Monday, July 06, 2015

Subscription Ebook Services

I recently posted about the new changes to Kindle Unlimited, and in the comments someone said:

Several times you state as a fact that readers want a subscription service. I'm a reader. I'm a heavy reader as a matter of fact. I couldn't possibly be less interested in a subscription service. You might want to gone down the blanket statements.

This argument reminds me of one I heard five and a half years ago, which prompted two blog posts from me.

People have an emotional attachment to printed books. So much so, that the most repeated argument against the universal adoption of ebooks is "I love print, and no ebook will ever be able to take its place."

My response then is also appropriate for this current comment. I blogged in two parts. The first part basically stated that a book isn't words on a paper page. A book is the movie playing in the reader's head. 

The second part stated thatPeople want inexpensive media at the press of a button. Books will follow the same model as movies, music, video games, and TV.

Wanting things is part of human nature. And things we want don't get on our want list until after we've experienced them. I didn't know I wanted ebooks until Amazon invented the Kindle and made it a viable reading alternative to paper books. Instant delivery, wider selection, and lower prices lured me to their platform and proprietary format.

But I'm an early adopter. I like technology, and I try to keep up on what's newest and coolest. I'm one end of the Bell Curve.

At the other end are late adopters. They resist new tech for a myriad of reasons. Maybe they like the old tech. Maybe they're uncomfortable with new things. Maybe they're uninformed, or stubborn, or content. There are still some people who refuse to read ebooks.

But as tech marches forward, as it gets better and cheaper, paper will have less and less of a consumer footprint. If you want to keep reading, especially new and harder to find material, you're going to have to eventually read it on some sort of electronic screen.

I see going from paying for ebooks, to renting them, a smaller but similar jump.

Subscription services have been around for as long as print has been around. Newspapers. Magazines. Book clubs. Comics. People paid a monthly fee, and got their media delivered.

I was a member of the Columbia Record Club for years. They had a much larger selection than any of my local record shops, and their prices were reasonable. I had multiple accounts to take advantage of their introductory offer of 11 albums for just a penny.

My family was late to the cable TV phenomenon. We were happy renting RCA Selectavision CED movies, and saw no need for pay TV. I also had a Tandy 1000 computer when I was a kid, but didn't understand the need for a modem to join Prodigy or Compuserve. Pay monthly for access to stuff? Nah... I'll just pay for stuff as I need it.

Naturally, I eventually got cable and Internet, and they've become so omnipresent that I consider them utilities, like electric and water.

We got our first cell phone in 1996. It was for emergencies only. In 2015, many people no longer have land lines because cells are so omnipresent.

Netflix, and pay-per-view cable, and the Internet, have changed viewing habits nationwide. Back when I was growing up, you watched whatever was on TV. Now, you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want. And in many cases, you rent the media, rather than own it. The terms "cloud" and "streaming" and "binge watching" are 21st century terms coined to describe the new ways we're consuming media.

When I say that readers want subscription services, I'm not making a prediction, or a blanket statement. Many consumers want these services, and we have ample evidence they do.

Remember what makes consumers adopt new tech. In no particular order:

1. Cost.
2. Simplicity.
3. Selection.
4. Service.

At this point in history, Amazon is the retailer with the hightest level of consumer satisfaction.  Good, fast service, easy as pie, with the lowest prices.

They've been #1 for nine years.

Readers are a type of consumer that seek out a type of media; books.

Keeping all of this in mind, at what point does Amazon Prime become a utility?

The reason I got cable, and Internet, and a cell phone, and a Kindle, is because they became things that I wanted. Cable got better, competitors made it cheaper, the selection got wider (service still sucks). The Internet got cheaper and bigger and more advanced. Ditto cell phones. Remember paying for texts? I was late to texting, and had cell phones for over a decade before I began to text. Because texting got easier with smart phones (no more pressing 2 three times to get the letter C) and became part of the package so there weren't extra fees.

The tech and I converged.

I'm not alone. Tech starts out clunky and limited and expensive, and gets bigger and better and cheaper and we eventually wonder how we ever lived without it.

Ebooks will never replace paper books. But paper books will become niche.

Subscription ebook services will never replace ebook sales. But ebook sales will become niche.

There is no need to pay to own something when you can get unlimited access to it--and ten million other titles--24/7 for a small monthly fee. If you read more than a few books a month, subscription services will give you the most bang for your buck.

In 2011, Spotify (a streaming music subscription service) had 1 million paying users. In 2015, it has 20 million. Why so much growth, so fast? Especially when it is competing for listener dollars against trillion dollar behemoths Apple and Walmart?

Apple and Walmart sell music. Spotify rents music.

More and more consumers are embracing rentals for digital media.

Now, I don't subscribe to Spotify. I was willing to give up CDs for mp3s, but I've been buying music on iTunes for the last ten years. I've got wifi speakers throughout my house that sync with my family's iPhones and iPads, and I'm very happy with owning my music library.

I didn't think I could possibly be less interested in a subscription music service. My audio needs are met.

Or so I thought.

This recent family vacation, I didn't take my iTunes library with me (Apple offers syncing with the iCloud, but that costs extra).

However, Amazon Prime--Amazon's subscription service--offers streaming music to members.

We could listen to a lot of the music I already owned, and Amazon's clever algorithms also suggested some new music that my family might like. Which we did. And which I don't need to buy, because there it is, in the cloud, in a service I already pay for.

Readers do want ebook subscription services. They just may not know it yet. And just because you haven't adopted them yet, doesn't mean you won't in 2025, when I predict most books will be part of subscriptions, the same way most movies and TV shows and music wind up on cable and Netflix and Prime and Spotify.

Ebook subscriptions are the present, and the future.