Cyber Monday: Book Subscription Models

Emily WilliamsBy Emily Williams, co-chair, BISG Rights Subcommittee

I love giving books as gifts.

I love the excuse it gives me to wander the aisles of my favorite bookstores fondling the pretty print packages, thinking about my nearest and dearest and what would make them happy. I like spending my money on something I believe in, and the value of giving someone hours and hours of intimate mindplay for the reasonable price of $10 – $30. But the arrival of my baby son in March means we’ll be staying put this holiday season, which has tempted me online to search for that perfect gift for the booklover in my life, who happens to live a couple thousand miles away.

On the interwebs, I am a frequent Amazon customer, and B&N has been bombarding my inbox with great deals, but a holiday gift somehow begs a more meaningful buying experience, something more akin to those long sessions communing with the wares in the aisles of the local bookshop. In search of that elusive holiday meaning, I cast my browser toward the indies, hoping to find a gift with a whiff of the inventive, personalized spirit the best booksellers put into their business.

I​’m shopping for my dad.

He travels a lot but remains a faithful print consumer (a boon for me, since we swap books we’ve read). He’s a broad, general reader currently in search of great novels, constantly hitting me up for reading recommendations, and has been disappointed lately that the new fiction hasn’t quite been living up to his high expectations.

Perfect, I thought: what this man needs is one of those new-fangled subscriptions! A great book that arrives hassle-free on his doorstep every month or two!

The old-fashioned book clubs are on the wane, but with the ease of internet commerce a few brave publishers and booksellers are re-inventing the model as a book subscription, providing steady, predictable income for the seller, and steady, excellent reading for the buyer.

This Cyber Monday I poked around for a gift for my dad. Here is what I found:

I had high hopes for Powell’s Indiespensable subscription service.

I’m a fan of Powell’s, a Portland indie that did an early and excellent job of building a business online. Their Indiespensable subscription club promises “the best new books, with special attention to independent publishers” every six weeks, including exclusive printings and “inventive, original sets”. Each installment’s book selection is a signed first edition and comes with extra material like an author interview and a special gift – an eco-friendly tote bag, a canteen, a bag of coffee, an advance reader’s copy of a new book, you get the idea. But the price, $39.95 per shipment – yikes! It’s charged in installments as each package is shipped, and you can cancel at any time, but still a little rich for this year’s budget.

Decision time: Great selections, and the extras are nice, but ultimately for my dad it’s about the books. I can’t see paying a premium for stuff he may not want.

A Twitter friend recommended Kenny’s Book Club out of Galway, that tiny city on the battered west coast of Ireland where I studied for a semester in college.

Kenny’s offers more flexibility than any other plan – they leave the number of shipments and the amount you want to spend entirely up to you, and you leave the book selection up to them. (Cheapskate alert: you can even return the books after you’ve read them, paying only return shipping! It’s book rental on the down-low!)

Decision time: This is the opposite of local for my dad, though it’s true (as my Twitter friend pointed out) that Ireland could use some extra customers at the moment!

*Best in show goes to Just the Right Book! from Roxanne J. Coady at RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut.

This extremely well-thought-out service offers “book series” for adults, teens, kids and babies, in paperback, hardcover or mixed format, delivered monthly, bi-monthly, or quarterly, all at different price points. Each book in the series is gift-wrapped and chosen especially for the recipient by the RJ Julia staff based on a questionnaire filled out at the time of purchase. A bi-monthly paperback series for my dad would cost $135; he could return any unsuitable books free of charge and would be able to access his profile at any time to refine the selection process.

Decision time: $135 for 6 paperbacks comes to $22.50 per book, not bad at all considering that includes personalized service and shipping and handling.

N​ow we move on to the indie publishers.

Open Letter, Chad Post’s literary translation imprint at the University of Rochester, offers three different flavors of subscription.

Options: $75 for the Fall/Winter season (5 titles), $60 for the next 5 Open Letter books to publish, or $100 for the next 10. The books on offer range from Brazilian stories to Polish poems, Croatian essays to Kafkaesque Lithuanian fiction. Best value of the lot, and shipping is included.

Decision time: Impressive list and great prices, but probably not my dad’s cup of tea.

The local contender is Unbridled Books, a resourceful indie publisher that happens to be based in my hometown of Denver, Colorado.

Unbridled offers subscriptions of 3 books for $60 or 6 books for $100, all titles shipped ahead of their official release. Subscribers also get one free backlist title, a 25% discount on Unbridled books for the life of the subscription, and a subscribers-only e-newsletter. The Unbridled list is heavy on fiction with general appeal, a good match for a reader like my dad.

Decision time: Good books plus a local connection, though opting for a publisher limits the selection.

For my dad, it’s down to Unbridled vs. Just the Right Book. (‘Tis the season for indecision; advice and testimonials welcome!)

In general, this season has convinced me that subscriptions + online shopping are a fabulous way for indies to scale their personal touch. That said, most of the sites could stand to juice their ecommerce user experience for the season to make the gifts easier to find and understand. This is another key area where Just the Right Book is a clear stand-out.

For indie publishers with focused lists, it’s hard to think of a better way to build close ties with loyal readers.

And for indie booksellers: you’ll never compete with Amazon and B&N on sheer size and selection, but meaning and relationships are as key to the indie proposition as they are to gift-giving – and subscriptions allow you to serve up your hard-earned expertise to the reader across the country just as easily as to the reader down the street.

Emily Williams is co-chair of the BISG Rights Subcommittee and a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant.


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