What Oyster going down demonstrates is not mostly about the viability of ebook subscriptions
The news that the general ebook subscription offering Oyster is throwing in the towel was not really a surprise. The business model they were forced to adopt for the biggest publishers — paying full price for each use of a book with a threshold trigger at considerably less than a complete read while, at the same time, offering consumers a monthly subscription price that barely covered the sale of one book, let alone two — was inevitably unprofitable. Their only hope was that they’d build a large enough audience fast enough that publishers would become in some way dependent on it (if not the revenue it produced) and agree to different terms.
It would be a mistake to interpret Oyster’s demise as clear evidence that “subscriptions for ebooks don’t work”. Obviously, they can. Safari has been a successful and profitable business for nearly two decades. The Spain-based 24Symbols has been operating an ebook subscription business, mostly outside the US and mostly not in English, for too many years to be running exclusively on spec VC money. Scribd has very publicly (and a bit clumsily, in my opinion) adjusted their subscription business model to accommodate what were unprofitable segments in romance ebooks and audiobooks, but the inference would be that for other segments the business model is working just fine. And then there’s Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, which is sui generis because they control so many of the parts, including deciding more or less unilaterally how much they’ll pay for much of the content.
What seemed obvious to many of us from the beginning, though, was that a stand-alone subscription offer for general trade books could not possibly work in the current commercial environment. The Big Five publishers control the lion’s share of the commercial books that any general service would need. All of those publishers operate on “agency” terms, which makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a subscription service to pull those books in unless the publisher allows it. The terms that the publishers would participate in the subscriptions required, which were, apparently, full payment for the book after a token amount was “read” by a subscriber, combined with a limited number of titles offered (no frontlist), made the subscription offer inherently unprofitable.
The publishers see the general subscription offers as risky business for books that are currently selling well a la carte. Not only would they threaten those sales, they threaten to convert readers from a la carte buying to going through the subscription service. To publishers, this just looked like another potential Amazon: an intermediary that would control reader eyeballs and have increasing clout to rewrite the terms of sale.
So they only participated in a limited way. Penguin Random House (the biggest, and in shouting distance of half of the most commercial books all by themselves) and Hachette Book Group did not even experiment with the non-Amazon subscriptions. HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, and to a lesser extent Macmillan, participate in a limited way. Multiple motivations drove the participation that did take place. The primary goad, probably, was to simply oppose Amazon. Having customers nested anyplace except the behemoth in Seattle can look like a good idea to most publishers. But another was to collect at least some of that VC money poured into an unlikely-to-work business model before it was exhausted. And because the publishers got to decide which books to include, they could choose backlist titles that weren’t generating much revenue anyway and which might benefit from “discovery” within the subscription service.
(Carolyn Reidy, the CEO at Simon & Schuster, tipped to this in her talk last week at the BISG Annual Meeting where she specifically mentioned the value of the discovery S&S has seen take place in the subscription platforms.)
But not all the subscription services were equal. The established Safari was in a market niche, serving mostly B2B customers in technology companies. (They have recently gone to an expanded offering because Boeing and Microsoft techies don’t just need books about programming; they’re also parents and cooks and gardeners so general-interest non-fiction can appeal to them. But that’s not the foundation of Safari’s business and they’re not trying to push fiction.) Scribd had a foundation business as a sort-of “YouTube for documents” that the ebook subscription business both built on and enhanced. For Amazon, Kindle Unlimited just gave them another way to transact with the ebook customer and it gave them another outlet for their exclusive Kindle content.
Only Oyster and another pretty-much simultaneous startup, Entitle (which had a proposition more like a book club than a straight subscription service), were trying to make the alternative ebook revenue stream into a stand-alone business. Entitle went down before Oyster. Librify, another variation on the theme, was acquired by Scribd.
So the failure of Oyster is actually another demonstration of a “new” reality about book publishing, except it is not so new. Book publishing — and book retailing — are no longer stand-alone businesses. Publishing and bookselling are functions, and they can be quite complementary to other businesses. And as adjuncts to other businesses, they don’t actually have to be profitable to be valuable. What that means is that entities trying to make them profitable — or, worse, requiring them to be profitable to survive — are at a stark competitive disadvantage.
Amazon is the past master at making this reality obvious. Remember that they started as a “book retailer” and nothing else. They leaned on Ingram’s Oregon warehouse to enable their business model, which was to take an order for a book and accept payment, then procure the book from Ingram and send it to the customer, and then a little later pay Ingram’s bill. This positive cash-flow model was so brilliant that Ingram could have readily enabled lots of copycats, and they formed a division called Ingram Internet Support Services to do just that. So Amazon killed that idea by cutting their prices to no-margin levels and discouraged anybody else from getting into the game. That was in the late 1990s.
They could do that because the financial community had already accepted Amazon’s strategy of using books to build a customer base and to measure future business prospects by LCV — the “lifetime customer value” of the people they did business with. And it became clear pretty rapidly that they could sell book readers other things so no- or low-margin sales were simply customer acquisition tactics. This was a game Barnes & Noble and Borders couldn’t play.
Now book and ebook sales are almost certainly no more than a single-digit percentage of Amazon’s total revenue. Kindle Unlimited, like their publishing enterprises and self-publishing offerings, are small parts of a powerful organization that has many ways to win with every customer they recruit.
Scribd is not as powerful as Amazon, but they began with a network of content creators and content consumers. That gave them a marketing advantage over Oyster — not every customer had to be acquired at high cost since many potential customers were already “in the tent”. But it also gave them some stability. Eyebrows were raised recently when Scribd put the brakes on the lending of romance books and audiobooks. But tweaking the business model for those verticals simultaneously leaves open that the model is actually working in other niches.
We can see this playing out in a much more limited way in Barnes & Noble stores, where books are being replaced on shelves by toys and games. But that’s not likely to be enough diversification to matter in the long run. It is certainly not going to get B&N where Amazon is, where far more than nine out of every ten dollars comes from something other than books. And Barnes & Noble is nowhere near a point Amazon has reached: where the profit from book sales is incidental if they keep bringing in new customers and also keeps them loyal.
The story on Oyster, still incomplete as of now, is that a lot of their management team is on its way to Google, which, in effect, “bought” the company to get them. Google seems to be trying hard to make sure we don’t think they bought Oyster’s business, they just bought Oyster’s staff. Obviously, Google fits the description of a company with many other interests in which books can play a part. In the beginning, that was all about search. Now it is also about the Android ecosystem and media sales in general. An ebook subscription business, or even a content subscription business, could make sense in Google’s world. But it would be a relatively small play for them. My hunch, and it is only a hunch, is that they have something other than a mere “book subscription service” in mind for that Oyster staff to work on. Smarter observers than I seem to believe that the personnel Google recruited give them knowledge about Oyster’s mobile reading and discovery technology. Of course, that’s core information for Google.
Similarly, Apple, which now has subscription service for music, might also consider doing one for books — or for all media — at iOS at some point. They don’t have one of Amazon’s advantages — a big stable of intellectual property they control — but they are all about creating an ecosystem that people stay in and don’t leave. Book subscriptions could enhance that.
But the central point I’d take away from this is not that subscription failed, but that a pure book business play failed. One obvious question that provokes is when we will see some signs of synergy between Kobo and their owners at Rakuten, who presumably have Amazon-type ambitions but haven’t seemed to use their ebook business to help pursue them.
And what is true of book retail is also true of book publishing, as we observed in this space quite some time ago. Both publishing and book retailing will increasingly become complements to larger enterprises and decreasingly be stand-alone activities that business can dedicate themselves to for profit.
The New York Times this morning has a front-page article essentially reporting that the ebook surge is over, at least for now, and the print business appears stable. This is great news for publishers if the trend is real. Unfortunately, there were a few important points either elided or ignored that might have undercut the narrative.
One is that, while publishers report ebook sales as a percentage of total book sales steady or slightly declining, Amazon says (and Russell Grandinetti was quoted in the article) their ebook sales are going up. Assuming all this is true, is the difference perhaps sales migrating away from publishers (which sales would be reported by the AAP stats they rely on) and moving to cheaper indie titles available only through Amazon (which sales would not)?
Another is that publishers are raising prices on ebooks and making the price rises stick because of Agency. Is all the sales resistance created by higher prices resulting in print sales, or is some of it causing the book to be rejected for something cheaper? In other words, might total sales for many titles be less than publishers would have looked for before? (At least one agent tells me this is the case.)
And another is that the indie bookstore resurgence has occurred in the years following Borders’s demise and the shifting of the product mix in Barnes & Noble. It is worth asking whether the indies are temporary beneficiaries of a sudden shelf space deficiency or whether we’re really seeing not only an increase in print reading, but a renewed interest by book readers to go to stores to buy the print. That question isn’t posed in this piece.