Publishing News: Subscription experiments and the dangers of paving cow paths

Subscription sales models tested, a "holy trinity" of web opportunities missed, and publishing's future assessed.

Here are a few stories from the publishing space that caught my attention this week.

Publishers test subscription model waters

TED BooksTED Books launched a new app this week, TED Books for iOS, that not only allows them to sell directly to consumers, but also to experiment with a subscription sales model. Laura Hazard Owen at PaidContent notes that the app also is built on the Atavist publishing platform, which allows for audio features and embedded video. Hazard Owen describes how the app sales model works:

“Readers can buy the books a la carte for $2.99 each or can purchase a subscription: $14.99 for three months of books. That price includes six books, with one new one delivered every two weeks. ‘Founding subscribers’ — those who sign up in the first 90 days — get free access to all the books in the back catalog. (Authors are paid advances and also get a royalty each time their book is downloaded.)”

Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica took a hands-on look at the app and concluded “that book and subscription prices were right in the sweet spot, though the app itself (while functional) could use a little more polish before it becomes great.” Her observations include issues with subscribers not being able to preview content before downloading; the comment system only applies to books as a whole — there’s no way to highlight a section and comment within the book; and comments also are only viewable to those who’ve already purchased the book, not to potential book buyers. Glitches in social media sharing features, however, seemed to present the most frustrations. Cheng writes:

“I tried to share a TED Book over Facebook via the app, but when I tapped the Facebook option, a white screen came up in the center for a second and then went away. And when I tapped the Twitter button, it simply brought up a blank Twitter box like the one built into the rest of iOS. There was nothing attached — no book summary, no screenshot, not even a link to TED for my Twitter friends to click on. The e-mail sharing option only starts a new e-mail with a picture of the book cover attached. Needless to say, I was pretty disappointed with the sharing options here — they almost may as well not even be included in the app for how limited they are by default.”

You can read Cheng’s entire account of the app here.

In other subscription experiment news, Next Issue launched its all-you-can-read magazine subscription app for iOS this week, a few months after launching on Android. Laura Hazard Owen reports at PaidContent that the platform currently offers 39 titles, “with more expected later this year,” and outlines the various subscription options, from $1.99 to $14.99 per month. But is it worth the money? Hazard Owen concluded that the $14.99 premium subscription ought to be a bargain for her family, “except it doesn’t include print issues and two of the magazines [they] subscribe to, Martha Stewart Living and the Economist, aren’t available, at least for now.” Lauren Indvik at Mashable also addressed the value proposition and notes: “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s 2010 Consumer Expenditure Survey, the average American household spends $100 per year on reading materials, a category that includes books, newspapers and magazines.”

Value aside, is it even a model that will work in the age of digital disruption? Mathew Ingram argues at GigaOm that the biggest problem Next Issue faces is that its model of selling entire magazines doesn’t fit the way people are starting to consume content — articles-at-a-time, Flipboard style — and that the platform is “paving a cow path.” Ingram also describes the bigger picture issue that is plaguing magazines as well as newspapers:

“If Next Issue were to pull individual articles out of its magazines and collect them based on popularity or some other algorithm — or made it easy for readers to share individual articles and other content outside the walled garden of the app itself — that might make it more appealing to those who have gotten used to a Flipboard-style model for consuming content. But it’s not clear that magazine publishers would be interested in doing that. For them, the game is about increasing circulation figures so they can try to keep their advertising revenues from bottoming out as print-based revenue continues to decline.”

You can read more on Ingram’s thoughts here.

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Publishers are missing the “holy trinity” of web abilities

Valobox co-founder Anna Lewis (@anna_cn) wrote a guest post this week at Publishing Perspectives looking at the strengths of the web in terms of ebook publishing and arguing that publishers and others in the industry have “remained oblivious” to the web’s advantages. Lewis writes:

“Yes, [ebooks] work really well in the same way that physical books do (as a discreet, separate, whole piece of content), but the same can’t be said of them as digital products. This is because they don’t subscribe to the holy trinity of ‘abilities’ that the web has to offer … discover-ability, accessibility and share-ability …”

Lewis addresses each of the “holy trinities,” arguing the strengths and highlighting where the publishing industry is missing the boat. For instance, in relation to “discoverability,” she points out that any post or social media update discussing a YouTube video will have that video embedded, but that “[w]hen someone recommends a book online, at best it’s accompanied by a sample, but usually there’s merely a link that takes you elsewhere.” She argues that books should be embedded the same way as videos to make the content more discoverable:

“The web offers the opportunity to not only be told about a book, but to be able to read it next to comments by an expert, or in the social feed of a trusted curator. You could include it within any online community, which makes that content more relevant and immediately useful. Breaking away from the isolated file format of e-books is crucial to doing this.”

Lewis’ post is this weeks recommended read — you can read it in its entirety here.

Publishers, it’s time to get down and dirty

Two pieces at Forbes this week focused on the future of publishing — or a lack thereof. First, Suw Charman-Anderson argues that the publishing industry needs to engage in more trial and error — “Not just a ‘fling mud at the wall and see what sticks’ kind of trial and error … but something smarter, where failure is survivable and success recognisable.” She offers a few examples of attempts at innovation, including HarperCollins’ Authonomy, Unbound, and Angry Robot’s Clonefiles, but says these efforts are focusing on “incremental improvements of existing processes, rather than breaking new ground.” She argues that the envelope needs to be pushed much further:

“What publishers need to be doing is disrupting their own business before someone else does. That means getting down and dirty with entirely new products, new thinking, new revenue streams, new business models.” [Emphasis included in original post.]

Charman-Anderson presents some working models for inspiration, including Macmillan New Ventures, which recently appeared here in the Publishing News space. She argues that “the industry needs to get much more inventive if it’s to stop niche-busting tech startups from eating its lunch.” You can read her entire post here.

Forbes writer Nick Morgan also took a look at the future of publishing, in the form of five predictions. Morgan says that, of course, no one knows who will survive and what the ecosystem will look like, “but already an outline of what’s going to happen is becoming clearer, and the picture is not cheery for traditional publishers.” His predictions address Amazon (“This one is easy,” he writes), publisher relationships with readers, self-publishing, and the future role of the web. You can assess his predictions here.

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