The ‘S Word’: Ebook Subscription Buzz at DBW 2014

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It is fascinating how one can be a relative newbie in the publishing industry, where relations are core to the business development, and at the same time a “granddaddy” of the ebook subscription business, as Mike Shatzkin expressed about my start-up 24symbols a few weeks ago. While definitely feeling quite young yet, I have seen considerable changes around the acceptance of alternative business models that might impact the revenue and, more important to me, the growth of reading in digital devices against other entertainment and cultural alternatives.

Along with other 1,500 friends, I just attended Digital Book World 2014, and participated in a panel with fellow ebook subscription providers Scribd, Oyster and Entitle. These services, as such, did not exist one year ago, which tells a lot about how the trend is becoming an opportunity.

Related: Forceful Presentations From Ebook Subscription Services, But Questions Remain

When my partners and I built 24symbols, what we thought of as the “Spotify for Books” (properly translated to “Netflix for Books” when we traveled to the U.S.), we were trying to make not only an impact but also a statement: People are starting to request ways to consume digital assets in new ways, and that request is reaching the ebook publishing industry. The fact that three years later the most important conference in the U.S. was abuzz by what was being called “The S word” (yes, “subscription” was a dirty among some attendees and speakers) means two things to me.

First is that everything meaningful in life takes time; there are many opposing forces and this is the reason why start-ups exist, since in many cases fighting those forces internally is like trying to run while tying your shoe laces: Nothing happens, except that you get tired.

Secondly, that everything comes down to details. The questions asked during the #DBW14 panel were not different at all from the ones asked to me in the past three years: relationship with publishers, sharing of reading behavior with them, user base growth, internationalization strategies, devices and app features, potential cannibalization, etc. The difference is the context. A context where some big publishers, along with many small and midsize ones, are already working with start-ups in different business models. A context where some venture capitalists and industrial partners are investing their money on services like ours. Of course, a context where not everyone believes in what these services are offering, but where the reasoning that happens among those discussions is more mature, more data-driven, and focused on finding solutions. Based on the outcome of the different panels on the subscription model during the conference and some personal meetings, industry insiders are starting to wonder not whether these services are viable or not, but whether they can help solve some of the book industry’s problems.

I have had the unique honor of observing and playing a main role at how subscription-related business models have evolved during the past four years, how successful services are operating in places like Germany, Brazil, Spain or Russia. There are still many unknowns, and for sure new players and evolutions of the business models will appear and leave. But I could not help but smile every time “the S word” was pronounced during almost every single panel, workshop and presentation at the most business-oriented conference on publishing one can attend.

Related: Don’t miss the buzz at next year’s Digital Book World. Register today to get the lowest possible price!

Justo Hidalgo

About Justo Hidalgo

Justo Hidalgo is co-founder of 24symbols, a subscription service for ebooks. He teaches Product Strategy and Innovation at post-graduate and executive level in Madrid, Spain, and is a mentor for startups. Prior to 24symbols, Justo was VP Product Management and Consulting at Denodo Technologies, leading worldwide presales and product management. He holds a Ph.D., and an M.S. in Computer Science, and has received training in Product Management, Product Marketing, Innovation and Creativity. He can be reached via twitter at @justohidalgo.

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