d be on the service all the time.
  3. Truly personalized book recommendations. It’s not enough to say, “oh Mark likes Fantasy, let’s recommend The Lord of the Rings (which is what Scribd is doing to me right now). I mean, come on. Give me something interesting! Give me a way to import my Goodreads account so you can see all the books I’ve already read and stop recommending them to me.
  4. Book Clubs. People love to discuss books. Give me a virtual book club environment where I can chat about what I’m reading. Reddit has a vast community interested in books. If a subscription service wants to be sticky, find a way to bind me to a community of book lovers.

The key is, a simple all-you-can-eat reading environment isn’t enough, not at ~$10 a month. If it’s $10 a year, no problem — but that won’t support the publishers.

(btw: at The Hawaii Project we’re tackling #2 and #3, check us out).

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