Are We Seeing the Rise of E-Book Subscription Services?

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Yesterday, my employer, F+W Media, announced the launch of an e-book subscription site for art enthusiasts. If you’re an amateur artist, you can pay a flat, annual fee and have access to a library of titles about oil-painting, watercolors and whatever other arts you’re interested in.

It struck me as a neat idea – call it an e-book book club, almost.

What F+W is doing isn’t new. Creative Edge, a division of subscription e-book service Safari Books Online, has a library of art books and videos that users can access for a monthly fee. The main Safari Books offering is the same, just with an expanded library of professional and academic titles (and a higher price).

And it doesn’t stop there. Take ebooks.SesameStreet.org, which is Sesame Workshop’s subscription e-book service for children’s books; or 24Symbols, launched last year and hailed as the Spotify for e-books; or, say, the Kindle Owners’ Online Lending Library. They’re all services where users pay a flat fee for access to a collection of digital content.

What’s new here is that the time for this idea may have finally come.

“It took a while for people to grasp this marketplace,” said Paige Mazzoni, vice president of marketing at the 10-year-old Safari Books. “As e-books have risen, it’s also given rise to the subscription marketplace.”

As people have become socialized to the idea of e-books, they’re ready to adopt new and creative ways of buying them. But it even goes beyond that, according Mazzoni. She said that the subscription marketplace has grown in the past few years because there is so much information out there and people want it curated for them. Safari offers what it calls a “vetted” library; the company’s vice president of content reviews and approves the selections.

In each of the past two years, Creative Edge has doubled the number of users who have access to its 4,000 to 5,000 pieces of content for $19.99 a month — and they now number in the thousands. Meanwhile, Safari Books has 47,000 individual subscribers paying between $24.99 and $42.99 for access to its 21,000 titles (which include the books from the Creative Edge collection), and about 15 million who have access to the site through corporate and academic subscriptions.

F+W plans on expanding the idea to other vertical markets, including writing, firearms and romance fiction. It’s not the only company thinking along these lines.

“We have thought of doing something like that and we’re looking at enhanced Web-store functionality to accommodate that possibility,” said Raelene Gorlinsky, publisher of erotic romance e-book house Ellora’s Cave Publishing.

What Gorlinsky’s readers seem to want, however, is different yet in form than the subscription services out on the market today.

“Customers do occasionally inquire about being able to set up to automatically receive new releases from specific authors, or by genre,” she said. Sounds like more of a book-of-the-month club.

The world of e-books is still completely new by almost any standard, and those innovating are all setting off in different directions together.

For instance, Safari is outsourcing its subscription platform technology to other publishers so they can create their own subscription services – more like a software business than a bookseller. (F+W and Sesame Workshop both use Impelsys’s iPublishCentral technology to do the job. Impelsys is an e-book technology vendor.)

And F+W, while currently making available around 100 of its own titles to subscribers, will be exploring offering other publishers’ titles, too, similar to Safari’s Creative Edge. F+W has a property called Artists Network TV, a subscription service for instructional art video content, that licenses outside content and pays a royalty for usage. In terms of getting creative on selling content, there is no limit in sight.

“I could see doing a few things long-term,” said Chad Phelps, chief digital officer at F+W Media. “Bringing on other publishers’ content, bringing on video content, bringing on PDF content or digital shorts. The beauty of the platform is that we’re not limited by device and not limited by format.”

That last bit may be the key for F+W and others who are engaging with this model: A subscription service with an independent reading platform (in F+W’s case, it’s browser-based) allows publishers to control the content. F+W’s art community has a lot of illustrated content and the subscription platform allows it to be presented in a fixed format that doesn’t differ between device – to present it as it was originally intended to be seen, regardless of where it’s being viewed.

That could be a big deal for publishers that want to digitize and sell their illustrated content but are wary of the production costs of producing it for every device and screen size – not to mention e-reading platform.

“Today, e-books are pretty much tied to devices,” said Phelps. “Basically, if you buy a Kindle, you’re going to buy Kindle e-books. We’re trying to create a product that keeps it device-agnostic. A user doesn’t have to worry about DRM [digital rights management], time limitations, lending limitations, but still gets the e-book experience along with a reader that allows them to do bookmarking and highlighting.”

Write to Jeremy Greenfield

Related: As E-Book Library Lending Rises, Publishers Grapple With Change

Editor’s note: I hope it’s abundantly clear that I’m an employee of F+W Media. I wanted to write this piece because I thought the company’s announcement yesterday was interesting and I wanted to muse on it. My feeling is that just because it’s my company that comes out with something, I shouldn’t have to ignore it if it’s interesting – even though there are obvious possible conflicts of interest. I hope this disclosure helps put worries about that to rest. The leadership at F+W has repeatedly told me that I have free reign in covering the book space in a way I feel is appropriate and that I should only worry about serving the audience and my conscience as a journalist when determining coverage. Also, I want to tell you that for this post I did not interview 24Symbols, Sesame Workshop or Amazon. 

Digital library image via Shutterstock

Jeremy Greenfield

About Jeremy Greenfield

Jeremy Greenfield is the editorial director of Digital Book World. Opinions presented here are his own. Read more of his work here.

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