While ebook subscription services have made significant inroads in recent months, their place in the digital publishing landscape remains an open question. For panelists arguing in a Digital Book World debate today on the services’ impact on publishers, authors and readers, that represents an enormous opportunity.
But for their opponents–and, ultimately, for a significant portion of listeners who heard both sides’ arguments–it’s sufficient cause for concern.
A poll conducted at the opening of Digital Book World’s first-ever, free-to-attend debate indicated the majority (53%) of attendees agreed with the statement that “the success of ebook subscription services will be good for publishers, authors and readers,” with 7% disagreeing and 40% undecided.
But it was the opposing team, consisting of Gareth Cuddy, CEO of ePubDirect, and Jonathan Blum, a journalist for The Street, who swayed the greater share of minds. At the end of a spirited, hour-long discussion, 60% of the audience sided with Smashwords founder Mark Coker and Scribd’s vice president of content acquisition Andrew Weinstein, who together argued in support of the proposition. Cuddy and Blum, however, managed to scoop up more skeptics, with 18% siding with their point of view and 23% left undecided.
The persistence of unpersuaded publishers, authors and industry-watchers despite widespread optimism in the future of ebook subscription services reflects the work new players like Scribd, Oyster and others still have to do to prove their viability.
Publishers are steadily deepening their involvement. HarperCollins, for much of the past year the only Big Five publisher to craft agreements with ebook subscription services, recently signed on with children’s subscription provider Epic! Simon & Schuster got into the game last month, announcing back-list distribution deals with Oyster and Scribd. Macmillan, too, is testing the waters, albeit overseas, by placing 1,500 of its titles on the German ebook subscription service Skoobe.
A key benefit for authors and publishers working with ebook subscription services is the opportunity they claim to offer to expand the e-reading market through new distribution channels, discoverability and the appeal of a frictionless reading experience. “Reader preferences for different consumption models are as diverse as readers themselves,” Coker said. Failing to offer them, he argued, means losing those readers to other forms of media.
Blum questioned the financial model that seeks to do that. “We need to be careful about how every dollar gets split,” he cautioned. He drew a comparison to similar services in the music industry like Spotify, whose margins have shrunk the bigger it’s grown. According to Blum, “driving consumption does not drive the bottom line.”
“We don’t think there’s going to be a seismic shift,” Weinstein countered, emphasizing that the subscription model is not meant to replace traditional retail. But as revenues decline, he said, ebook subscription services are instrumental in expanding the market, and that’s good for all stakeholders. Cuddy said he’d yet to see evidence of that expansion, but Coker argued it’s a mistake to fixate on the unknown and lose sight of the inroads the services are making with publishers and readers alike.
That’s where the greater share of listeners chose to fixate at the end of the hour, though. It seems there are plenty willing to cheer ebook subscription services’ recent strides. But one measure of their long-term success will be how well they manage to win over skeptics.