Ebook Subscription Platforms: Look to Youth

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

There are several important roadblocks that purveyors of an ebook subscription platform need to overcome to make a commercially viable product:

1. Rights and licensing issues: Publishers, authors and agents all need to get in lockstep and it needs to happen on an early book-by-book basis. This is complex and potentially a non-starter for certain parties.

2. Pricing and costs: How will the authors, agents and publishers be compensated and how much will users pay? Spotify has reportedly had problems with its model (roughly $10 a month for all-you-can-eat…not enough income for the service or for the artists, who are paid per play).

3. Reader expectations: If I were to pay some non-trivial amount of money per month for a digital service (let’s say more than $5 a month), I’d want that service to be good. And for it to be good, it needs to have a complete or near-complete catalog.

(Read more about ebook subscription models: Is there a Pearl Inside the Recently Launched Oyster? Challenges and Strategies for E-Book Subscription Services)

In my estimation, there’s one important factor, however, that could put some real urgency behind solving these problems to all parties’ satisfaction: The kids.

Essentially, what do the kids want? If enough young people are interested in adopting some sort of “Spotify for ebooks,” the relevant parties will make it happen (more than it already is, of course — with Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library).

This idea struck me after reading a post on The Digital Reader about Nuvem de Livros, a subscription ebook service that claims to now have a million subscribers. More from The Digital Reader:

The reason for their success? Students.


Nuvem de Livros was launched to offer students access to content that Brazil’s limited school libraries couldn’t provide. Terra Brasil reports that this platform was developed in partnership with the Brazilian telecom Vivo, and that it has a goal of supporting the 15 million Brazilian students who only have a limited access to a library, as well as the 3 million college students taking distance learning courses.


Students pay a discounted subscription of 2 Brazilian reais per month (under $1), while regular subscribers pay 6 reais per month. They can read ebooks from a 10 thousand title catalog in their web browser or in apps for iPad, Android, and iPhone.

Price point may be a big factor here, but I can see it also being a matter of youth adoption. It’s that demographic that helped build Facebook into a billion-user monster, shift some of the social networking focus to Twitter and turn Instagram into a billion-dollar acquisition.

If a service like Oyster or 24symbols can capture that audience and get the readers of the future to embrace the idea of all-you-can-eat as a model for book consumption, that would be a legitimate base on which to build and an outlet that would be hard for publishers, authors and agents to ignore.

When it comes to Oyster in particular, the start-up’s stated focus on mobile platforms might give it an advantage. According to relatively new research from Pew, more than half of Americans now own smartphones and youth are leading the charge. According to another, more recent Pew study, nearly two-thirds of teens have downloaded apps to their phones and they’re starting to think about their relationships with the content providers more strategically (especially when it comes to privacy).

CourseSmart, an educational services platform, might also have an inside track: It recently launched a subscription service for e-textbooks. At $200 a year, it’s a lot pricier than Nuvem de Libros but a lot less expensive than going out and buying the equivalent in print textbooks. Should the initiative gain traction, we might see some more movement on the consumer side of this business.



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