Are E-book Subscriptions the Future?

Are E-book subscriptions the future?Netflix. Spotify. iTunes. Microsoft Office 365. Graze. Sock Panda. Yes, you can now subscribe to socks. The question is, are E-book subscriptions the Future?

E-book subscription services are spreading fast. Like movie and music streaming services, most offer ‘unlimited’ access to e-books for a monthly fee. Still buying individual e-books? All the major book retailers would prefer you to pay that subscription month after month.

E-book subscription services have been around for a while. For avid readers, they can be extremely cost effective and, unlike physical books, E-books don’t take up shelf space in your house. For occasional readers or those who prefer the tactile heft of paper, they may be not so attractive.

Are subscriptions worthwhile?

The occasional reader might not justify the recurring monthly fee. The reader of niche or obscure genres may not find enough titles available. Those with old, niche or proprietary e-reader devices may not be able to access all services technically or geographically, or certain E-book formats.

The three key questions any reader needs to consider are:
1. How many books do you read per month?
2. Which genres do you read?
3. Which E-book readers do you use?

If the answers are sufficiently broad and/or mainstream, then an E-book subscription may be a far better option than buying individual titles.

Current Subscription Services

Scribd may be well be the granddaddy of subscription book services. Originally a service for publishing academic papers, it started selling E-books in 2009. Its subscription service launched in 2013, providing access to Scribd’s entire library for a monthly fee; that’s magazines, newspapers and audio-books, not forgetting Scribd’s massive collection of user-submitted books and academic papers.

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited offers a massive selection of E-books, free unlimited audio-books with Audible narration, plus a spread of popular magazines. But, as it is owned by Amazon, the ‘Big Five’ publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Harper Collins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster) all declined to participate, so a huge chunk of traditional publishing product isn’t available. This seriously undermines Kindle Unlimited’s attempt to be the dominant E-book subscription service.

Bookmate is a combination of mobile reading app and accompanying eBook-reading subscription. Launched in 2010, Bookmate is strong in certain territories such as Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Lately expanding to Scandinavia, Singapore, Indonesia, and parts of Latin America, it has yet to penetrate Western Europe, the US and UK to any degree. Bookmate mixes E-book subscriptions and social media – follow friends, share feeds and bookshelves, upload your own E-pubs and FB2 e-books.

While Kobo Plus is only available in a select few countries – Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canada – Walmart has signed on as a partner to break into the US and possibly European markets. On the back of the Kobo E-reader and Walmart’s marketing reach, Kobo Plus could challenge for the number one position in subscription services.

Yet More

While all these services include some comics and graphic novels, ComiXology has grown significantly since Amazon bought it in 2014. ComiXology Unlimited provides access to thousands of comics from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, and more. Marvel fans might be more attracted to Marvel Unlimited, however.

With subscription fees running between $6 and $10 per month, potential readers have to consider the breadth of the library for each service. This is easy with those offering a 30-day free trial, but that excludes Bookmate and 24symbols, where a lot of the content is in local languages.

Scribd is by far the most open platform, an affordable service with a wide selection of e-books, available worldwide and largely unrestricted. Importantly, it includes content from those Big Five publishers.

Bookmate and Kindle Unlimited offer solid e-book subscription services, priced the same but with regional restrictions. 24symbols is on their heels with a big push into new territories. All of them could be overtaken by Kobo Plus if parent Rakuten and Walmart can market it right. Apple has yet to attempt anything similar through iBooks, but if (when?) it does, Apple is likely to make a compelling offer backed by its presence and marketing clout.


Consider: even though Spotify continues to post an annual loss, it continues to grow and its customer base is huge. Spotify and iTunes dominate the music market with their subscription services. The potential of the E-book subscription model is not lost on Amazon, the world’s biggest book retailer, or on Walmart, the world’s biggest brick-and-mortar retailer, second only to Amazon online.

If they can persuade even a proportion of North American readers to move to subscriptions, there’s a good chance the rest of the world will follow. Why market individual titles to readers in the hope that something in the algorithm will convert to sales? Why not throw the doors wide open for a modest, recurring fee than? As magazines, gyms and streaming services have proven, subscriptions are much more easily taken than cancelled.

The downside? Subscriptions for books threaten to flatten the incomes of publishers and authors. It reflects the way that plays on Spotify and iTunes are worth pennies per thousand. If books go the way of songs, the corporate giants will be the only ones making any money off the back of everyone else’s creative efforts.

Are E-book subscriptions the future?

Image credit: EBook between paper books by Maximilian Schönherr, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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