I sometimes feel like I’m the only guy in town (NYC, but I’d include London too) contemplating out loud how Penguin Random House might use its position as by far the biggest commercial trade publisher to make life a bit more difficult for its competitors, which in the first instance means the Following Four: HarperCollins (which is much bigger than the other three), Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan.
What I mean, of course, is that PRH could use its position to either improve its margins in relation to everybody else or to create proprietary distribution. Either way, it would expand its ability to make money on books, fueling further its ability to outbid rivals for attractive properties. That’s why, when I looked at the Amazon agreement with Hachette and Simon & Schuster and the story of those negotiations, I thought first about whether they would tempt PRH to push for a better deal with Amazon than its rivals got.
The two most “obvious” opportunities for them to me, one of which appears to be anything but obvious to the people running PRH, are to build PRH-only general bookstores inside other retailers using VMI (vendor-managed inventory) and to start a PRH-only subscription service. They’ve never commented so I could hear it on my suggestion of the former; they continue to make it abundantly clear that they don’t share my opinion about the latter.
A NY-based executive of PRH told me a year ago that I had the subscription thing all wrong. From PRH’s perspective, it is unwise to offer a service and pricing plan that seems designed to give substantial discounts to your very best customers: those who buy and read many books. This is not a crazy perspective. If PRH sells about half the commercial books, then, on average, they get half the sales from these heavy book readers. Why would they want to help them reduce their book spending?
Last week, Tom Weldon, the CEO of PRH in the UK, issued an emphatic dismissal of the subscription idea. Weldon was speaking with Bookseller editor Philip Jones at the British digital publishing event, Futurebook. And The Bookseller reported it.
Weldon said: “We have two problems with subscription. We are not convinced it is what readers want. ‘Eat everything you can’ isn’t a reader’s mindset. In music or film you might want 10,000 songs or films, but I don’t think you want 10,000 books.”
Weldon also said the company did not “understand the business model”, and who made money. But he acknowledged that subscription could work “in certain markets around the world in emerging economies where access to books and bookshops is extremely limited”.
Nobody has more respect for the intellect and professionalism throughout Penguin Random House than I do, and that certainly includes Tom Weldon, whom I had the opportunity to meet once over a business lunch. But in this case, and assuming (as I do) that Weldon is speaking for his colleagues as well as himself, they seem just about 100 percent wrong. (And, of course, it is obvious that there are people in the home office at Bertelsmann who also don’t agree with him, since they power the German ebook subscription service, Skoobe.)
Weldon is absolutely right that the consumer case for a reading subscription is not as powerful as it is for subscriptions to music or video. Particularly when comparing with music, the point that having access to many thousands of choices all the time is not nearly as valuable for books is totally correct.
But making the leap from that that “it is not what readers want” is a totally unproductive generalization. SOME readers want it, and Oyster, Scribd, and Amazon (as well as 24Symbols, Bookmate, and others) are signing them up. The Oyster and Scribd subscribers will have HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster books to choose from but none from PRH. It won’t take a data scientist to prove that PRH will lose market share among those readers to competitors.
Perhaps Oyster and Scribd will fail. Is PRH essentially predicting that? Is PRH counting on that? Are they assuming that’s what will happen? It would certainly seem from the combination of their non-participation and Weldon’s remarks that they are. (Of course, it is also possible that Harper and S&S also think the subscription services will fail, but they don’t mind getting some revenue for themselves and their authors in the meantime.)
But it is the second objection that is most mystifying. Weldon is saying he doesn’t get the business model, which reinforces the idea that he doesn’t believe in it and expects the big subscription services to fail. But that is not an explanation for why Random House wouldn’t do this themselves. By definition, if a publisher starts a subscription offering for its own books, it is not the same business model as a third party offering it. There is one fewer entity feeding at the same trough. Oyster has to make enough money for themselves and for the publishers and authors whose works they peddle. Random House would only have to make sure their authors were whole, or maybe a little better than whole, and they could keep the rest.
Cutting out the intermediary supply chain, there’s a lot of vig in there for PRH to be able to give consumers a reason to subscribe to a service that provides only PRH books without costing authors a penny.
The joker in the deck, of course, which Oyster and Scribd would only be too glad to point out, is the customer acquisition cost. But even if PRH didn’t want to recruit subscribers for such a service by promoting it on the books themselves — certainly the most efficient and direct way to reach their customers — out of concern for how it would be received by the retailers selling their books, it has all sorts of ways to get the word out about what should be a bargain for many of their readers. Penguin Random House has been building its database for direct customer contact for years. It can reach literally millions of readers virtually free, and in many cases would know the names of their favorite authors which is nice ammo for the subject line of an email to get it opened and read. And it also has millions of page views through author sites, both those PRH controls and those where an author could be recruited to help.
And unlike the other services. PRH wouldn’t have to maintain a whole apparatus to make deals to bring in the content; they’re already doing that! Presuming they could make the right white label deal to manage the subscription service, they wouldn’t really have a “critical mass” issue either. And instead of being on the outside looking in as the extant subscription services sign up readers they could only get access to by putting their books into somebody else’s proprietary platform, they’d be building their own unique distribution that nobody else would have.
And, frankly, a service offering all of Penguin Random House’s books, whether they put in the new ones or not, would deliver a selection at least comparable and perhaps superior to any existing subscription service.
Why they’d simply dismiss this idea is very hard to understand.
Reading tea leaves, I have gotten the impression that PRH is preparing a licensing program to make its content available for use in schools, another very disruptive thing they could do by themselves that could only be effective for their competitors in combination with each other somehow. Maybe my tea leaf reading is wrong; we’ll see if that comes down the pike in the coming months or not. Of course, this kind of subscription licensing is completely different, and they could well believe that the customers do want this and that the business model makes sense.
It has seemed to me for some time that all of the Big Five houses could peddle a subscription service for kids ebooks that would be a reliable generator of cash flow and customer acquisition as well. Many parents would love to be able to let their young kids take the iPad in hand and “buy” books, as long as they weren’t actually spending any money. The big houses all have extensive juvie publishing programs. Each one could offer a subscription service that would keep many kids amused for months. It could be a “totally cool” 6th (or 5th or 8th) birthday present. While it is true that there are others competing for the kids’ market, any of the Big Five could pull something like this together very inexpensively and, over time, build a customer base that would be both proprietary and lucrative.
With the number of ebook subscription services for consumers proliferating, surely the tech to try this out on a smaller scale is getting cheaper and more accessible. In fact, if Weldon is right, and the subscription business model is wrong, then maybe even Oyster or Scribd will want to build a service provision model into their next pivot. And if they succeed, imitators in many ways will follow.
Subscription is here as a tool to sell ebooks that any publisher totally ignores at its peril. And whether it ultimately becomes a significant channel for general trade ebooks or not, it will be tried in many forms and many ebooks will be moved that way in the years to come.
We have a great panel discussion on subscriptions at Digital Book World, Jan 14-15, 2015. It will be moderated by Ted Hill, who co-authored a BISG study on subscriptions earlier in 2014 that is looking increasingly prescient. Ted will have both Oyster and Scribd on the panel along with two publishers providing them with books, Simon & Schuster and Kensington. Kensington, being a non-agency publisher with no choice in the matter, is also a provider to Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. The discussion will be prefaced by a quick presentation from Nielsen’s Jonathan Stolper around what Bookscan has learned about the reading patterns in subscription services. This should be a very informative discussion.