In a world of subscription services like Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and Apple Music, e-book distributors are attempting to explore this new frontier by offering subscription services for e-books, audiobooks, magazines, and more.
Why Subscribe to Books?
With the prevalence of streaming services, it makes a lot of sense that electronic book distributors would attempt to get in on the on-demand game in order to better ensure the security of their books. After all, e-book piracy is just as common as movie or music piracy. It isn’t hard to find a digital copy of a book and just put it up on a file-sharing website – or worse, someone may go to the effort to photocopy a physical copy of a book and upload that file. Even Google cannot escape issues of Fair Use and copyright when it comes to digitally distributing books.
As a way of stopping piracy, groups looking to distribute books are now offering a subscription to the very books people are stealing. This way, those who would pirate the books out of convenience have ease and accessibility to books that they want, and distributors have a legal subscription model that covers their backs in the copyright issues.
Top E-book Subscription Contenders
For readers unsure of what subscription service to use, Make Use Of mentions six services that are going strong, and Book Riot has a list of 17 options available in 2019. Between these and other articles, two names rise to the top.
Scribd, an organization started in 2009, launched their subscription in 2013 and have had a fair amount of success at their price of $8.99/month. They offer over 500,000 books, as well as plenty of audiobooks, articles, documents, and magazines, at a rate that is lower than much of the competition. They were the quasi-pioneers in this world of e-book subscription services.
The other popular option is Kindle Unlimited (KU). Amazon’s own service is priced at $9.99/month or $59.99/six-months with frequent “50% off for six months” deals. Like Scribd, Kindle Unlimited also offers audiobooks and magazines.
With both services, you can listen to or read as much diverse content as you could realistically want or hope to consume in a reasonable amount of time. The difference, then, comes down to convenience and exclusive content.
The price for KU is not particularly competitive unless you snag the 50% off deal, but you can, however, use your Kindle – and, considering Kindle products make up three of 2019’s top five e-readers, Kindle Unlimited already has a large install base of people committed to reading e-books. All those readers have to do is click a button and they’re in the service. It’s quick and easy, and suddenly over 1 million books are available.
Book Riot points out that Amazon does not have an unlimited deal with every publisher that they have on the main website: thus while it has more books in general, it doesn’t stand out in its list of best sellers. You’ll still find yourself paying for some more recent and popular books. Furthermore, Amazon only offers 61 magazines. That’s enough to keep anyone busy, but a quick glance through the cheaper service, Scribd, and its selection shows significantly more magazines than that (in addition to individually searchable articles and documents). Ultimately, it’s clear that Scribd can fill more specific magazine niches.
For readers looking for something other than e-books, some more audience-specific services do exist. Marvel Unlimited allows unparalleled access to over 25,000 Marvel comics anywhere you want for only $9.99/Month, and Amazon has a service called ComiXology that has 20,000 “comics and manga from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, and other publishers.” ComiXology Unlimited is free to subscribers for the first 30 days, but is then $5.99/month. Unlimited offers exclusive members discounts and unlimited reading anywhere.
Epic! has unlimited access to 35,000 books, videos, and quizzes aimed at children 12 years of age and younger. Due to the increasingly expanding nature of digital publishing, readers have a lot of unique options for subscription services.
Is an E-book Subscription Worthwhile?
Subscription reading services are cool on the surface, but you may be wondering if it’s really worth it. Subscription services for movies or TV shows makes sense: we can pay $109.99 for all of Breaking Bad by itself. Or, we can watch the whole thing on Netflix in a few months, watch a two-hour movie every night of the month, and the occasional documentary while only paying $12.99/month.
Not to mention, new Blu-Ray discs of movies can cost anywhere from $5.00 to $30.00 on Amazon. As such, watching two new movies on Netflix, or three to four older movies, could make the cost of the service for the month in the span of a couple days. And Hulu (with ads) is cheaper than Netflix, making it easier to make up the cost if you so desire.
For e-book subscriptions, a reader can order the entire hardback Harry Potter series for $122.99 from Walmart, or they can read the entire series on Kindle Unlimited for $9.99 a month.
So, what kind of reading do you need to do to make up the cost of a subscription e-book service? Apparently, $3.99 is the sweet spot for selling e-books. So, a service that costs $8.99-$9.99 means you’re going to have to read at least two, maybe three e-books to validate the cost.
When Kindle Unlimited launched, most titles were only worth $0.99 to $4.99. Sure, it has gotten better as time goes on, but most book services will run into this same issue. You would have to read about five to ten books to make that cost back, and many of them are probably books you haven’t heard of. And books can be long — significantly longer than movies and TV shows.
If you look at the length of audiobooks, it’s not entirely uncommon to have an audiobook listening time of more than 24 hours total for the same price as a Blu Ray disc. Some books are significantly longer, like Stephen King’s It, which has a listening time of almost 45 hours. You’re getting a lot of time out of that book, certainly, but that’s just one book. It may be better for certain readers to just buy that one book than to subscribe to a service where they will only read it once.
You have to be an incredibly voracious reader to get an appropriate amount of value out of a subscription reading service. Basically, if you read two books a month, then it may be more cost effective to buy them outright.
Also, the unlimited e-book subscription services are still figuring some details out regarding royalties. Written Word Media mentions some interesting things about Kindle Unlimited, for example. While it used to be that someone adding the book to their library by buying it was enough to get the author paid, now people have to physically enter and read the book for the author to see a cent of payment. Not to mention, Scribd has changed their plan from unlimited downloads, to limited, to unlimited a few times, causing distrust with its subscriber base.
While the niche services seem like a good idea as well, their contracts don’t seem to include a free range of books – rather, they offer discounts to members for comics and figurines. This lack of contract clarity can be confusing for new subscribers.
The world of subscription e-book services is a real frontier’s frontier. It adds the debate about the viability of subscription services to the already fluid world of digital publishing. The royalty model, in addition to the low average price of books in the services, indicates that e-book subscription services may not be worth it for the average reader or the author. However, the world of subscription e-book services, like any digitally published form of entertainment, is constantly evolving, growing, failing, and triumphing anew. It’s up to individual readers like us to decide when to move out west.