Reinventing The Book Club

Subscription Services

Subscription Services

There are interesting things going on in the book world these days around how we deliver and consume books, which is good news for indie authors and publishers. While the number of services has shrunk (Oyster recently closed and a lot of its staff went to work for Google Books), a lot of people make the case that owning “units of content” has become anachronistic when it comes to listening to music and video (a lot of people just subscribe to Netflix or Amazon Prime, or Spotify and Apple Music). So what about books? Mainstream publishers still believe most people buy and own books because it’s the most convenient way to “consume their product,” though they are beginning to explore other ways readers get their books, like subscription services and book clubs.

So this alternative pathfinding by publishers that parallels the music and video worlds has opened up opportunities for indie publishers to explore using subscription services like Kindle Unlimited and Scribd as possible ways to expand their reader base and help readers discover new authors and their books. Unlike music and video, that can be readily consumed in a couple of hours or less, a book is still a commitment of time over days in many cases, and thus owning it is more convenient than feeling like you have a gun to your head in order to consume it before the clock on the “borrow” runs out and you have to spend more money in order to finish the book you have out on loan. (Public Libraries just increase the time at no cost to you if you ask them regardless of whether it is a print or digital version.)

So as ebooks grow and take a larger share of book sales, and print sales become more available through vendors on the web, book publishers are re-assessing their “own-this-content” only model as digital content expands.  But people forget (including some in the publishing industry) that it was the book industry that started the book club idea, where by subscribing to a particular club got you more focused and cheaper versions of books you wanted to read, delivered to your door every month. And that model, while it took a hit because of the growth of mega book stores like Barnes&Noble that once stalked the landscape like dinosaurs but are now fading away, is resurfacing in a new guise in the digital world. And the reason is that book clubs, subscription services, whatever you want to call them, help shrink the overwhelming choices readers face and and as a result help readers and authors find each other like singles hoping to find Mr. or Ms. Could-Be-For-Me.

Authors and publishers, indies in particular, face an uphill battle in finding readers for their books. Everyone is so focused on getting the product done they don’t stop to think enough about distribution — ie., who’s going to read it once it’s done and how are you going to get it to those readers. Some readers come from friends or acquaintances, or clients, and others come from just blatant publicity and marketing about your book. You need to know who the core audience is for your book, and like a pebble entering water, that is the place you need to concentrate on first when publicising and marketing your book. Like the concentric circles that spread ever outward from that pebble entering water, the publicity about your book reaches groups and individuals who are less obviously connected to your core group.

But how we read is evolving. I don’t believe we are abandoning the printed book, at least any time soon in our lifetimes anyway, but the options of digital reading are a terrific way to get your writing in front of diverse readers. One of those options is the emergence of subscription services for reading. A subscription service essentially treats book reading like revamped versions of a book club, which in turn is a variation on a private library, or a service like Netflix.

Once upon a time, it was common for, say, The Doubleday Book Club, or the Military Book Club, to send books directly to a member consumer who has agreed to purchase a certain number of books per year from the club in return for a vastly cheaper and immediately available version of a best selling book, or books, that are often the latest offerings from a publisher.

So the idea of a subscription service model for readers is not completely new or unexpected. We’ve been doing it for years and continue to do it in the digital world with magazines for example through apps like Zinio or Press Reader. The ebook has made this a more affordable way to deliver a book to a reader rather than receiving it in the mail.
Prevailing wisdom is that the successful model of streaming music and videos via an app such as Amazon Prime, Spotify, or Netflix has primed the consumer to become atuned to a subscription model, and so books are slowly falling into line with this style of purchase. It is particularly useful for acquainting readers to a writer’s back list. (That is, titles already published and available as ebooks, print on demand books, or other formats.)

Is a subscription model of book sales good for authors? For all that they help authors — until they suddenly don’t — what is not good for authors is a retail monopoly (e.g. Amazon) or reduced income/revenue streams. The subscription model works to give readers, and publishers, more options. It works this way: The user gets a free trial, then pays perhaps $8.99 or $9.99/month. He or she can then read as many ebooks, comic books, or audio books as they want. You get unlimited access to their entire book libraries for this monthly fee. You can read as many books as you want, for as long as you want, and with each service, you can download books for offline reading. Unlike a traditional library, there are no due dates, so you can hang on to a book for as long as like, just like you would with a Netflix DVD. But, like a library, you do not own the books you read, and if you cancel your subscription, you can no longer access any of the titles you’ve saved. (It’s worth noting that actually, when you “buy” an ebook from Amazon you don’t actually “own” that either if you read the purchase fine print.)

Here are potential services to consider.

Scribd pays the publisher (that would be you, the indie/publisher author in this case) a good rate every time a subscriber reads one of your books past a certain threshold (about the same number of pages as “Look Inside The Book”). Scribd takes a risk that some readers read more than the $8.99 cost, but just like with a gym membership, many don’t read to that cap.

Scribd is similar to Oyster (below), and has a catalog of more than 500,000 books that you can borrow. The app is simply designed, with books organized into genres and curated collections for you to browse. Both services have many of the same books and seem to add the same books at the same time though not entirely. Scribd has audiobooks, many from publisher Penguin Random House, and more than 10,000 comics from Marvel, Archie, Boom! Studios, Dynamite, IDW/Top Shelf and Valiant.

One perk of Scribd is that beyond just e-books, the service also gives you access to thousands of documents, which include court cases, scientific studies, and even self-published books.


Kindle Unlimited costs $9.99 per month, and offers around 600,000 books that you can rent for as long as you want. The book catalog includes many popular and best-selling books, some of which you won’t find in the other services, including the “Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter” series. There are also plenty of classics.

With Kindle Unlimited instead of an app you instead sign up for the service, and then download your choices to your Kindle. (You can also use the Kindle apps for iOS, Android and Windows Phone to find and read books as well.)

You can’t yet download Scribd or Oyster books onto dedicated e-ink readers. The apps only work on tablets.

Lastly, though this is more for those who want to read rather than distribute their works at this point, it’s worth checking out what your local library offers in terms of ebooks and etexts.

Quite a few city libraries carry large catalogs of ebooks, both new releases and older e-books, that you can borrow for free. All you need is a library card. The only downside is that the books you borrow have a limited lending period with an expiration date, and it’s sometimes difficult to renew e-book titles.  What’s more, not every title is available, as part of the license the library signs with a publisher allows for a set number of “copies” of the book to be available for lending just as if the ebook was a print version of itself.

So when it comes to distributing your book and expanding your ebook reading experience, you should start exploring the library and subscription service options as a way of getting the attention of more readers.