Publishers Must Offer Services, Not Just Books, to Make Subscriptions Work

For subscription ebook models to work, publishers must provide services to customers, not just content, according to panelists speaking this afternoon at the third day of Digital Book World 2014 in New York.

“I don’t think our role is creating books anymore,” said Chantal Restivo-Alessi, chief digital officer at HarperCollins.

Deborah Forte, executive vice president of Scholastic, agreed. “The more curation you have, the more you are a service to your customer.” That in turn creates “more flexibility…in terms of pricing” and subsequently in customer retention.

Because of its experience in children’s publishing, Scholastic may have a leg up on other publishers in the ebook subscription arena. The company already runs book clubs, after looking at data indicating that children read more when they can choose their own books.

“Living off of just one book at a time is not going to be the future of our industry,” Forte said. “It doesn’t satisfy the customer’s need.”

Forte confirmed Scholastic is developing an in-house subscription program, which it intends to launch first through schools in order to gather more information and persuade authors the model is a good value proposition.

Restivo-Alessi, who spoke earlier at Digital Book World about consumer data, said the challenge for publishers is “taking people away from price and showing [them] where value lies. That’s where service” and content curation come in. To do that successfully, publishers must share the data they gather with authors.

For now, HarperCollins restricts deals with subscription platforms to its back-list titles. Each partnership is structured differently based on the platform. Current players include Scribd, Entitle, and Oyster, the last of which announced yesterday it has raised $14 million from investors.

The question for publishers investing in subscription models, according to Forte, is “what services are they providing to your product that match your customer?”


Threat of Cannibalization

What about the risk of subscription models cannibalizing other parts of publishers’ business?

“We can worry far too much about cannibalization,” said Sara Domville, co-president of F+W Media, which owns and operates Digital Book World.

“There are lots of variables that affect cannibalization,” Forte agreed, adding that a similar fear gripped the industry when book-of-the-month clubs were introduced decades ago.

Instead, she advocated relentless experimentation: “Testing, testing, testing.”

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