The Limits of “Unlimited” Ebook Subscription Services
first published in Simon Fraser University PUB 802 | TECHNOLOGY & EVOLVING FORMS OF PUBLISHING (April 5, 2015)
In the fantasy-comic short story The Choosing of the Bride (Die Brautwahl, 1819), German writer E.T.A. Hoffman tells the bizarre adventures of three suitors competing for the hand of the young and beautiful mistress Albertine Vosswinkel. The first suitor is the amusingly pedantic bureaucrat and obsessive bibliophile “Herr Chancellery Private Secretary” Tusmann; the second, the young and charming painter Edmund Lehsen; the third, the wealthy, greedy and revolting Baron Benjamin. Albertine’s destiny rests on a game of chance that follows the popular fairy-tale pattern of the casket–choice, echoing Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Albertine’s suitors, indeed, must choose among three caskets; the one who picks the casket containing the demoiselle’s portrait will win her hand in marriage. Although the finale can be easily predicted — the winner being her beloved Edmund — the opening of the “wrong” caskets comes with some surprising revelations. Both the Baron and Tusmann will be rewarded with a gift more valuable, to them, than Albertine herself: whereas the first rejoices at the discovery of a magic file that prevents his precious ducats from deteriorating, the second is startled at finding “a little book bound in parchment” with nothing but blank pages inside. As the secretary will learn shortly after, the small “packet of paper” in the casket is not an ordinary book, but is “the richest, completest library anyone has ever possessed,” for every time he takes the volume out of his pocket, this will become whatever title he wishes to read. 
Tusmann’s magic book is the materialization of every bibliophile’s dream. Today, some internet retailers and up-and-coming digital content providers are trying to turn this dream into a reality by offering readers access to thousands of titles online with the alluring promise of the freedom of unlimited reading. But is this exciting prospect of a universal, personal library a pipe dream or an already existing reality that is bound to prosper? In the course of this essay, I will attempt to answer this question by investigating — and ultimately calling into question — the viability of broad-based, subscription services in consumer publishing.
The popularity of Netflix-like subscription services: or a book is not a film (nor a song)
Book subscription models are hardly a novelty, dating back as far as the eighteenth century, when printers used to “solicit customers to ‘subscribe’ to a particularly expensive work or collection of works in advance of publication as a way to reduce risk by prefunding the project.”  Whereas in the late twentieth century, with the advent of digital publishing, the term was associated with the libraries’ and businesses’ subscription to digital journals, collections, and databases, today, the word has come to identify streaming media services that offer instant access to vast collections of content.
The huge success of streaming technologies such as Netflix and Spotify has earned them the reputation of digital content subscription providers par excellence to the point that subscription-based e-book lending libraries such as Oyster, Scribd, and Kindle Unlimited have often been labeled as “Netflix of books,” (or “Spotify of books”). Beyond the allure of the epithet, too often applied without much discrimination to the book market, the comparison calls for a fundamental distinction: the mode of consumption of digital video or audio products and that of eBooks are remarkably different. Compare the average Spotify user with the average Kindle Unlimited reader: while the former may listen to a large number of songs every day, each one for a short time, and often several times, the latter is likely to read only a few titles over a longer period, usually once, with a more focused attention span.  Furthermore, the attention of the music consumer need not be entirely absorbed in the act of listening, this type of content often being consumed simultaneously with other activities. The difference becomes less visible if we compare the experience of watching a movie on Netflix with that of reading a book on a dedicated device. Both situations, in fact, require the user’s total attention in a more relaxed, “lean back” situation (although this is not always true for books, and even more so for eBooks, which often involve the reader’s active participation and are consumed in “lean forward” mode).
Another important distinction to be made concerns the audience size. Scribd, one of the leading book membership services, has grown to 80 million monthly readers since its inception in 2013. The paying subscribers are in the order of “hundreds of thousands,” but the numbers are not nearly as big as Netflix’s and Spotify’s, with their respective 57.4 million and 15 million global subscribers.   Obviously, given that Netflix and Spotify have been around for years, the statistics announced by the younger ebook subscription services are promising. Yet — and I’m now venturing into the realm of speculation — it is unlikely that the number of book gluttons willing to pay for a “binge reading” will ever approach that of voracious (paying) users of “all-you-can-watch” and “all-you-can-listen” streaming services. An additional issue to be addressed is that of the “potential degradation of high-value markets” connected with the increase of book subscriptions.  As a recent BISG report acknowledges, low-price access to vast libraries of content may lead to a devaluation of ebooks (and books in general) in the mid term, and possibly translate into “into an unwillingness to pay a higher price to own a book.” 
Freedom of unlimited reading: a promise to debunk
Unlimited books, audio books, and comics to be instantly accessed and consumed in “total freedom” (Scribd); unlimited listening and reading on any device, freedom to explore thousands of titles (Kindle Unlimited); unlimited reading — anytime, anywhere — of “as many books as [readers] want” (Oyster). “Freedom” and “unlimited access” are the common distinctive features and marketing mantra of the big current broad-based subscription services for books. Their offers even seem to exceed the dream of the universal lending library described in Hoffman’s tale as Scribd, Oyster and Kindle Unlimited readers, through the magic of algorithms and user-generated recommendations, may discover titles about which they have never heard. But is this really true? What is the extent of this “unlimited” offer and of our “freedom” as subscribers-readers? As journalist Cameron Fuller observes, when it comes to books, the very notion of unlimited becomes questionable: “[u]nlimited books do nothing if you don’t read them, and reading has a limit. It has a limit in time and speed, something most people do not possess.”  For Kindle Unlimited subscribers, the limit is in the choice of titles, since a significant portion of the books available comes from Amazon’s own imprints (Thomas & Mercer, 47th North, Montlake Romance, and so on) and self-publishing platform, Kindle Direct Publishing. In addition, the majority of the books on the New York Times bestsellers list available through the Kindle Store, as well as the top selling titles published by the major publishers (Hachette, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Penguin Random House) are not included in the offer. Interestingly, even if to a lesser extent, a similar restriction on the collections can be found in connection with the only ebook subscription service, Oyster, that managed to bring three of the Big Publishers on board (HarperCollins, Simon & Shuster and, most recently, Macmillan). These publishers, in fact, are putting into the service only their backlist titles, leaving the new, “most attractive commercial titles” out of the offer. 
This also raises some questions about subscribers’ freedom of choice: most subscription services for books, indeed, are offered through third-party aggregators rather than directly by publishers, and the selection of titles is subordinate to commercial agreements where readers occupy a marginal place, if any at all. As Shatzkin has recently pointed out, the problem with ebook subscription services is that, over time, “the power of ‘brand’ passes from the individual titles (and authors) to the subscription service itself.” As a result “a subscriber-reader can become used to choosing from what the service offers and will either not know about, skip, or accept purchasing the occasional book s/he wants outside the service if it isn’t offered inside.”  In other words, the tantalizing promise of an unlimited offer actually translates into a limited range of prepackaged choices. The risk, in the long term, is the narrowing of the reader’s perspective. Yes, it is true, by “remov[ing] the purchase from the process after the initial acquisition of access,” subscription services relieve the reader of the burden of potentially making an erroneous buying choice, by presenting them with a set of prepackaged options, but… is this truly an exercise of freedom or, rather, a limitation on it?
Cost-savings: a real benefit or another myth to be exposed?
Along with convenience and ease of access, low price is a key factor of success in the new subscription economy. Ebook subscription services are no exception. Voracious readers — especially the price-sensitive ones — are attracted to online book membership services because in them their insatiable appetite for books can find easy gratification with minimum expense. And yet, even for those readers, the idea that purchasing a subscription plan is cost-effective can be deceptive. Let’s take Kindle Unlimited as an example. The service costs $9.99 per month. A true deal, if it wasn’t for the fact that most of the titles on Kindle Unlimited are priced very low ($0.99 or $2.99) and in order to actually benefit from the service, the reader would have to read at least three $2.99 books or ten $0.99 books per month.  Casual readers on a Kindle Unlimited plan, it goes without saying, will be highly likely to have their needs unmet. Safari Books Online, the first subscription service for books, is a different story, not only because it is targeted at a niche audience – mainly IT and business professionals – but also because it uses a more viable financial model, which assigns “a percentage of the revenue as a pool to compensate publishers rather than guaranteeing a purchase for every read” as Oyster and Scribd do.  Furthermore, the monthly fee for the basic plan (PRO), which offers access to an extended library of ebooks, audio books, video courses and conference talks, is very affordable. It costs $39 per month, a price only slightly above that of a single downloadable book online. 
The subscription economy, rather than an emerging trend, is an established fact in several media industries, and an already existing reality in the current publishing landscape. Consumer publishers’ ability to use this model successfully in their business, especially in the long term, will depend on their willingness to abandon the “one-size-fits-all” policy — or the chimeric dream of a “one-library-fits-all” solution — in favour of a mixed strategy that reaches (and meets the needs of) different kinds of costumers through different market pathways. 
1. E.T.A. Hoffman, J. Hollingdale (trans.), Tales of Hoffman (London: Penguin, 1982). I owe the reference to Gino Roncaglia’s pioneering study La quarta rivoluzione (Roma: Laterza, 2010), 70–73.
2. “Digital Books and the new Subscription Economy: Executive Summary” (New York: Book Industry Study Group, 2014), 10. https://www.bisg.org/publications/digital-books-and-new-subscription-economy-0.
3. Daniele De Veris, “Daniele De Veris intervista Gino Roncaglia,” Insula Europea, January 1, 2015, accessed April 1, 2015. http://www.insulaeuropea.eu/leinterviste/interviste/deveris_roncaglia.htm.
4. Brad Stone, “Scribd’s E-Book Subscription Service, Now With Audiobooks,” Bloomberg, November 6, 2014, accessed March 31, 2015. http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2014-11-06/scribd-launches-audiobook-service
5. Frank Pallotta, “Netflix gains 4.3 million subscribers in 4th quarter,” CNN Money, January 20, 2015, accessed April 2, 2015. http://money.cnn.com/2015/01/20/media/netflix-earnings/
6. “Digital Books and the new Subscription Economy,” 7.
8. Cameron Fuller, “Why Oyster Isn’t ‘The Netflix Of Books’,” International Business Times, January 09, 2014, accessed April 1, 2015. http://www.ibtimes.com/why-oyster-isnt-netflix-books-1534086.
9. Michael Shatzkin, “Subscription Services for eBooks Progress to Becoming a Real Experiment,” The Shatzkin Files, May 27, 2014, accessed April 1, 2015. http://www.idealog.com/blog/subscription-services-ebooks-progress-becoming-real-experiment/.
11. Piotr Kowalczyk,“Kindle Unlimited Ebook Subscription: 8 Things Readers Need to Know, ” Ebook Friendly, April 5, 2015, accessed April 5, 2015. http://ebookfriendly.com/kindle-unlimited-ebook-subscription/.
12. Shatzkin, 2014.
13. Andrew Savikas,“Welcome to the New Safari,” Safari Books Online, July 8, 2014, accessed April 1, 2015. https:// blog. safaribooksonline. com/ 2014/ 07/ 08/ new-safari/.
14. “Digital Books and the new Subscription Economy,” 6, 13. For more details on this view, please see the thorough research on subscription models recently conducted by the Book Industry Study Group.
Digital Books and the new Subscription Economy: Executive Summary. New York: Book Industry Study Group, 2014. https://www.bisg.org/publications/digital-books-and-new-subscription-economy-0.
Fuller, Cameron. “Why Oyster Isn’t ‘The Netflix Of Books’,” International Business Times, January 09, 2014, accessed April 1, 2015. http://www.ibtimes.com/why-oyster-isnt-netflix-books-1534086.
Kowalczyk, Piotr. “Kindle Unlimited Ebook Subscription: 8 Things Readers Need to Know, ” Ebook Friendly, April 5, 2015, accessed April 5. http://ebookfriendly.com/kindle-unlimited-ebook-subscription/
Lunden, Ingrid. “Spotify Now Has 15M Paying Users, 60M Overall Active Subscribers. Techcrunch, January 12, 2015, accessed April 2, 2015. http://techcrunch.com/2015/01/12/spotify-now-has-15m-paying-users-60m-overall/.
Pallotta, Frank. “Netflix gains 4.3 million subscribers in 4th quarter.” CNN Money, January 20, 2015, accessed April 2, 2015. http://money.cnn.com/2015/01/20/media/netflix-earnings/.
Roncaglia, Gino. La quarta rivoluzione: sei lezioni sul futuro del libro. Roma: Laterza, 2010.
____________ “A Tangled Tale: Biblioteche digitali, subscription services e promozione della lettura” (Seminar Presentation). Convegno Stelline, March 14, 2015, accessed April 1, 2015. https://prezi.com/bahcrznhhtyg/a-tangled-tale/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=ending_bar_share.
Savikas, Andrew. “Welcome to the New Safari.” Safari Books Online, July 8, 2014, accessed April 1, 2015. https:// blog. safaribooksonline. com/ 2014/ 07/ 08/ new-safari/
Shatzkin, Michael. “Subscription Services for eBooks Progress to Becoming a Real Experiment.” The Shatzkin Files, May 27, 2014, accessed April 1, 2015. http://www.idealog.com/blog/subscription-services-ebooks-progress-becoming-real-experiment/.
Weber, Harrison. “Netflix beats Q3 expectations, but adds just 3M subscribers.” VB News, October 15, 2014, accessed April 2. http://venturebeat.com/2014/10/15/netflix-beats-expectations-with-3m-new-subscribers-in-q3-0-96-earnings-per-share/.